For some time, we’ve argued that the most significant deficit George W. Bush has overseen is his own credibility gap. The American people seem to be recognizing it as well: A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 54 percent of respondents believe Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq.

And there’s increasing evidence that the corruption of Bush and the Republican leadership goes beyond lying, to general thuggishness. Exhibit A: the Valerie Plame case. After Administration officials outed Plame, a CIA officer (whose job was to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction), apparently to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson–a White House critic–no steps were taken to identify and punish the culprits. News reports indicate that US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has been interviewing past and present Bush aides–including Karl Rove, Scott McClellan, Mary Matalin, Ari Fleischer, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Dan Bartlett–before a grand jury. And a source told the Post that the questioning has been very aggressive.

The FBI investigators also seem to be examining White House involvement in the overall smear campaign waged against Wilson after he criticized the Administration last summer for its use of the false charge that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. These are good signs, perhaps an indication that the inquiry might reveal the ugly tactics used by the Bush gang when its policies are challenged.

On Capitol Hill, GOPers have been engaged in activities reminiscent of what the dirty tricksters of the Nixon re-election campaign called “ratfucking.” Republican staffers stole thousands of confidential memos from the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee by entering private computer space reserved for them. And how did GOP senators initially respond to the news? They opposed an investigation. They were more outraged that–gasp!–these memos, some using injudicious language, showed that committee Democrats worked closely with liberal advocacy groups to oppose Bush’s judicial nominees. Only after a preliminary inquiry indicated that this electronic equivalent of a black-bag job might have been criminal did Republicans stop braying and support further investigation.

On the other side of the Hill, the House ethics panel has been conducting what it calls an “informal fact-finding” mission regarding Republican Representative Nick Smith’s claim that GOP leaders offered him “bribes and special deals”–including contributions to his son’s Congressional campaign–if he would vote for the Medicare prescription-drug bill the White House was pushing. Smith voted against the legislation and later retracted his bribery charge. But why would he make up such an allegation? Of course, GOP leaders are innocent until proven guilty, but this smacks of the worst down-and-dirty politics.

Meanwhile, the political action committee that House majority leader Tom DeLay has used to influence elections in his home state of Texas has come under investigation for possible improper use of corporate contributions. Under Texas law, PACs are not allowed to use corporate or union donations for anything but general administrative expenses. Yet records show that DeLay’s PAC collected $600,000 in corporate money and used it for fundraising, polling and voter identification.

It’s not just the lies. Bribery, intimidation, theft, funny-money schemes–the Republicans are racking up a record that would make Tony Soprano proud.