Watch CBSN Live

Look Back In Anger

This column was written by Rick Perlstein.

Democrats have their majority in the House, and that's cause for celebration. But as of this writing several House races are still listed as "too close to call." The Senate has also changed hands — after the Virginia race narrowly escaped a recount and Republicans came close to challenging the results in Montana and Missouri. Whether Democrats possess enough of a congressional majority to truly put fear into Republicans, and add backbone to Democrats nervous about challenging the president, is still very much in the air.

Meanwhile, we are forced to reckon with an uncomfortable question. Republicans cheat. To what extend did their cheating on Election Day keep the will of the people from being fully registered? Just how close did it come to keeping the new majority from arriving? And what does the kind of cheating we saw Tuesday — and its antecedents in the past and its likely echoes in the future — portend for the project of turning liberalism once again into the dominant force in American politics?

Consider the robocalls. In the week before the election, voters in at least 50 different races began receiving calls in which recorded voices beckoned them by saying, "Hi, I'm calling with information about [insert Democratic candidate's name]…" The intention was obvious: get people thinking they were receiving a call from the Democratic Party. Maybe you didn't want to hear a message from the Democratic Party. Maybe you were in the middle of dinner. You hang up on the robot. But the robot called back — a dozen, two dozen times. Those who listened all the way through were greeted with a litany of smears about the Democrat — and then, at the very end, a legal disclaimer stating that the call came from the National Republican Campaign Committee. In Missouri, an e-mail to radio host Diane Rehm related, every call "pound[ed] home the idea that one or the other Democratic candidate in Missouri … is in favor of killing babies."

In California's 50th District — where Democrat Francine Busby had hoped to win a rematch against incumbent Brian Bilbray in Republican felon Duke Cunningham's former seat — Busby staffers shut down their phone banks because they were reaching so many callers enraged at the "Hi-I'm-calling-with-information-about-Francine-Busby" deluge. The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported receiving a tearful call from someone in Ohio explaining that she could no longer keep an open phone line to the hospice where her mother was dying on account of the calls. As for the calls' political effect, a spokesman for Lois Murphy — who ended up going down to a narrow defeat against GOP incumbent Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania's 6th District — relayed, "Some of our biggest supporters have said, 'If you call me again, I'm not voting for Lois.'"

NRCC spokesman Ed Patrus offered the defense of scoundrels, not citizens: They'd checked with their lawyers; they weren't doing anything illegal. They were "drawing contrasts" between Democrats and Republicans, he told The New York Times. "There's no statutory requirement that our phone calls be complimentary." Critics thought the New Hampshire attorney general's office had secured an agreement to halt the harassment — but it turned out the committee had only agreed to stop contacting voters on the federal Do Not Call registry. Another NRCC spokesman said: "We are a federal organization campaigning about a federal race. We feel that New Hampshire law does not apply to what we are doing." A third added: "Phone banking is used by campaigns of all stripes and all these calls are made between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m." They also said the megavolume was the fault of their contractor, not the party; "It could be some kind of glitch."

According to federal filings, the NRCC spent about $2 million on these contractors: some glitch. I'm guessing this whole project was the inspiration for President Bush's eerily confident pronouncement on October 25: "We're not going to lose." Or maybe he had a panoply of dirty tricks in mind. In Maryland, homeless men recruited from out-of-state shelters were recruited to pass out flyers meant to trick voters in black neighborhoods into thinking the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Robert Ehrlich, and Senate candidate, Michael Steele, were Democrats. This one couldn't be blamed on "contractors;" one busload was welcomed by Governor Ehrlich's wife. In North Carolina college students asked voters if they were registered Democrats, and if they said yes, handed them a list of "our" judicial candidates -— actually a list of Republicans. A California "information guide for Democrats" told voters to vote "no" on propositions backed by Democrats. Poll watchers brandishing handguns intimidated Latino voters in Arizona — a Republican trick there going back to 1962, when the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was allegedly involved. On Election Day in Colorado's 5th District, the campaign of Democratic candidate Jay Fawcett reported finding that their office reeked of skunk, impeding the ability of the staffers and 200 volunteers to do their work. Police looked into the matter and believe that over-the-counter chemicals had been sprayed in the office.

Meanwhile, on the radio, Republican pundette Laura Ingraham ran an interference operation. She played Bill Clinton's message urging complainants to call the toll-free Democratic voter protection hotline — and her listeners obliged, choking the switchboard with harassing phone calls. Ingraham is a lawyer, and knew enough not to do anything illegal: she never told her listeners to sabotage Democratic voter protection efforts. It just sort of worked out that way.

In Virginia, the FBI continues to investigate calls received by Democrats in the final days of the campaign such as the following, to a man registered to vote there since 1998: "This is a message for Timothy Daly. This is the Virginia Elections Commission. We've determined you are registered in New York to vote. Therefore, you will not be allowed to cast your vote on Tuesday. If you do show up, you will be charged criminally."

How many Democratic votes died aborning thanks to chicanery like this? We may never know. The FBI is investigating the Virginia case. David Shuster of NBC did a report on it. But we've heard little follow-up. Calling out one of America's two major parties for potential election theft is not the preferred activity of a timid media.

That's a colossal problem. Cheating is by now a constitutive part of Republican culture. Such false-flag harassment was a crucial part of "ratf***ing" operations in Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign — to take just one example, Nixon agents circulated fliers in the Milwaukee ghetto advertising a non-existent "free lunch" sponsored by the Democrats. The Watergate hearings in 1973 and 1974 were full of these kinds of revelations. It didn't shame Republicans into retreating. It just made them more careful practitioners — more careful, yet at the same time more brazen: consider those NRCC spokesmen. They could have denied the hustle. Instead, they owned up to it.

From now on there should be no excuse: anticipating such inevitabilities has to be made an active part of Democratic strategizing. The proliferating archive of PDF's, MP3s, and Youtube smoking guns has to be hauled out every two years — round about a week before each election. Like those scrambled eggs in the anti-drug ads, Democrats need commercials of their own: "This is your government on Republicanism." The narrative should teach even low-information voters to sniff out the signs of a dirty trick. (It's not as if these things are tough to recognize. The only thing that's changed over the decades is the technology — robocalls now; fliers for fake free lunches then.) That way, the dirty trick boomerangs: "Oh, yes. That's what the Democrats mean when they say Republicans cheat. God, I distrust those Republicans. I don't want them back in power ever again."

The worst case scenario is that the Republicans stop cheating, then whine that they're being falsely accused. Well, the American people hate whiners. And Republican whines will only give Democrats a chance to remind people of the 35 years of historical examples: "Sorry we overreacted. We're just being careful. After all, this stuff has been pretty consistent for decades now. But we're glad the Republicans have decided to mend their ways. Clearly, having a Democratic majority watching over them has been good for their immortal souls."

But at any rate, I don't think they will change. By now it's in their DNA. They're proud of it, and thus the smoking guns will keep coming. One of my conservative friends I like to debate online, a publisher who in 2002 underwrote the delivery of an anti-Tom Daschle smear book to every household in South Dakota, sent around a "joke" e-mail of robocalls he'd like to see. Like: "Would you vote for Democratic candidate Jim Webb if you found out that while serving as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, Webb opposed allowing women to serve on U.S. warships — not out of any concern for their safety, but due to his passionate desire to preserve a Navy culture of high-seas homosexual orgies, a culture he had aggressively cultivated and practiced for years, even after being infected with AIDS?"

Another of my conservative friends, who's writing a guidebook on how to organize grassroots campaigns, responded: "You'd clearly never survive Alabama mudslinging campaigns if that's as dirty as you can go!"

Rick Perlstein is the author of "Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972," which will be published next year.

By Rick Perlstein
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

View CBS News In