The familiar hallmark of Republican politics is what I call “roll-call slander.” The party of Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, pioneered the use of ridiculous legislative roll calls to put incumbent Democrats on the spot–recorded votes that can be used against them in the next election. The purpose is not to enact legislation but to generate demagogic fodder for Republican challengers.

Did you know your senator voted in favor of burning the American flag? Well, he did. Here is the Senate roll-call to prove it. Elect me and I promise to stand by our flag.

Sometimes, this works or makes Dems scurry for cover. More often, it simply revs up the GOP troops, like waving a piece of bloody meat before a pack of hungry dogs. The technique turns representative democracy into a cheap cartoon.

This week in the Senate, the Republican strategists reached a new nadir of cynicism with their proposal to raise the minimum wage for the working poor in the same bill that slashes the estate tax for billionaires.

How cute is that? Republicans loathe the minimum wage, of course, but they figured this could sucker a handful of wobbly Democrats into going along with them on gutting the estate tax. Or else face the wrath of their constituents. The GOP tricksters failed by four votes.

I say, hurrah for Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader. Democrats hung together and blocked this ugly maneuver-–a rare moment of solidarity when some of them were seriously tempted to defect. Republicans might try again in the fall, but they are running out of gimmicks.

The GOP is fearful this fall’s elections will seriously weaken its House and Senate majorities, so this might be their last chance to crumple the estate tax. The party has collected hundreds of millions in contributions from the small number of very, very rich families obsessed with repeal. A handful of Dems wanted to vote for them too. They will probably be targeted in the fall campaign but with this twist: Did you know your senator voted against poor people?

The cloakroom politics surrounding this issue was intense, but minority leader Reid was the stand-up guy. We don’t know what he said privately. Presumably, nobody’s arm was broken. But Harry Reid kept the wannabe stray cats in line. How refreshing. A party leader who stands and fights, who warns wayward colleagues they better not sell out.