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.”
But they did. Democratic ally Moveon.org began the assault before the general’s testimony with an ad (provided by The New York Times at a reduced rate) questioning the integrity of “General Betray Us” – and most Democrats explicitly declined to condemn it. Leading Democrats questioned Petraeus’ integrity; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charged that “[h]e has made a number of statements over the years that have not proved to be factual,” while Senator Clinton characterized the general’s report as requiring “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin charged that Petraeus was guilty of “carefully manipulating the statistics” to support the surge, and Congressman Bob Wexler accused Petraeus of “cherry picking statistics or selectively massaging information.”
In calling General Petraeus a liar, Democrats by implication accused him of betraying his country by recklessly sacrificing the lives of American fighting men and women for strictly political reasons – a frontal assault on his patriotism and his honor. In doing so, they overstepped. In the wake of the general’s testimony on Capitol Hill, newspaper headlines noted the need for Democrats to find a new political strategy to end the war.
The testimony offered by General Petraeus certainly highlighted the shallowness of Democrats’ substantive claims about the Iraq war, but its symbolic value was every bit as great. The Petraeus hearings were a forcible reminder of the danger of trusting any party that would stoop to the character assassination it has long condemned in order to advance its own political interests, at the expense of America’s unity and its national security.