This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.
This week's progress report from General David Petraeus marked an opportunity of sorts for both sides in the debate over the war. Congressional Democrats, having been unable to win a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq, saw Petraeus' report as an opportunity to win over moderate Republicans and begin a process to wind down the four-year war.
The White House and its allies, meanwhile, saw the report as a chance to bolster their claim that progress was being made in Iraq. They portrayed America's top general in Iraq as an impartial and highly reputable source on the Iraq war; in a press conference on Aug. 1, spokesman Tony Snow, who has denied that the White House has seen or shaped the general's testimony, called Petraeus "a serious guy who sees his mission not as a political mission, but, in fact, as somebody who reports facts."
After Petraeus, as expected, delivered testimony largely in line with White House rhetoric, Democrats had to be careful to raise questions about the message without directly disparaging the messenger -- in this case a general whom they have praised in the past. A full-page ad in Monday's New York Times, purchased by MoveOn.org Political Action, complicated that task. In the ad, the anti-war group used the phrase "General Betray Us" and suggested that Petraeus is "cooking the books for the White House."
Republicans, both in the House committee room where Petraeus was testifying and on the presidential campaign trial, quickly seized upon the ad: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called it an "outrageous ... attempt to call into question the reputation and character of General Petraeus," while Arizona Sen. John McCain characterized it as "a McCarthyite attack on an American patriot."
Numerous Republicans called on Democrats to repudiate what Snow called "a boorish, unworthy, childish attack." Immediately before Petraeus' testimony, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen suggested, in a comment carried on the cable news channels, that Democrats may have coordinated the attack with MoveOn.
According to one Democratic Senate aide, the ad complicated matters for "Democratic members of House and Senate that are here trying to do their job and really have problems with Petraeus' report but don't have problems with Petraeus personally."
Nita Chaudhary, a spokesman for MoveOn, said that there was no coordination between Democrats and their organization concerning the ad. "The intent of the ad is to get out there in advance of the White House spin," said Chaudhary. "It's unfortunate that the Republicans are focusing on the ad rather than the facts on the ground."
The dustup stoplights a potential problem for Democratic presidential candidates: The tension between those members of their party who want an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and those who, for personal or political reasons, do not advocate that course. During yesterday's House hearings, several protesters, among them Cindy Sheehan and members of anti-war group Code Pink, repeatedly interrupted speakers with calls for an immediate end to the war.
"There are parts of the Democrats' base that are absolutely committed to the idea that this war has got to stop and believe that Democrats who do not oppose the war and are not calling for pullout are not worthy of support," said CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.
But the party's presidential candidates have cautioned that an immediate and complete withdrawal is unrealistic. Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in the Senate, have been unable to garner the votes necessary to force a change in the administration's policy. And the complexity of withdrawal has forced most of the top-tier candidates to acknowledge that some level of troops will likely be needed in Iraq for some time to come.
In a debate last month, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton called withdrawal "a massive, complicated undertaking." And Illinois Sen. Barack Obama added, "There are only bad options and worse options, and we're going to have to exercise judgment in terms of how we execute this."
Whether or not the presidential candidates can manage to sufficiently satisfy anti-war activists, Democrats see benefits in talking about the war.
"A lot of Democratic members of the House and Senate distanced themselves from what they regarded as a personal attack on Petraeus," Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said in reference to the MoveOn ad. "But at the end of the day, the real issue is still the real issue. Bush and Petraeus are saying they want an open ended commitment of 120,000, 130,000 troops into the indefinite future, and that is a policy that most Americans oppose. Americans want a timetable for withdrawal. What Democrats are saying is we need to change course. That's the fundamental difference."
By Brian Montopoli