JACKI LYDEN, host:
A newspaper ad that ran nearly two weeks ago continued to be a source of controversy in Washington. The ad by the liberal group MoveOn.org included a direct attack on the integrity of Iraq War Commander David Petraeus.
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.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: This particular controversy began on September 10. That's the day General 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 the 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 as loud. The GOP, on the defensive for so long about the Iraq War, saw this as sort of a life raft, a rare opportunity to go on offense.
At a Thursday news conference at the White House, the president joined in.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I thought the ad was disgusting.
GONYEA: Mr. Bush then added this.
Pres. BUSH: 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.
GONYEA: On Capitol Hill, Republicans called for an official condemnation of the Petraeus ad. John Cornyn of Texas sponsored a Senate resolution.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): This shameful ad is out there without the disapproval, so far, of this body.
GONYEA: 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 MoveOn.org's ad, but also those ran in the past by conservative groups attacking the patriotism of Democrats, including 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry.
Here's Michigan Senator Carl Levin.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): They're all disgraceful ads and we ought to treat them the same way. They impugn the honor, integrity and patriotism of real patriots.
GONYEA: The Democrats' resolution failed; the Republicans' passed - 72 to 25. Of the Democratic senators running for president, Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd voted against the GOP resolution. Senators Barack Obama and Joseph Biden did not vote. A new poll by the Pew Research Center does show that Republicans correctly predicted the public's view of General Petraeus. Fifty-seven percent in the survey approved of Petraeus' recommendation of a very gradual troop reduction in Iraq.
Here's Pew's Andy Kohut on the MoveOn.org ad.
Mr. ANDY KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): An ad like that probably doesn't go over very well with the public, which is, on the one hand, anti-war, but still, on the other hand, pro-military and quite patriotic.
GONYEA: But Kohut adds that the poll also shows that the public hasn't changed its position on the war. Fifty-nine percent say it's not going well, more than half say the troops should be brought home. Some political analysts say the MoveOn ad actually makes it tougher to get moderate Republicans to vote with Democrats pushing for troops to come home in large numbers.
MoveOn.org is continuing to push the theme of betrayal. It's expanded its ad campaign with TV spots targeting President Bush, specifically, and other Republican leaders, including presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. MoveOn is also using the attacks by Republicans to raise money that will, no doubt, be used to keep the pressure on and to stir up more controversy.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.