Pun and (War) Games


We all knew yesterday would mark a turning point in the politics of the Iraq war -- and this is no time to envy the Republicans. But all it took was a newspaper ad (and one particularly poor pun) to make Democrats squirm, at the very time the party needs unity the most.

Republicans' rallying point actually had little to do with the long-awaited report to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus. Moveon.org's ad in yesterday's New York Times was meant to help Democrats make a case against Petraeus' recommendations, but the play on his name ("General Betray Us?") backfired by letting Republicans take the offensive -- and they unloaded in unison.

The ad allowed White House allies to "change the subject from the progress in Iraq to the rhetoric used by war opponents," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "By the end of the day, 30 Republican senators and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., had written to the Democratic Senate Leader, asking him to 'join us in making it clear that you do not share the views of Moveon.org, and that you will not join Moveon.org in attacking the character of this fine officer,' and House Republicans had introduced a resolution condemning the ad."

A day that many Republicans on Capitol Hill dreaded went better than the GOP could have planned, as Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker more than held their own. "As the day unfolded, Congressional Republicans seemed increasingly pleased by the course of the events, saying that Democrats seemed unable to poke many holes in the testimony," writes The New York Times' Carl Hulse. "To them it was a welcome respite from weeks of party division over the war, not to mention days of turmoil over the personal conduct of Senator Larry E. Craig."

Petraeus' testimony makes it likely that the next president will inherit a situation where more than 100,000 US troops will remain in Iraq in January 2009, ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America." "He did what the president needed him to do," Stephanopoulos said. "He bought time."

Writes Dana Milbank of The Washington Post: "Though trying to punt until March a decision about major troop reductions, he leavened his remarks with soothing phrases such as 'I have recommended a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq' and 'Force reductions will continue beyond the pre-surge levels.' "

Do not mistake a news cycle or two -- or the impact of any single ad, as juvenile as Moveon.org's was -- for a tectonic political shift. The attacks made the GOP feel good for the day, but the substance of Petraeus' recommendations mean we'll probably be back here again in March -- six months closer to the election -- with the Republicans perhaps even more conflicted over whether to continue to support the war.

But the Moveon.org ad and its fallout provide a stark reminder of the influence of the anti-war left, which remains -- more than Republicans -- the biggest threat to Democratic unity on the war. "The bottom line seemed clear: Majority Democrats haven't coalesced around a single option to brandish against the White House's conduct of the war," writes Time's Mark Thompson. "In the wake of Monday's hearing -- and a pair slated before the Senate on Tuesday -- it appears likely that there will be no major change in U.S. policy in Iraq until at least next spring."

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