The scene in Augusta this past week was both regrettable and chilling. Republican operatives launched an all-too-predictable attack on House Speaker Sara Gideon as the “Speaker of the Swamp,” using the kind of shadowy black and white photos that are the hallmark of today’s political attacks. As is nearly always the case with these things, their language was breathlessly dramatic, piercingly shrill and just silly.

What was noteworthy is that these attack messages were being delivered by children, egged on by adults who dragged them into this sordid business.

A young boy, who couldn’t have been much older than 10, was eagerly trying to please the adult there with him by holding a 3-foot poster dissing Gideon. The sign’s message couldn’t have made any sense to him. Elsewhere, a young girl was dutifully holding a sign attacking another Democratic legislator, while the adult accompanying her held his own sign about “traitors” and, ironically, “liberty.”

Perhaps he should be a little more concerned about the “liberty” those kids have to live normal lives, free of hatred and extremism. It’s one thing to engage your kids in politics, but exploitation is another matter.

America is becoming slowly desensitized by our angry politics. Attacks and actions that would have sickened us a few decades ago are now becoming little more than background music. And it is harder and harder to shock us, raising the ante with every election cycle.

Somewhere, the good people of Maine need to draw the line against the encroachment of national sleaze and extremist politics into our great state. One place to draw the line is at using kids to win political battles.

Two Republicans, to their credit, began to push back. Senate President Mike Thibodeau called on his party to stop these attacks, saying they “couldn’t be further from the truth.” Rep. Norman Higgins of Dover-Foxcroft took it a step further when he declared on Facebook: “I am a little less proud to be a state representative today! … Using kids is really disgusting. … I am ashamed that my party has lowered itself into the political swamp and I am calling on party leadership and individual members to conduct ourselves with respect and dignity.”

There are many places that “weaponize” their children in the service of their particular causes, and few Americans would want to live in them. Nazi Germany did it by putting millions of children into uniforms, as Hitler Youth, and later using them as fodder in the final defense of Berlin. The Soviet Union and China, operating on the other end of the political spectrum, later did the same thing.

Today, children in the Middle East are regularly sacrificed as suicide bombers to advance their father’s goals, or sold or kidnapped to become child warriors.

None of this is to say that Democrats are angels. There’s plenty of overzealous hyperventilation that comes out of the Democratic Party as well. But none of it even remotely approaches the hate-filled viciousness – and careless disregard for facts – that we increasingly see on the oxygen-starved far right.

The Republican Party needs to find itself again before it sinks further into a swamp of its own creation.

This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, the force of nature who rose in opposition to slavery in 1860 and helped build the party. It is the party of Teddy Roosevelt, who helped lead the Progressive movement that took on corrupt city machines, reined in the country’s robber barons and established the national parks.

It is the party of Dwight Eisenhower, who led Allied forces to victory in Europe, then oversaw America’s transition to a postwar economy that propelled the greatest expansion of the middle class in our history.

More recently, it’s the party that produced politicians of national stature, like Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe and, now, Susan Collins.

For a hundred years, Republicans were the dominant party in Maine, with a self-reliant, flinty approach to government, but also with a grasp of reality and a level of talent that allowed it to reach across the aisle and get things done.

Now, it seems, the party is becoming a collection of billionaires and bad boys.

Gideon is a friend and neighbor of ours. She is honest, hardworking, thoughtful and caring. She also has a talent for bringing people together around practical ideas and action.

What Republicans need – and what the state needs – are fewer crazies and a lot more Gideons, Thibodeaus and Higginses.

Alan Caron is the principal of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be contacted at:

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