The Barack Obama campaign may find itself back in hot water, but this time squarely with Democrats, thanks to one of their premier surrogates. Former Air Force Chief of Staff General Tony McPeak compared a relatively mild Bill Clinton statement to McCarthyism. His remarks about the former President and actual party elder will no doubt stoke outrage just as some of Obama’s other troubles had begun to recede:

A retired Air Force general compared former President Clinton to Joseph McCarthy, the 1950s communist-hunting senator, on Friday after Clinton seemed to question Democrat Barack Obama’s patriotism.

Merrill “Tony” McPeak, a former chief of staff of the Air Force and currently a co-chair of Obama’s presidential campaign, said he was disappointed by comments Clinton made while campaigning for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a speech Friday in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think it would be a great thing if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country,” Clinton said. “And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics.”

McPeak learned of the remarks while at an Obama rally in Salem, Ore. Afterward, he called Clinton’s statement horrible and compared it to McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin who held hearings on suspected Communist sympathizers in the 1950s.

“It sounds more like McCarthy,” McPeak said. “I grew up, I was going to college when Joe McCarthy was accusing good Americans of being traitors, so I’ve had enough of it.”

It’s hard to figure what McPeak found so intolerable, or intolerant, about Clinton’s remarks. He didn’t say that the Democrats didn’t have two candidates who love the nation, just that it would be good to focus on the issues instead of what Clinton sees as irrelevant issues. In fact, that construction makes it clear that he found the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright as part of that “other stuff” that distracts from the issues.

In any case, the charge of McCarthyism is not just overblown, but entirely inaccurate — and a military man should know the difference. Clinton didn’t accuse Obama of anything, and certainly not of treason. But McPeak has now made an accusation, and one that will not endear him to the party establishment that has depended on the Clintons for their careers and their fundraising. If the Democrats want to win anything in November, they need Bill on the stump, and having Obama’s campaign accusing him of being the next Joe McCarthy damages the brand, not to mention tarnishes the idea of returning the White House to the supposed halcyon days of Democratic control.

If the Hillary Clinton campaign desires, they can make this a serious issue — and it’s hard to see why they’d pass up the chance. Obama can’t afford to lose his military surrogates, who give him all of the credibility he has as a candidate for Commander-in-Chief with no military or executive experience. They can pressure him to give up McPeak, and the longer Obama keeps him in place, the longer they can argue to the superdelegates that Obama will damage the Democrats if nominated. After the hypocritical way Obama’s campaign went after Geraldine Ferraro, they have this kind of fight coming.