What exactly is wrong with the Republicans?

Today, that question applies not to their rigidly right-wing ideology, nor to their routine betrayal of their rigidly right-wing ideology, nor even to their weird sexual hypocrisy, much as those things undoubtedly contributed to their defeat.

At issue, too, is the bad nature of the Republican political class — meaning the party officials, the consultants and the elected officials who oversee both — and the poisoning of America’s democratic process by their habitual misconduct.

Republicans tend to talk about honor, integrity, morality and character in almost mystical terms, often attributing those qualities to themselves and their leaders. But the 2006 midterm elections concluded in a barrage of slanderous advertising, deceptive automated telephone calls and attempted voter intimidation designed to discourage participation.

Reporting on these ugly incidents, mainstream journalists feel compelled to pretend that both parties are guilty in equal measure. An honest autopsy would demonstrate that the Grand Old Party, as it once deserved to be known, was responsible for the worst excesses, with very few exceptions.

Howard Kurtz, the excruciatingly evenhanded media reporter for CNN and The Washington Post, recently complained that “this year is the worst I’ve seen in terms of smarmy and sleazy [TV] spots” that distort facts in order to smear an opponent, while insulting the intelligence of voters and drowning out decent discourse. Whom did he hold responsible for this disgraceful dumbing-down of the electoral debate? “Over the years, both parties have dished out their share of the negative stuff,” wrote Mr. Kurtz, “but this year, most of the truly awful and factually challenged commercials have been on the Republican side.”

Such desperately negative advertising may just be a seasonal liability that has grown worse over the years, like storms and heat waves intensified by global climate change. Ads are subject to discounting by viewers and disputing by opponents, and even to checking by the media. This year’s sleaziest tricks, however, were played on the telephone, not the television, using the device of “robo-calling.” The technology of automated dialing and recorded messages can be used for a variety of scummy tactics, from jamming Democratic phone banks and smearing Democratic candidates to harassing or intimidating potential Democratic voters.

The latest version, which was reported around the country in the days leading up to Nov. 7, involved a Republican deception designed to make voters think they were receiving repeated, annoying calls from a Democratic campaign. Near Chicago, the automated message heard by those who picked up the receiver began: “Hi, I’m calling with information about Tammy Duckworth,” the brave Democratic congressional candidate and double-amputee Iraq veteran who lost her race Tuesday.

People who listened to the rest of that recording heard various slurs against her; those who hung up would think that her campaign had called — and then called and called, over and over, unless they listened to the entire message. The same dubious tactic was used in an untold number of congressional districts. Only at the very end of the call was the real sponsor identified: the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Another robo-call scam was exposed in Virginia, with legally registered voters receiving automated calls that warned they had violated election laws — and might be arrested if they showed up to vote. And on Election Day 2006, right-wing radio yakker Laura Ingraham gleefully encouraged her listeners to jam a Democratic Party voter helpline.

This wave of vandalism can be traced back to a case in New Hampshire that resulted in criminal prosecution. Last year, federal authorities convicted Republican operatives of running a phone-jamming scheme on Election Day 2002, in a bid to disable Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts and rig the last midterm election.

Among those who executed the scheme was one James Tobin, then regional director of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who later chaired Bush-Cheney 2004 in New England until he was forced to step down. The RNC reportedly paid $3 million to finance his defense — and he kept his mouth shut about the party bosses in the White House, with whom he’d had many, many conversations as he carried out his conspiracy.

Although Tobin was sentenced to 10 months in prison, his former supervisor, Terry Nelson, is still at large and is currently in charge of RNC opposition research.

Actually, the pedigree of thuggery is embodied in Karl Rove, who learned the dark art of dirty tricks from the Nixon gang. The responsible Republicans never purged that spirit, which promised permanent power and corrupted their party.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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