General Petraeus’ testimony on Capitol Hill last week undermined numerous Democratic talking points about the progress of the war and the situation on the ground in Iraq. But through their own behavior before and during the hearings, the Democrats themselves were responsible for exploding one of their most cherished myths: Republicans were the partisans prone to a particularly nasty form of character assassination – that is, challenging the patriotism of those who disagree with them.
Democrats have long claimed to be victims of Republican challenges to their love of country. As early as 2003, John Kerry told the Associated Press, “Republicans have tried to make a practice of attacking anybody who speaks out strongly by questioning their patriotism.” Presidential aspirant Wesley Clark whined in 2004, “How dare this administration make the charge that if you disagree with its policies, you are somehow unpatriotic!” Senator Barack Obama has condemned “the same divisive politics that question your patriotism if you dare to question failed policies . . .” And Hillary Clinton herself famously screeched, “I'm sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and disagree with this administration, somehow you're not patriotic.” More recently, in July of 2007, she told ABC News, “I deeply resent the administration’s continuing effort to impugn the patriotism of those of us who are asking hard questions.”
Not surprisingly, the trope was enthusiastically embraced by the media. New York Times house liberal Paul Krugman wrote that "The Bush administration is always quick to question the patriotism of anyone who gets in its way." The Boston Globe’s Tom Oliphant faulted the President for permitting “his political pals [to] orchestrate a campaign to question the patriotism of those who urged a full national debate" about the Iraq war. And when CBS News portrayed Congressman John Murtha as the victim of scurrilous attacks on his patriotism in 2005, it identified John Kerry as “another decorated veteran whose patriotism has also been questioned.”
Kerry himself once wrote that “Patriotism also means dissent – when it’s hardest.” Remarkably, after spending years portraying themselves as courageous dissenters enduring unjustified attacks on their patriotism, Democrats were quick to impugn the character of General Petraeus -- a man who's nothing if not a dissenter from the conventional wisdom in the mainstream media and on Capitol Hill about the hopelessness of the war effort. Given their oft-stated sense of the injustice and gravity of an accusation of betrayal of country, it’s ironic that Democrats resorted so quickly to that tactic in an effort to blunt the effectiveness of General Petraeus’ testimony.