by Robert Herold & r & & r & Desperate to retain control of the House of Representatives, Republicans have resorted once again to the ugly, cheap and utterly reprehensive strategy of "Swift Boating" a number of Democratic candidates: Patrick Murphy, running in Pennsylvania; Leonard Boswell, running in Iowa; Eric Massa, running in New York; and Charlie Brown, running in California.

Murphy is a veteran of the War in Iraq and has a slim four-point lead over his Republican opponent, Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, who has never put on a uniform. Fitzpatrick is out and about denigrating Murphy's military record.

Boswell, a decorated 20-year veteran of the Army and member of the House Intelligence Committee, is under attack by Bob Perry, who was involved in funding the attacks on John Kerry. Now Perry has spent more than $1 million to "Swift Boat" Murphy.

Massa was decorated 28 times. His opponent, who is using the Swift Boat tactics, has never served.

Lt. Col. Charlie Brown served in the Air Force for 26 years and is running to unseat the incumbent, John Doolittle, who received three deferments during the Vietnam war and "failed to appear" at his selective service examination. Doolittle has stood by while the Swift Boaters of 2006 attempt to disparage Brown's military record.

This tactic, undoubtedly being orchestrated by Karl Rove, shows how morally bankrupt the sitting Republican Congress has become over these now past 12 years. The only thing that matters to them is retaining power; how they accomplish it is of no importance.

It isn't as if Democrats haven't been guilty of tawdry practices over the years. No more than Republicans, I suggest; however, both parties, until the present bunch arrived in Washington, stuck pretty much to mutually acceptable "rules of engagement." Egregious abuse of office was fair game. And, yes, real issues did matter. So they argued over the national security strategy, debated tax policy, quarreled over the politics of federalism -- they even fought over a range of moral issues, ranging from abortion to family. But except for the bad times of McCarthyism, the parties managed, for the most part, to keep their political battles within civil bounds.

Jack Kennedy never called attention to Richard Nixon's somewhat, uh, overstated review of his war record. (Nixon won a lot of money playing poker and was never within 500 miles of combat, but implied otherwise.) Dwight Eisenhower didn't make a point of Adlai Stevenson's lack of a war record.

What changed?

Intent on winning control of the Congress, in the late '80s the Republican right decided to lower the bar. A decade later, we had the Swift Boaters.

Conservatives have actually brought about a sea change in the American political debate. They took on "equality of result" when Democrats hijacked the tradition of "equality of opportunity." They made the case for a freer market, one in which regulations are reconsidered and many dropped as just so much unnecessary bureaucratic meddling. And while their march to ever-more regressive taxation in the guise of "supply side economics" presents, shall we way, many empirical problems, making a case for it during election years is well within the bounds of acceptable political play. Nor should conservatives apologize for arguing that there are bad folks out there in the world who mean the U.S. harm. Their opposition to the uber-liberals who often reduce matters of national security to "better understanding" -- even "national guilt" -- has been useful. And even through the litany of "family" issues, conservatives have shown that freedom and equality do not negate the importance of responsibility.

But these issues aren't what's at stake now. What's going on now is nothing more than a failed Congress seeking to retain position and raw political power. By 1994, the GOP right wing had made the decision that their positions on issues weren't selling. Maybe it was because of the long-running Democratic show on Capitol Hill. More likely it was because Republicans had never quite figured out what to do with the New Deal -- they had chances to turn back the political clock in 1953, and, if not 1969, surely in 1981; but, couldn't do it. David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's first director of the Office of Management of Budget, observed that the American people really did want to keep the New Deal and the welfare state it created.

So the right tried a different approach, which involved diversion and deception. They hit on the buzz term "compassionate conservatism" and got former frat boy and drunk-turned-born-again-Christian, George W. Bush, to carry their flag. Bush became "Pastor in Chief."

Then 9/11 provided them running room, both on the national security front and, yes, also, the domestic front. But, now, five years later, their effort to govern through expediency and fiction is drowning in a swamp of sleazy interest group politics and the disaster in Iraq.

The responsible thing for conservatives to do would be to make their best case possible under the circumstances (the stock market is, after all, over 12,000), take their losses, regroup and, now instructed by some history, rethink their governing philosophy. But no -- since winning has become everything, they just revert to form -- such as Swift Boating Democrats who have military records of the sort in such short supply in the far right GOP ranks.

Serious and traditional conservatives should be disgusted.

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