Not long after the 2004 election, the executive director of MoveOn.org sent his
members an e-mail trumpeting their newly acquired influence over the Democratic
Party for which, he said, "grass-roots contributors" like them had raised
$300 million. "Now it's our party," Eli Pariser crowed. "We bought it, we own
it, and we're going to take it back."
At the time, Pariser's words might have come across as windy braggadocio. Would
the nation's oldest political party really dance to a tune called by an
organization as extreme as MoveOn, a group notorious, among other things, for
having once posted videos on its website depicting President Bush as the
incarnation of Adolf Hitler?
But with the 2008 presidential campaign well underway, Pariser's boast is no
longer so easy to dismiss. Consider the reaction by leading Democrats to
MoveOn's smear last week of General David Petraeus, the top American military
commander in Iraq.
On the day that Petraeus was scheduled to begin delivering his long-awaited
report to Congress on the progress of the war, MoveOn ran an advertisement in
The New York Times calling him a liar who betrays his country.
"GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?" the full-page ad bellowed. It accused
the four-star general, one of the nation's most admired military officers, of
"cooking the books for the White House." As character assassination goes, it
was both puerile and despicable. Puerile in its mockery of the general's name
reminiscent of Joe McCarthy's sophomoric taunt of Senator J. William
Fulbright as "Half-Bright" and despicable in its imputation of treachery to
a decorated warrior-scholar who has worn the uniform with distinction for three
American politicians once adhered, at least in theory, to the principle that
politics in wartime stops at the water's edge. Today, political discourse has
become so toxic that some politicians are happy to exploit a slander like
MoveOn's. "No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV," one
Democratic senator anonymously told the Capitol Hill newspaper Politico a few
days before Petraeus testified. "The expectation is that the outside groups
will do this for us." MoveOn didn't disappoint.
To their credit, some Democrats and prominent liberals repudiated MoveOn's
slur. Former New York mayor Ed Koch labeled MoveOn "vile" and urged "decent
people . . . to come to the general's defense." Washington Post eminence David
Broder called the ad "disgraceful" and "juvenile." The chairman of the Senate
Armed Services Committee, Michigan's Carl Levin, was equally blunt. "Totally
inappropriate," he said. "There is no place for that kind of personal attack on
our military people."
But from the Democrats leading the race to become the next commander-in-chief,
there has been only gutless evasion.
"Did you think the MoveOn.org advertisement about General Petraeus was . . .
appropriate?" interviewer Charlie Rose asked Senator Hillary Clinton in an
online "candidate mashup" sponsored by Yahoo and the Huffington Post. Her
nonresponse: "I think that we should focus on what the problem is here. The
problem is a president who has a policy that flies in the face of reality."
Asked the same question, Senator Barack Obama also ducked.
"I'll be honest with you," he dissembled. "I am less interested in the motives
or what General Petraeus or Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker are responsible
for than I am for what the president is responsible for, and that is the
mission that has been assigned to those people. I think the mission is the
Even lamer was the response of John Edwards, who said he knew nothing about the
ad. "I'm sorry, I just haven't seen it. So it's hard for me to comment on it."
The only Democratic presidential candidate unafraid to tell off MoveOn was
Senator Joseph Biden. Queried on "Meet the Press," he replied forthrightly: "I
don't buy into that. This is an honorable guy. He's telling the truth."
So this is what the Democrats' leading lights have been reduced to wobbling
and weaving for fear of offending the hyperventilators in far left field. Do
Clinton, Edwards, and Obama really have no idea of the esteem in which most
Americans hold military officers like Petraeus? (From Gallup: "The military
remains the top-rated institution of Americans, with 73% saying they have a
great deal or quite a lot of confidence in it. . . . HMOs, big business, and
Congress earn the least amount of confidence.") Did they learn nothing from the
"botched joke" that ended John F. Kerry's presidential hopes once and for all?
Is retaining MoveOn's good will so important to them that they will look the
other way even when the integrity of a distinguished American general is
"If you are not tough enough to repudiate a scurrilous, outrageous ad such as
that, then I don't know how you are tough enough to be president of the United
States." So said an indignant Senator John McCain the other day. You don't have
to be a Republican to feel the same way.