Ad is fodder for legislation

MoveOn.org sent the Senate GOP leadership a gift. Timed to the congressional testimony of Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, MoveOn placed a controversial full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times headlined “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” Later that same day, Republicans reacted strongly against the ad in a blizzard of press releases and interviews. But they realized they could get a second-day bounce by using the legislative hook.

The idea to whip up an amendment condemning the MoveOn.org ad originated among Senate leadership staff. “It just gives us another day to talk about it while Petraeus is here,” said a Senate leadership staffer. “It was a no-brainer sell to the bosses. The leadership signed off on it immediately. There was not a lot of drama behind it.”

Now, it was obvious to everyone that the Republicans did not have the power to force a vote on the amendment, offered by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), to a transportation bill to “repudiate the unwarranted personal attack on General Petraeus by the liberal activist group.”

But that was not the strategic goal of the GOP Senate leaders. They wanted the argument, not the roll call. They wanted to frame MoveOn.org as a radical extreme group and make support for the grassroots-fueled movement organization a wedge issue for Democrats. This comes as MoveOn.org is poised to intimidate Democrats who are not adequately opposed to the Iraq war by running campaigns against them in their home districts.

The GOP leaders wanted to be able to say the Democrats denied them a vote affirming support for the decorated general: “We knew most Democrats would not go along.”

Senate Republicans used their floor time on Tuesday to slam MoveOn.org, piling on. With some rhetorical flourish, Cornyn “revealed” that Tom Matzzie was the Washington director of MoveOn.org and (gasp!) meets with Democratic congressional leaders. Cornyn was wrong when he said the ad cost $160,000. The cost, including design work, was about $70,000, Matzzie told me.

The GOP leaders wanted Democrats to have to choose between “siding with Gen. Petraeus” and “siding with people who don’t like Gen. Petraeus.”

MoveOn.org gave the Republicans what they like — an opportunity to try to paint Democrats as the tool of a special interest group.

In his rebuttal, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) made the common-sense point that Democrats are not responsible for every comment from an anti-war group — and that if they were, the Senate would never get any work done.

Durbin stressed the larger point: that Republicans did not complain or rush to the Senate floor when, during the 2004 presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was attacked by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. (Or, for that matter, when former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam War triple amputee, had his patriotism questioned.) Said Durbin, “I don’t recall resolutions on this side of the aisle saying, ‘Well, now the Republican Party has to repudiate those.’”

Matzzie told me he would do it again. Said Matzzie, “Nine Americans died Monday in Iraq and all the Republicans can do is muster outrage over a newspaper ad.”

Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. E-mail: lsweet3022@aol.com