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MoveOn Ad, ‘Phony Fred’ Site Are Case Studies in Bad Politics

by David Winston

After 25 years in politics, it never ceases to amaze me when I see, as we did last week, politicos who should know better shoot themselves in the foot or — in the case of MoveOn.org’s now infamous New York Times ad and the phony “Phony Fred” Web site — shoot themselves in both feet.

Let’s start with the worst of the two. After their failed “summer offensive” to end the Iraq War, Democratic leaders returned in September intent on breaking out of the untenable political box in which they had put themselves. By trying to have it both ways — to be seen as supporting the troops yet opposing the war — Democrats had only confused the issue and driven their job-approvalnumbers into the ground.

Requiring that U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus report to Congress in September on the state of the troop “surge” in Iraq seemed like a good idea back in the spring, when it was used as a bartering chip in the debate over the administration’s supplemental military appropriations bill. But by summer’s end, the news coming out of Iraq seemed to indicate that the increase was beginning to produce positive results.

That left many Democrats with what they saw as only one option: to attack the messenger and his credibility. But as one Democratic Senator told Politico, “No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV. The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us.” Enter MoveOn.org. As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other leading Democrats took pot shots at Petraeus from the sidelines, MoveOn brought out “Big Bertha,” a full-page ad in The New York Times. But rather than blow Petraeus out of the water, the antics and ethics of MoveOn put Democrats on the defensive.

As the House hearings began, the controversy quickly became a distraction, taking the focus away from Iraq and setting up the one contrast Democrats wanted to avoid. Instead of Democrats up against Bush and his low job approval, the story became Democrats versus Petraeus’ success. As the questioning moved to the Senate, Democrats tried to reassert themselves by revving up the rhetoric.

Most notably, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told the general during the Senate hearings, “I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief” — one
step away from calling him a liar. Republicans found themselves in the best position they could have hoped for.

Political pundits weren’t debating the effectiveness of the surge but the wisdom of MoveOn’s attack on Petraeus’ patriotism and The New York Times’ decision to sell the ad at a cut-rate price or, as Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called it, the “friends and family” rate. As the criticism escalated, MoveOn was forced to defend the ad in a lengthy explanation on its Web site.

According to MoveOn, “The truth about the mainstream media is that the kind of analyses with which some of us feel more comfortable don’t generate enough attention or news coverage to shift the debate.” In other words, it was the national media that forced MoveOn to adopt its over-the- top tone. Given the Times’ generosity, placing blame on the media for their own misjudgment was a little like biting the hand that fed you.

Of course, Democrats haven’t cornered the market on inappropriate campaign tactics. As ex-Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) formally threw his hat into the ring, an anonymous Web site, “Phony Fred,” launched a particularly nasty example of attack politics. While the “Phony Fred” Web site may not be in the same league as impugning the patriotism of a commanding general in the middle of a war, it isthe kind of sleazy campaigning the gives all politics a bad name.

The site referred to Thompson as “Playboy Fred,” “Hollywood Fred,” “Moron Fred” and “Pimp Fred” among other less-than-flattering descriptions. It didn’t take the media long to track the site to Under the Power Lines, which describes itself as “South Carolina’s only online campaign strategy firm.”

Under the Power Lines is headed by Mitt Romney’s South Carolina consultant, who blamed other members of his firm for the site. Romney’s campaign immediately disavowed the site and adamantly denied any connection to it. Romney himself took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the site and reaffirming that his campaign had nothing to do with it.

Whoever put the site together, it was clearly professionally designed. This was not the stuff of a couple of beer-inspired college students armed with a video camera and access to YouTube. Obviously, those behind the site thought it would hurt Thompson.

What they discovered, as did MoveOn, is that sometimes there is a price to pay for cheap political shots. Last week was a good week for those who believe campaigns can and should be waged on the strength of one’s ideas.

Too much of our political discourse has devolved into partisan bomb-throwing and too many politicians have turned into rhetorical pit bulls willing to, as one consultant put it to me, “rip the lungs out of the opponent,” to win. Contrast politics focused on a candidate’s policy positions or record is fair game, but personal attacks are not.

Americans have a pretty good sense of fair play. They know what’s acceptable and what is outside the norms of common decency when it comes to political tactics. They are tired of the kind of gutter politics represented most recently by MoveOn’s attack ad and the “Phony Fred” site. Apologies are in order. So are higher standards for a country that must serve as an unimpeachable example of free and fair elections to an often doubting world.

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Petraeus’ Report Will Provide New Context for Fall Debate

by David Winston

Gen. David Petraeus has a Herculean task ahead of him. A few days from now, he must go before a room full of Democratic Congressional skeptics, many of whom have an end point for the war — getting out — but no strategy for what happens next.

He must report on the status of the troop “surge” to a Democratic majority that is increasingly divided over the war and under pressure from its base to act. Their presidential candidates have moved further to the left, taking up the anti-war gauntlet. At the same time, their Capitol Hill leadership is rightly concerned about losing more conservative Blue Dog Democrats to the administration’s war position if Petraeus offers up a positive report.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told washingtonpost.com, “I think there would be enough support in that group to want to stay the course and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us.”

That’s what Petraeus is facing — progress in Iraq is a “problem” because Democrats might be unable to maintain their unified opposition to the war. It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario playing out with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on the Congressional hot seat in the middle of World War II, but generals understand that inevitably war and politics are inseparable, especially in this post-Vietnam War era.

With the Iraq hearings scheduled for the week after Labor Day, the traditional official kickoff of the presidential campaign, the Petraeus report will create the first contextual reality of the 2008 presidential election. Interestingly, it won’t be the candidates of either party or even the media creating the framework for the campaign’s most important issue — national security.

Instead, a four-star general will define the starting point for serious debate not only on the battle for Iraq but also on the larger issue — the war against radical Islam. The American people are ready to listen to both sides. For the past three months, the issue of the surge strategy has been put on hold, or at least almost, awaiting the Petraeus report. Most Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have urged patience to give the troop increase time to work.

To placate their increasingly critical base, however, Democrats made several unsuccessful attempts this summer to defeat President Bush’s anti-terror policies. They took on Bush over the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program to track terrorist phone calls and lost. Senate Democrats also tried to defund the war and lost.

As their legislative efforts were failing, Democratic leaders made two other misjudgments. First, they believed that the unpopularity of the Iraq War would see a groundswell of anti-war activity over the summer. It didn’t happen.

Instead, members of their own party began returning from trips to Iraq with positive reports at odds with the party line. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a staunch opponent of the war, changed his mind about withdrawal after an August visit. He wrote in an opinion piece in The Seattle Times, “I am convinced by the evidence that the situation has at long last begun to change substantially for the better.”

Scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, hardly supporters of the war, shocked Democratic sensibilities when they penned an opinion piece for The New York Times after going to Iraq titled, “A War We Just Might Win.”

A second mistake made by Democratic leaders on the Hill was one of arrogance. With Bush’s job-approval numbers having sunk to the low 30s and the war as unpopular as ever, they assumed their high job approval was a given. By the end of August, with their numbers below Bush’s, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) could only snipe to the Post, “you have to keep in mind Republicans care more about catching Democrats than catching terrorists.”

Summer’s over; and to borrow a phrase, it’s time to move on. The Petraeus report will provide the new political context for the fall debate. But as the partisan back-and-forth over war strategy moves to a more serious level, it’s important to remember that the various players in this debate look at the war issue from very different horizons at this moment.

The president and Hill Republicans and Democrats view events through a 15- to 17-month window. But the presidential candidates of both parties who seek to be the next commander in chief must see farther down the road, a four- or even eight-year perspective. Their assessment of the Petraeus report’s implications for the battle of Iraq and the larger war against radical Islam must reflect a longer lens.

The American people want more than criticism of the war and the president from Democrats. If the Democratic candidates will pull the troops from Iraq as they have promised, voters want to know where and how they will defeat the forces of terrorism. Does former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) really believe this is a “bumper sticker” war? Would Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) actually invade Pakistan? Just what does Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) believe when it comes to the war?

Voters also want to know what Republican candidates would do to win the war over the long term. How will they handle Iran? What would they do with Guantanamo Bay? What about the privacy issues raised by Bush’s anti-terrorism policies? Because of their longer perspective, Republican candidates likely will put different emphasis on the answers to these questions than would Bush.

Homeland security, defense, foreign policy and the war — no matter how you phrase the question, these issues are people’s top concerns as the nation waits to hear from its battlefield general. When Petraeus comes before Congress, he will do much more than just survive a partisan grilling or even save the surge. His assessment will shape the political debate during the all-important pre-primary season and perhaps help pick a president.

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