Gamesmanship or cheating? In everything from baseball to trial litigation that involved competition and adversaries, there is a large gray area where the distinction between clever tactics and dishonest manipulation is a source of continuing controversy. No arena is so rich with a tradition of dubious maneuvers as the political one, and when a campaign season is especially intense, as this one is, there are certain to be strategems that cross the line.
When the mysterious Alvin Greene won the South Carolina Democratic primary to run against Republican Jim DeMint, some Democrats cried foul, claiming that the Forrest Gumpish Greene (though Forrest never was charged with showing pornography to a student, or they cut that sequence out of the movie) was a Republican plant. Not a shred of evidence ever surfaced to support that accusation (the unsubstantiated accusation is itself an old campaign trick), and it never made much sense, either. Greene barely campaigned and his unfitness for office was blatantly obvious if anyone had bothered to pay attention to him; if he was a plant, he was a spectacularly bad one.
The decoy candidate device is being used this campaign cycle however, and it is being used, ironically enough, by Democrats, marking another instance of the useful principle that the people who are most suspicious of cheating are often the ones who are most likely to cheat. It appears that Democratic officials planted a phony Tea Party candidate in a New Jersey Congressional race to siphon off conservative votes. A local paper reported that anonymous Democratic Party operatives confirmed that a Democrat, Peter DeStefano, was placed on the ballot as running under the “New Jersey Tea Party” banner, though there is no such organization. His mission: draw votes away from the Republican, Jon Runyan, so Democrat Congressman John Adler will prevail. A county Democratic employee is operating Web elements DeStefano’s website.
DeStefano has refused to answer specific questions about the newspaper’s report, calling the allegations “hearsay.” This is not the same as saying they are untrue. It is what we call a “non-denial denial,” which translates into “you can’t prove it yet.”
“I’m an average guy who’s running for Congress on the independent ticket,” DeStefano told the AP. “Any American citizen can run for any office they want. I think it’s time we get past this crap.” This is also not a denial. DeStefano, it is safe to say, is a fake Tea Partier. As for Rep. Adler, he doesn’t dispute this; he just denies that his campaign is behind it. The operatives who gave the story to the Cherry Hill Courier-Post explained that the plan was shared with members of the South Jersey Young Democrats, and that some in that group gathered signatures for DeStefano. In its story about its story about the tactic, the Associated Press says that other Democrats refused to assist in the plan because they thought it was unethical.
The rationalization for fake candidates is that ignorant voters deserve what they get: if they vote for labels without checking what the candidates really represent, then their careless votes warp the results whoever they vote for. It is a weak excuse, even as rationalizations go. If DeStefano somehow managed to win Alvin Greene-style, he would quickly demonstrate that he does not hold the policy views his supporters thought they were voting for when they elected him, because his candidacy was a lie. There is no definition of ethical that encompasses tricking voters, even gullible, ignorant, inattentive ones. If Congressman Adler keeps his seat because of this tactic, the Democrats will have stolen it, as clearly as if they had stuffed the ballot box with the votes of the dead, as certainly as if they had thugs stopping Republicans from voting at polling places. The only difference is that there is no law that prohibits what DeStefano is doing.
It is still disgraceful. The political parties should epitomize respect for the integrity of the democratic system, rather than be the source of cynical distortions of it. The fact that this is occurring shows just how diseased our politics have become.