Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus addresses a news conference in London on Sept. 18. He was there to discuss Iraq with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Back home, controversy simmered over an ad denouncing him as "General Betray Us."
Gen. David Petraeus addresses a news conference in London on Sept. 18. He was there to discuss Iraq with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Back home, controversy simmered over an ad denouncing him as "General Betray Us." Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
A newspaper advertisement that ran nearly two weeks ago continues to be a source of political furor in Washington.
The ad, by the liberal group MoveOn.org, included a direct attack on the integrity of Iraq war commander Gen. David Petraeus, accusing him of "cooking the books" for the White House.
This week, the ad became the focus of debate in the U.S. Senate, with the White House weighing in as well, putting Democrats on the defensive.
The controversy began on Sept. 10, the day Petraeus began two days of testimony on Capitol Hill. It's also the day MoveOn.org took out a full page ad in The New York Times with headline that referred to Petraeus as "General Betray Us."
Republicans immediately condemned the ad, but criticism from Democrats was not nearly as quick in coming — nor was it nearly as loud. The GOP, on the defensive for so long about the Iraq war, saw this as a rare opportunity to go on offense.
At a Thursday news conference at the White House, the president joined in, saying he found the ad "disgusting."
He added: "And that leads me to come to this conclusion: That most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org — or more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military."
On Capitol Hill, Republicans called for an official condemnation of the Petraeus ad. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas sponsored the Senate resolution.
"This shameful ad is out there without the disapproval, so far, of this body," Cornyn said.
The goal was to put Democrats in a corner, forcing them to risk angering anti-war voters OR face potential political fallout for NOT condemning an attack on a respected military leader.
Democrats countered with a proposed resolution of their own, condemning the MoveOn ad, but also those run in the past by conservative groups attacking the patriotism of Democrats, including 2004 Presidential nominee John Kerry.
"They're all disgraceful ads and we ought to treat them the same way," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan. "They impugn the honor, integrity and patriotism of real patriots."
The Democrats' resolution failed. The one proposed by Republicans passed 72-25. Of the Democrats running for president, sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut voted against the resolution. Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joseph Biden of Delaware did not vote.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center does show that Republicans correctly predicted the public's view of Gen. Petraeus' remarks. The survey found 57 percent of those asked approve of Petraeus's recommendation for a very gradual troop reduction in Iraq. Pew's Andy Kohut said the MoveOn ad was out of touch with public attitudes.
"An ad like that ...probably doesn't go over very with with a public that is on one hand anti-war, but on the other hand is pro-military and very patriotic," Kohut said.
But Kohut added that the poll also shows that public hasn't really changed its position on the war, since 59 percent said it's not going well. More than half said the troops should be brought home.
Some political analysts said the Moveon ad actually makes it tougher to get moderate Republicans to vote with Democrats who are pushing for troops to come home in large numbers. Eli Pariser, Moveon's executive director, rejected that argument.
"The reason moderate Republicans will eventually abandon Bush on the war is that they'll have no choice," Pariser said. "Voters will either vote them out of office or they'll abandon ship on the war. And the mission of groups like ours is to increase the pressure on in those districts until that point is crystal clear."
And MoveOn.org is continuing to push the theme of betrayal. It expanded its ad campaign with TV spots targeting President Bush specifically, and other Republican leaders, including presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.
MoveOn is also using the attacks from Republicans to raise money. That will, no doubt, be used to keep the pressure on and to stir up more controversy.