The word "betrayal" is hot political rhetoric right now. The liberal group MoveOn.org has leveled the charge three times in the past week — and it has Republicans steaming.
On Monday, MoveOn.org took out television ads in Iowa accusing Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani of "betraying" the public's trust. MoveOn's beef with the former New York mayor: That he resigned from the Iraq Study Group.
"Republican voters should ask Guiliani where he was when it counted. Rudy Giuliani, a betrayal of trust," intones the voiceover on the ad.
Giuliani's campaign dismissed the ad, saying the former New York City mayor wears an attack from the liberal group as a "badge of honor."
The first person MoveOn.org tagged for betrayal was Gen. David Petraeus. When he went to Capitol Hill to testify last week his long awaited status report about conditions in Iraq, he was greeted by a full-page MoveOn ad in the New York Times. It saddled him with an unwanted nickname: "General Betray-us."
"You can't think 'General Petraeus' withoug saying 'Betray Us,'" says George Lakoff, a liberal linguist who is now serving as an informal advisor to MoveOn.
Lakoff says voters respond viscerally to charges of betrayal, because it suggests their trust was abused. He describes it as a moral issue that can run deeper than even an accusation of lying.
He also says the ad punctured the dialog on the war. Lawmakers, even foes of the war, typically treat military officers with kid gloves. The language in the ad was much rougher than the formal questions members of the House and Senate directed at the general.
"MoveOn was saying something important — that you have to break through the politeness in order to actually say something real," says Lakoff.
The ads backers say its sharp language allows Democrats and others who object to the war to challenge it more aggressively — even without going as far as MoveOn did.
Democratic response to the ad was tepid: It made many uneasy, but anti-war voters are central to their base.
The GOP's response, however, was furious. Press releases from all corners flew in, demanding Democrats disavow the ad.
Former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the group went too far. The word betrayal has a very specific meaning in the military, he says.
"There's nothing more serious that you can charge a member of the military with than betrayal. It's akin to Benedict Arnold. It's akin to treason," says Fleischer.
Yet it's no isolated instance. MoveOn is also running a companion ad against president Bush, accusing him of a "betrayal of trust."
"President Bush and General Petraeus were not being straight with the American people about the effects of the surge and we needed to set the facts straight," says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org
Pariser says the group wants to get out the word that the troops should come home.
"And we needed to do so in a way that would get the kind of media attention that would actually let us get that message out to people," Pariser says.
And so the battle over betrayal is engaged. Guiliani took out his own ad in the New York Times blasting MoveOn. Ari Fleischer's new group, America's Freedom, created this a commercial in response.
"Name calling. Charges of betrayal. It's despicable. It's what MoveOn shamefully does, and it's wrong," the ad says.
Fleischer says MoveOn is driven by frustration.
"I believed they looked forward to this fall — that this would be when funds would get cut, troops would come home, Democrats would answer — and flex their muscle — and Republicans would shudder," he says.
That hasn't happened. That raises an interesting question — addressed by MoveOn as part of their second ad.
"Americans had elected a new Congress to bring them home," it says.
And that means MoveOn's campaign against "betrayal" also serves as a subtle warning to the group's Democratic allies to get moving.