NOT LONG after the 2004 election, the executive director of MoveOn.org sent his members an e-mail trumpeting their newly acquired influence over the Democratic Party - for which, he said, "grass-roots contributors" like them had raised $300 million. "Now it's our party," Eli Pariser crowed. "We bought it, we own it, and we're going to take it back."
At the time, Pariser's words might have come across as windy braggadocio. Would the nation's oldest political party really dance to a tune called by an organization as extreme as MoveOn, a group notorious, among other things, for having posted videos on its website depicting President Bush as the incarnation of Adolf Hitler?
But with the 2008 presidential campaign well underway, Pariser's boast is no longer so easy to dismiss. Consider the reaction by leading Democrats to MoveOn's smear last week of General David Petraeus, the top American military commander in Iraq.
On the first day that Petraeus was scheduled to deliver his long-awaited report to Congress on the progress of the war, MoveOn ran an advertisement in The
"GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?" the full-page ad bellowed. It accused the four-star general, one of the nation's most admired military officers, of "cooking the books for the White House." As character assassination goes, it was both puerile and despicable. Puerile in its mockery of the general's name - reminiscent of Joe McCarthy's sophomoric taunt of Senator J. William Fulbright as "Half-Bright" - and despicable in its imputation of treachery to a decorated warrior-scholar who has worn the uniform with distinction for three decades.
Once American politicians adhered, at least in theory, to the principle that politics in wartime stops at the water's edge. Today, political discourse has become so toxic that some politicians are happy to exploit a slander like MoveOn's. "No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV," one Democratic senator anonymously told the Capitol Hill newspaper Politico a few days before Petraeus testified. "The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us." MoveOn didn't disappoint.
To their credit, some Democrats and prominent liberals repudiated MoveOn's slur. Former New York mayor Ed Koch labeled MoveOn "vile" and urged "decent people . . . to come to the general's defense."
But from the Democrats leading the race to become the next commander-in-chief, there has been only gutless evasion.
"Did you think the MoveOn.org advertisement about General Petraeus was . . . appropriate?" interviewer Charlie Rose asked Senator Hillary Clinton in an online "candidate mashup." Her nonresponse: "I think that we should focus on what the problem is here. The problem is a president who has a policy that flies in the face of reality."
Senator Barack Obama also ducked.
"I'll be honest with you," he dissembled. "I am less interested in the motives or what General Petraeus or Ambassador [to Iraq Ryan] Crocker are responsible for than I am for what the president is responsible for, and that is the mission that has been assigned to those people. I think the mission is the failure."
Even lamer was John Edwards, who said he knew nothing about the ad. "I'm sorry, I just haven't seen it. So it's hard for me to comment on it."
The only Democratic presidential candidate unafraid to tell off MoveOn was Senator Joseph Biden. Queried on "Meet the Press," he replied forthrightly: "I don't buy into that. This is an honorable guy. He's telling the truth."
So this is what the Democratic Party has been reduced to - wobbling and weaving for fear of offending the moonbats in far left field. Do Clinton, Edwards, and Obama really have no idea of the esteem in which most Americans hold military officers? Did they learn nothing from the "botched joke" that ended John F. Kerry's presidential hopes? Is retaining MoveOn's good will so important to them that they will look the other way even when the integrity of a distinguished American general is recklessly trashed?
"If you are not tough enough to repudiate a scurrilous, outrageous ad such as that, then I don't know how you are tough enough to be president of the United States." So said an indignant Senator John McCain the other day. You don't have to be a Republican to feel the same way.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.