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Louisiana's Kennedy dabbles in modern-day McCarthyism

If Sen. John Kennedy's line of questioning against Saule Omarova sounded familiar, it's probably because it echoed Joe McCarthy's tactics.

Senate fights over the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency are not especially common, but the dispute over Saule Omarova's nomination is proving to be unusual.

At face value, Omarova's story reads like a classic American story. She was born in Kazakhstan, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. She immigrated to the United States, studied law and business, became an American citizen, took on a role in the Bush administration's Treasury Department, and ultimately became a law professor at Cornell University.

President Joe Biden nominated her for a position in which she'd be responsible for regulating bank assets — she specializes in financial regulation — and yesterday, Omarova's nomination arrived at the Senate Finance Committee for a confirmation hearing.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana apparently thought it'd be entertaining to take aim at her personal background, starting with this question: "You used to be a member of a group called the Young Communists, didn't you?" The Washington Post took it from there:

But this isn't where Kennedy was headed. Instead, he spent his designated time suggesting that Omarova was a communist sympathizer, beginning with that loaded question. Omarova indicated that she wasn't sure what group he was referring to, a bit of caution that Kennedy wasn't interested in. Kennedy, reading from handwritten notes, identified the group by name: "the Leninist Communist Young Union of the Russian Federation," also known as the Komsomol.

As a child in a USSR country, Omarova's participation in Komsomol was not optional. The professor patiently tried to explain this to the Republican senator, who didn't seem overly concerned about the relevant details.

"I don't mean any disrespect — I don't know whether to call you professor or comrade," Kennedy said.

Of course, why would anyone find such nonsense disrespectful?

As part of the line of questioning, the Louisiana Republican sought proof that Omarova "resigned" from the school program as a child. She explained that participants didn't have to formally quit the group, since they simply "grow out of it with age."

Kennedy, either confused or willfully ignorant, wasn't satisfied, seeking some kind of letter of resignation. No such letter existed, because the question didn't make sense.

The Post's analysis added, "It's safe to assume that Kennedy, who attended Oxford University during the Cold War, is aware that Soviet youth were conscripted into party organizations and that socialist views are not communist ones. But he is a politician representing a deep-red state, and he clearly understands that it's easier to submarine a presidential nominee using old-school Red scare tactics than it is to challenge her actual belief systems one by one."

It was notable in large part because contemporary examples of McCarthyism usually aren't this literal. Kennedy was, for all intents and purposes, on the lookout for communists. If that meant unfairly smearing a qualified nominee — who is not, in reality, a communist — so be it.

"My family suffered under the communist regime. I grew up without knowing half of my family. My grandmother herself escaped death twice under the Stalin regime," Omarova explained. "This is what's seared in my mind. That's who I am. I remember that history. I came to this country. I'm proud to be an American, and this is why I'm here today, senator. I'm here today because I'm ready for public service."

It was a good answer to a bad question.

To be sure, Omarova's confirmation will be difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with her family history or experiences as a child in Kazakhstan. Some moderate Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about her nomination because of her opposition to a financial deregulation bill several years ago. Despite her qualifications, experience, and expertise, it's unfortunately easy to imagine her nomination coming up short in the evenly divided Senate.

But that doesn't make Kennedy's display and Joe-McCarthy-like tactics any less offensive.

And yet, visitors to the Louisiana Republican's website this morning were greeted with one prominent headline, splashed across the homepage near the top: "Kennedy questions Biden nominee on membership in communist organization."

It was cheap and ugly — and for Kennedy, a source of pride.

Update: Not to be outdone, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also accused Omarova of being "a communist," despite reality.