Every time I think the Democrats have a lock on the White House in 2008, they do something that reminds me how frail they are, as a party, when it comes to playing hardball politics. Remember that in 2004, Republican hacks managed to brand a decorated Vietnam veteran as a liar and a traitor, with their Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Sen. John Kerry, and it took Kerry and his backers an unbelievable and fatal amount of time to swing back. Of course no one ever asked Republicans in the Senate to vote on a measure denouncing the Swift Boat liars, or the cowards who linked Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee war veteran, with Osama bin Laden during the 2002 campaign.
But Democrats are different. On Thursday 22 Democratic senators did the Republican Party's bidding and voted to denounce MoveOn's controversial "General Petraeus or General Betray-Us?" ad in the New York Times. Sure, most are from so-called red, or purple, states, but some aren't. The full list includes Max Baucus, Evan Bayh, Ben Cardin, Thomas Carper, Bob Casey Jr., Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, Dianne Feinstein, Tim Johnson, Amy Klobuchar, Herb Kohl, Mary Landrieu, Patrick Leahy, Blanche Lincoln, Claire McCaskill, Barbara Mikulski, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, Mark Pryor, Ken Salazar, Jon Tester and Jim Webb and "independent" Joe Lieberman.
I'm on record -- in multiple places -- expressing my doubts about the headline on the Petraeus ad. That was last week; I've moved on. With everything else facing the country, I can't believe our top deliberative body took time out to denounce MoveOn. And I can't believe 22 Democrats joined Republican opportunists. Our wildly unpopular president teed the whole thing up like the Senate was a Little League team on the White House lawn in his stumbling, bumbling press conference this morning:
"I thought that the ad was disgusting. I felt like the ad was an attack, not only on Gen. Petraeus but on the U.S. military. And I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat Party spoke out strongly against that kind of ad. That leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org -- are more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military."
Oh right, let's bring that one out again: Democrats don't support the military! Sometimes, especially when I debate Pat Buchanan, I think it's a generational problem, that it's older Democrats who remember the Vietnam era and fear the Republican-crafted story line that Democrats "lost" that war by opposing it. I find myself thinking: Younger Democrats ought to have an easier time making the case that it's the Democrats who care about the troops, who want them to have adequate body armor and ammunition and time home with their families, and who want to bring them home from an unwinnable war in Iraq. That old Republican garbage can't work forever. (Remember, too, that more Americans polled wanted to bring the troops home after Gen. David Petraeus' testimony -- and the MoveOn kerfuffle -- than before.)
But maybe my generational analysis is wrong. Because it was Barack Obama, the youngest candidate in the presidential race, who disappointed me the most today, by deciding to duck the vote altogether. (Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd voted against the resolution; Joe Biden didn't vote.) Obama showed up long enough to vote to support an attempt at a compromise, offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer, condemning all political materials that vilify military leaders, but he ducked out before he could vote on the MoveOn ad. He explained his decision in a statement to MSNBC's First Read:
"The focus of the United States Senate should be on ending this war, not on criticizing newspaper advertisements. This amendment was a stunt designed only to score cheap political points while what we should be doing is focusing on the deadly serious challenge we face in Iraq. It's precisely this kind of political game-playing that makes most Americans cynical about Washington's ability to solve America's problems. By not casting a vote, I registered my protest against this empty politics. I registered my views on the ad itself the day it appeared." Obama went on to say: "All of us respect the service of General Petraeus and all of our brave men and women in uniform. The way to honor that service is to give them a mission that is responsible, not to vote on amendments like the Cornyn amendment while we continue to pursue the wrong policy in Iraq."
I included his entire statement because I want to be fair to Obama, who I like and respect. But I don't like this answer. He played the "game" by voting on the Boxer compromise; he owed it to the country to take a stand when it counted. If he really believes the amendment "was a stunt designed only to score cheap political points," then the only thing to do was vote it down. And I'm sorry he didn't.
I'll be on MSNBC's "Live With Dan Abrams" at 9 EDT Thursday night, debating this with, yes, Pat Buchanan.