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Republican Dirty Ads Won't Wash

By E. J. Dionne

WASHINGTON -- Ronald Reagan's brilliant achievement on behalf of American conservatism was to capture hope and optimism from a liberal movement that enjoyed a near monopoly on those virtues from the day Franklin Roosevelt told us we had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Whatever else it will be remembered for, this year's election campaign will mark the moment when Republican leaders who govern in the name of conservatism turned definitely away from hope and waged one of the most trivial and ugly campaigns in our country's history.

It's common to gather all political attacks under one large rubric called "negative campaigning'' and to condemn the lot. But this is misleading.

A conservative who attacks his opponent for wanting to raise taxes and a liberal who accuses an adversary of favoring cuts in Medicare or environmental programs are both being "negative,'' but legitimately so, presuming that the criticisms are rooted in fact. If candidates can't air their disagreements, what's the point of free elections?

But this year, Republican campaigners and their advocates in the conservative media have crossed line after line in sheer meanness, triviality and tastelessness. Conservative optimism and its promise of morning in America have curdled into the gloom of a Halloween midnight horror show.

The reason is obvious: With the public turning on President Bush's policies in Iraq, most Republicans would prefer not to defend the war. Because most voters do not see the battle in Iraq as making us more secure, the national security issue has not worked as effectively for the GOP as it has in the past two elections. And the current majority can't exactly brag about, say, balanced budgets or its achievements in this Congress.

And so we have Sen. George Allen, a Republican, assailing the widely admired novels written by his opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, for what an Allen spokesman called "chauvinistic attitudes and sexually exploitative references.'' Lost here is that Webb's fiction has drawn praise for the moving and realistic way he has depicted war and those who fight for their country.

Conservatives should be embarrassed by Allen's last-minute sliming of Webb's books since conservative critics have been among their biggest fans. In 2002, a writer for National Review, one of the nation's leading conservative publications, said Webb's "Fields of Fire'' was "still the finest novel yet written about Vietnam.'' Reviewing Webb's novel "Lost Soldiers,'' a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard warmly praised the book's moral message and called it "an affecting and taut tale.''

Are such views now inoperative because Republicans desperately need to hold on to Virginia's Senate seat?

And how many compassionate conservatives will come forward to condemn Rush Limbaugh's cruelty in mocking Michael J. Fox's painful body movements induced by Parkinson's disease? Limbaugh felt free to parody Fox's agony because the actor had the nerve to make advertisements for Democratic candidates who support embryonic stem cell research. If you help Democrats, anything goes. Limbaugh claimed that Fox was "either off his medication or acting.'' Limbaugh ultimately apologized, but called Fox "really shameless'' in seeking sympathy. Really shameless? From Limbaugh?

Perhaps Republicans will be less skittish about criticizing Limbaugh after he has used his broadcast to turn out the party faithful on Nov. 7.

Space does not permit a full listing of other trivial and seamy ads being run by the GOP. They were well described last week by Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald, and many of them falsely accuse various Democrats of one bad thing or another related to sex.

And there is what will, sadly, become the most famous advertisement of this election cycle, the "Harold, call me'' ad run by the Republican National Committee against Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic candidate for the Senate from Tennessee. To claim that an ad depicting a pretty blonde woman coming on to an African-American politician does not play on the fears of miscegenation on the part of some whites is to ignore history.

My hunch is that the sliminess won't work this year. A Newsweek poll published over the weekend found that only 9 percent of voters who have seen Republican advertisements say they made them more likely to vote for GOP candidates; 24 percent said the ads made them less likely to vote for Republicans. By contrast, Newsweek reported, "The Democrats seem to turn off fewer voters with their commercials and win more over, but it's still a wash,'' meaning that Democratic ads attracted and pushed away roughly equal shares of the electorate.

My hope is that principled conservatives will rebel against those who are dragging their once forward-looking movement through the mud. In their hearts, they have to be asking: Would Ronald Reagan campaign this way?

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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