LOS ANGELES –
The Democrats, especially the Democrats running for president, have a problem, and his name is Petraeus.
In two days of hearings on Capitol Hill, he probably didn’t change any of the views held by members of Congress about the war in Iraq. But he almost certainly impressed a lot of people sitting at home by displaying all the traits Americans hope for in a military leader.
He was, to put it simply, good, a man who came across as brave, honorable, and true, and that’s the problem.
On Monday, the day Petraeus was to begin his testimony, in the great tradition of Washington politics, MoveOn.org blasted him before hearing a word of it. In a full page ad in the New York Times, that became the talk of Congress, the talk shows, and cable news (as it was supposed to), the liberal group accused Petraeus of "cooking the books," and charged that he was betraying the American peoples' trust by spinning the facts to support the White House.
That is, by the way, how MoveOn itself summarized the ad, in an email to its supporters sent the next day, giving notice that it wasn’t backing down.
The ad made some Democrats uncomfortable because of its harsh tone, and gave Republicans a juicy distraction to attack. With polls showing that most Americans trust the military to deal with the war in Iraq far more than they do either the president or Congress, MoveOn’s choice of targets put those Democrats who need the support of both the hard left and the mushy middle squarely between a rock and a hard place.
It’s one thing to attack the president as a fool and a bumbler, as misguided in his policy and incompetent in its execution. That’s easy: almost everyone outside Bush’s family will agree with you, even the Republican candidates, who are generally the ones forced into an elaborate two-step as they try to defend the war and distance themselves from the Commander-in-Chief who has been in charge of it.
But attacking the General who oozes courage, fortitude and decency?
That’s a bit trickier, to say the least. Barack Obama, commenting/questioning the general about the options in Iraq, noted that there aren’t any good ones, only bad and worse ones. He might also have been describing his own situation, not to mention his friend Hillary’s.
There’s no question what the Left wants. Why don’t these guys (and girls) have any courage, a very left leaning friend demanded of me recently. Why aren’t they angry? Why don’t they start screaming bloody murder? Why don’t they demand that the troops start coming home NOW?
That is, figuratively speaking, not only what MoveOn is doing, but what it is demanding. In his new book, “The Argument,” Matt Bai, after carefully researching MoveOn and other new generation Democratic activists and bloggers, concludes that what they are offering is not so much a new vision as a new strategy; that they are seeking to match the “right wing conspiracy,” which spews out faxes and statements every day, blogs on Drudge and speaks through Rush and Hannity, with a left-wing version, which spews just as much ink, blogs on Huffington, and speaks through Olberman.
You control fires by building new ones, or at least you meet fire with fire, and if we all end up in the rubble, you certainly can’t blame the people who fought back second rather the ones who started it first. The Left has, in a word, adopted the tactics of the right. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Primaries are won on the Left and Right. General elections are won in the middle. That’s the problem Petraeus poses for Democrats. If he could convince MoveOn, this would be easy. But he can’t and won’t. The danger is that he convinces folks in the middle that it would be irresponsible to simply pull out troops now, rather than trying to stabilize the situation further, that there is enough improvement both politically and militarily at the grass roots level to follow his schedule, rather than a Democratic one, that he knows what is happening on the ground in Iraq better than people who aren’t there.
The risk for Democrats is that those who take him on will be seen as naïve or weak or beholden to the Cindy Sheehans, which is not a direct route to the Oval Office. The other risk is that those who don’t will be attacked and belittled for failing to do so, and will never make it to the finals in this contest. It was a whole lot easier when this was just Bush’s war.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.