A few weeks before Army Gen. David H. Petraeus's much-anticipated testimony on Iraq, the leadership of MoveOn.org, the Internet-based liberal group that has rallied its 3 million members around the country to oppose the war, decided on a change in strategy.
Rather than making another appeal to moderate Republicans to join Senate Democrats in passing an antiwar resolution, they would take on the credibility of Petraeus himself. Their weapon, they decided in conjunction with Fenton Communications, its Washington-based public relations firm, would be an ad in the New York Times that provocatively played off his name with this question in large letters: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"
Yesterday, an organization so small its 17 employees don't even have a central office, found itself under attack by not only President Bush, who said the ad was "disgusting," but also by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which passed a resolution 72 to 25 expressing its own outrage. Many Democrats blamed the group for giving moderate Republicans a ready excuse for staying with Bush and for giving Bush and his supporters a way to divert attention away from the war.
In an e-mail to its members last night, the group acknowledged that the content of the ad might have angered its allies but argued that a larger issue is at stake. "Maybe you liked our General Petraeus ad. Maybe you thought the language went too far," they wrote. "But make no mistake: this is much bigger than one ad."
And it turned its criticism squarely back on the Senate, accusing it of "spending time cracking down on a newspaper ad" after failing on Wednesday to pass a bill lengthening the home leaves of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq, a bipartisan measure that some regarded as pressuring Bush into limiting the redeployment of U.S. forces.
Many Democratic strategists were privately furious at the group for launching an attack on a member of the military rather than Bush, arguing that it gave Republicans a point on which to attack the Democrats and to rally around the administration's war policy. The displeasure underscores the uneasy alliance between MoveOn and the party. MoveOn, after its rather guerrilla start, has increasingly become part of the Democratic establishment in Washington. It has donated money and lent its Washington director, Thomas Mattzie, to a coalition of liberal groups with major funding from wealthy donors that organizes in an office on K Street to promote opposition to the war.
The group's conference calls often include aides to House and Senate Democratic leaders, and executive director Eli Pariser and Mattzie have also had meetings with some of the party's 2008 presidential candidates, although MoveOn is not likely to endorse in the primary process. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former vice president Al Gore have spoken at MoveOn events.
But, Pariser said: "We're not accountable ultimately to the Democrats. We're accountable to people who want a swift end to the war, and that's the end goal here."
In a conference call with MoveOn members last night, Pariser acknowledged that some of the group's members did not like the ad. But, he said, "MoveOn is going to be as strong as ever." He added, "We definitely will be putting pressure on Democrats, and especially those who voted against us, in the near future, and we are currently working on the best way to do that."
Since the ad appeared, Republicans have attacked MoveOn relentlessly. During the congressional hearings last week, several GOP lawmakers called on Democrats to condemn the MoveOn ad, and since then, a barrage of criticism has come from several Republican presidential candidates and, finally, Bush.
In response to a question at a news conference yesterday, the president said that few Democrats had condemned the ad, "which leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org, or more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military."
For MoveOn's supporters, the special notice from Bush may only serve to validate its confrontational style. "I think he just raised MoveOn several million more dollars," said Erik Smith, a Democratic media consultant.
This is not MoveOn's first controversy. In 2004, when the group held a contest on its site for the best ads bashing Bush, they quickly took down one that compared the president to Hitler. Later, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential candidate, distanced himself from an ad that criticized Bush's National Guard service.
Founded as an online petition by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in 1998 to encourage Congress to "move on" from trying to impeach President Clinton, the group is in many ways the brainchild of Pariser.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pariser, just out of college, started a petition calling for the United States to react with "moderation." This comment later drew criticism from conservatives but won him a large following that inspired one of MoveOn's founders, Wes Boyd, to hire Pariser as one of the group's first full-time staff members. As executive director, Pariser runs the group out of his home in New York. MoveOn's employees rarely meet in person, instead communicating by e-mail or conference call.
In 2004, MoveOn spent millions from wealthy donors such as financier George Soros, but it has grown into a force that has raised millions in donations from members and pumped more than $6 million into ads in this election cycle alone.
MoveOn and other antiwar groups have largely succeeded in helping to push Democrats to support a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The group has backed such a plan for more than a year, but this was a step many Democrats had been reluctant to take. But, like some Democrats, the group has been frustrated as Republicans have continued to embrace Bush's policy on the war.
Yesterday, almost two weeks after the ad ran, MoveOn found itself in an unenviable position: almost universally condemned by Senate Democrats and Republicans.
Once Republicans started circulating an amendment that would blast MoveOn for "impugning the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all the members of the U.S. Armed Forces," Democrats wrote their own version that criticized the MoveOn ad but also denounced Republicans for attacking the military record of Kerry in 2004 through the Swift boat ads.
Between the two measures, nearly every member of the Senate had repudiated MoveOn, including Democratic presidential contender Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Obama, who both voted for the Democratic version that did not include MoveOn's name but said there had been an "unwarranted personal attack" on Petraeus.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company