09/20/2007 09:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

MoveOn And the Kabuki Congress

The US Senate voted 72 to 25 to condemn the Move-On ad which called General Petraeus "General Betray Us". It's hard to know where to start with this, because it's an episode that says so much about the US and the US Congress, so I'm just going to work through it point by point.

Form Over Substance: US elite discourse has become that of courtiers. What matters is not what you say, but how you say it. The fact of the matter is that Petraeus"s testimony to Congress was based on statistics that are, effectively, lies. Lying to Congress is a crime. It is also a betrayal of Petraeus's duty as a general in the United States military. By lying to Congress Petraeus effectively betrayed the US. He also betrayed his men on the ground. Note carefully that in this paragraph I'm not saying "he shaded the truth"; I'm not speculating on his motives "oh he really believes the crap he slings therefore it's not a lie" and I'm not using softening language like "failed to tell the truth", which is much weaker that the word LIE. He lied.

Straight talking isn't allowed inside the Washington bubble.

Fake Outrage: Let's move on. Was there a groundswell demanding this condemnation? Nope. Not in the real world. The majority of Americans think that the surge didn't work; they want the US to pull out either immediately or within a year; and they didn't trust Petraeus not to cook his testimony. Imagine that.

You Can't Criticize Generals: This is another issue. The sense of the motion is that criticizing a general - or criticizing the military, is simply unacceptable. This is very unhealthy in a democratic society, in which no one should be above criticism, let alone the military. This is especially the case as the Republican administration has done its best over the duration of the Bush presidency to politicize the military into an arm of the party:

More After the Jump

[A recently retired flag officer friend of mine, who describes himself as a "once solid, and now wavering Republican"] went on to tell me that one of the things that bugged him the most about the Pentagon in recent years was the fairly overt process of politicization. "The White House was always involved in picking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a handful of other positions, of course, but the process further down the line, especially two-stars and lower, was really peer-review. There is still a peer-review, but now it's politicos who make the decisions, and their suspicion of where people stand in terms of party politics seems to weigh very heavily. This just ain't right."

American tradition, reinforced by statutes, has mandated that party politics be kept out of the military. In theory military officers should refrain from overt displays of political involvement; specifically, wearing a uniform to a political function is prohibited--with just a few narrowly delineated exceptions (the armed forces routinely provide color guards for political events, for instance). However, with the arrival of the Bush Administration, a double standard has emerged: military personnel are welcomed to participate, in uniform, at Republican functions; at Democratic functions, this is prohibited. One of the best demonstrations of this was Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, who wore his uniform while giving speeches at a series of political rallies linked to the Republican party. An inspector general's report recommended he be disciplined over this. Instead, he was promoted. Soldiers caught wearing a uniform as a function associated with the other party have a distinctly different experience, as Cpl. Adam Kokesh discovered.

A democracy in which the military is beyond reproach and in which the military brass favors one party over the other is in a lot of danger. I will add further that there are few institutions in the US that need vigorous criticism more than the US military, which contrary to American jingoism is not all that good, especially considering it is spending 50% of the world's budget. Yes, Bush is a boob. But US forces have just not done a very good job in-theater otherwise. Since I'm never going to run for office I can say this. The fact that people who might run for office, or are in office, can't say it is immensely worrisome.

Know Your Place Peons: Another strain that's very interesting is that various Senators essentially said the same thing as Move-On, minus the word betrayal. And they came pretty close to saying that. Matt Stoller over at Open Left tackled this with General Wesley Clark:

Matt Stoller: Chuck Hagel called his performance "a dirty trick on the American people... It's not only a dirty trick, but it's dishonest, it's hypocritical, it's dangerous and irresponsible." Admiral Fallon was reported saying that he thinks Petreaus is 'an ass-kissing little chickenshit" for the way he sucks up to politicians.' There are a lot of rumors that David Petraeus wants to run for President. My question is, um, is their criticism a mistake as well?

Wes Clark: Well, I think for Chuck Hagel, who's a sitting Senator who wants to criticize a General, that's fine. That's his right to do so. As far as Admiral Fallon was concerned, if he's got a personal quarrel with Petraeus, you know, that's between the two of them. Petraeus works for him, obviously he feels cut out and to some extent I've known situations like that, but, um, as for, it was a mistake.

Let me summarize that for you - it's ok for a Senator to criticize a general. It's okay for another general to criticize a general. But it's not ok for ordinary citizens to criticize a general. Who do you think you are anyway? Uppity bloody peasants. (Hagel, of course, voted for the resolution.)

Hurting a Proxy: There are few more necessary things in politics than proxies. A proxy, in political terms, is someone who can say things you can't say and get them out there. Mike Stark in the last campaign in Virginia probably got Senator Webb elected by asking George Allen questions about his past that Webb couldn't ask. Other times proxies say inconvenient truths politicians can't say (like Petraeus is lying). How you use them is simple, you say "well, I wouldn't have used a word like betrayal Bobblehead, but it is an interesting question. Why are the numbers Petraeus is using so much better than the numbers every other independent study has come up with?"

Or, in more generic terms. "Well I certainly wouldn't have brought up the rumors that my opponent beats his wife and I think that such slurs have no place in our democracy, but now that the issue is out there perhaps my opponent should address them."

You argue on the substance, not on the style. You turn and (as Jane Hamsher has pointed out) pivot into an attack.

Now the problem here is that MoveOn has been a very effective proxy for a long time, running ads that say things the Democrats can't. Every time they try and act as a proxy in the future what Republicans will say is "MoveOn are a bunch of extremist who were condemned by a bipartisan motion in the Senate." Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant to damage a proxy like that. Can you imagine Republicans ever doing that to, say, the NRA. When the Swift Boaters were saying far worse things (and proven lies) about Kerry, did they get together with the Democrats and condemn it? Of course not. They know that the Swift Boat Vets were on their side, were their proxy, and were saying things they wanted out there. Oh sure, they might sotto voce condemn it. But not with any real force.

Tainting the Money. As Glenn W. Smith wrote to me in an e-mail:

Money. The Cornyn resolution is about the money as much as it's about distracting from the Iraq debacle or dressing in military drag.

They came for labor. They came for trial lawyers. Now they come for the netroots. Taint the money. And the Senate Dems and their ignorant consultants are too blind and too stupid to understand that.

Individual Senators: Obama ducked the vote. He was there for the one before, then ran out. Frankly that's exactly what I expect from Obama. He doesn't like making hard choices or fighting. Clinton voted no. Given that she mostly hasn't pandered to the netroots I don't think this is a pander - I think she's remembering what was done to her husband and her and understands that you never give an inch. Biden ducked it too - not sure what the story is on that one though I certainly wouldn't have thought he'd vote nay, myself. Schumer voted no - good for him, and I would have expected him to vote the other way. But Schumer's a tough one who doesn't cow easy, whatever you may think of him otherwise, and he may see the move for what it is. Dodd voted no, good for him. The netroots have been there for him and he's there for us.

Kabuki Congress: The bottom line is this. About half of Democrats (list at the bottom) just don't like the netroots or uppity citizens. They really don't like us. When they just go through the motions we get angry. We ask people to call them (who often don't say nice things on the phone). They don't really want to end the war; they don't really want to restore Habeas Corpus. Oh sure, they'll go through the motions, but they won't force the Republicans to actually filibuster. They won't work with outside groups to really put pressure on vulnerable Republicans, nor will they do anything significant to ratchet up the pressure.

Why? Because they figure they're going to win in 2008 anyway, and they can do it without the netroots. And if the price is letting another couple hundred thosuand Iraqis die; if the price is another 1,000 or so American deaths - well, that's an acceptable price to them. It's certainly not worth having to get unpleasant with the Republican; having to fight hard. So a certain section of the Democratic party has come to hate the netroots for pushing them to fight. They're going to get everything they really want without fighting, they figure - so why do more than go through the motions? Real filibusters, with the cots and so on, and maybe weeks of it, are really unpleasant. Maybe not as unpleasant as having your legs blown off by an IED, but then, these are important people.

For a while now a lot of activist bloggers have been holding onto the last shreds of the hope ignited in November of last year - that electing a Democratic Congress make a real difference. This act has dispelled most of that. Practically every blogger I know is furious. This puts them, I might add, back in the camp with their readers, most of whom, judging from comments and from the polls, have been disgusted every since the Iraqi authorization bill went through. The honeymoon is over, and the Democrats who did this will reap what they sowed. Both they, and the netroots will be worse for it, but there is no way out - the real betrayal, in the end, was of the base, by these Democrats. And as Digby would say, for us to go crawling back now would be to act to them like they act towards the Republicans - as a battered wife crawling back to her husband despite the abuse.

The job now will be to support those few Dems who deserve it, to work on primaries and recruiting candidates and get ready for 2008. Working with the leadership is off the table - I personally will no longer be asking anyone to call on anything unless I believe the leadership will fight for the bill, rather than just make a token vote and let it go down easily. No fight - no support. I know I am not the only one who feels this way.

Appendix: Votes Against or Not Voting


Akaka (D-HI)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Byrd (D-WV)
Clinton (D-NY)
Dodd (D-CT)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feingold (D-WI)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Levin (D-MI)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Murray (D-WA)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)

Not Voting - 3
Biden (D-DE)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Obama (D-IL)