MoveOn.org, and the new standards of Democratic debate.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
Important as was yesterday's appearance before Congress by General David Petraeus, the events leading up to his testimony may have been more significant. Members of the Democratic leadership and their supporters have now normalized the practice of accusing their opponents of lying. If other members of the Democratic Party don't move quickly to repudiate this turn, the ability of the U.S. political system to function will be impaired in a way no one would wish for.
Well, with one exception. MoveOn.org, the Democratic activist group, bought space in the New York Times yesterday to accuse General Petraeus of "cooking the books for the White House." The ad transmutes the general's name into "General Betray Us."
"Betrayal," as every military officer knows, is a word that through the history of their profession bears the stain of acts that are both dishonorable and unforgivable. That is to say, MoveOn.org didn't stumble upon this word; it was chosen with specific intent, to convey the most serious accusation possible against General Petraeus, that his word is false, that he is a liar and that he is willing to betray his country. The next and obvious word to which this equation with betrayal leads is treason. That it is merely insinuated makes it worse.
MoveOn.org calls itself a "progressive" political group, but it is in fact drawn from the hard left of American politics and a pedigree that sees politics as not so much an ongoing struggle but a final competition. Their Web-based group is new to the political scene, but its politics are not so new. More surprising and troubling are the formerly liberal institutions and politicians who now share this political ethos.
In an editorial on Sunday, the New York Times, after saying that President Bush "isn't looking for the truth, only for ways to confound the public," asserted that "General Petraeus has his own credibility problems." We read this as an elision from George Bush, the oft-accused liar on WMD and all the rest, to David Petraeus, also a liar merely for serving in the chain of command. With this editorial, the Times establishes that the party line is no longer just "Bush lied," but anyone who says anything good about Iraq or our effort there is also lying. As such, the Times enables and ratifies MoveOn.org's rhetoric as common usage for Democrats.
Late last week, for instance, we heard it said of General Petraeus that, "He's made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual." This was from Harry Reid, the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.
The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Lantos, said Thursday that General Petraeus would not be the author of his report; it would be written "by Administration political operatives." He opened yesterday's hearing, moments before General Petraeus was to speak, by saying, "We cannot take anything this Administration says on Iraq at face value."
So far, only two Democrats that we are aware of have repudiated this political turn. Joe Lieberman, already ostracized from the party for dissent, called the MoveOn ad an "act of slander that every member of the Congress--Democrat and Republican--has a solemn responsibility to condemn." And Joe Biden, after the MoveOn ad was read to him on "Meet the Press" Sunday, replied: "I don't buy into that. This is an honorable guy. He's telling the truth."
These are the exceptions. Another of the party's activist groups, Democracy for America, released a statement about the time General Petraeus began to speak: "It is offensive that our commander-in-chief has ordered a four-star general to mislead Congress."
As General Petraeus finished his statement yesterday, Senator Chris Dodd's Presidential campaign spammed an email about "the accuracy" of the report: "The fact that there are questions about General Petraeus's report is not surprising given that it was brought to you by this White House." Thus in Mr. Dodd's view, General Petraeus, returned from the Iraq battlefield, is a complicit ventriloquist's dummy.
Can this really be the new standard of political rhetoric across the Democratic Party? There was a time when the party's institutional elites, such as the Times, would have pulled it back from reducing politics to all or nothing. They would have blown the whistle on such accusations. Now they are leading the charge.
Under these new terms, public policy is no longer subject to debate, discussion and disagreement over competing views and interpretations. Instead, the opposition is reduced to the status of liar. Now the opposition is not merely wrong, but lacks legitimacy and political standing. The goal here is not to debate, but to destroy.
Today General Petraeus testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Its Democratic Members include Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Jim Webb. This would be the appropriate setting to apologize to General Petraeus for the MoveOn.org ad. Or let it stand.