The Boxer amendment: smart politics

T.A. Barnhart

The left-wing blogosphere, of which I am but a tiny (but stunningly brilliant) member, has been in a fine tis-was over the Cornryn and Boxer amendments, both of which condemned the ad. In their indignant outrage over what Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake calls "the McCarthy-esque language of Barbara Boxer’s amendment", the morally pure leftie bloggers ignore one basic, vital fact: The Boxer amendment was politically savvy, the kind of election-oriented smarts the Dems too often fail to practice.

The first thing to make clear is that the two amendments bore only the most superficial relationship to one other. The Cornryn amendment began with a lengthy and cloying description of the career of Gen Petraeus, who appears to be the finest soldier to serve this nation since Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. The amendment concluded thus;

Whereas a recent attack through a full-page advertisement in the New York Times by the liberal activist group,, impugns the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all the members of the United States Armed Forces: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate--

(1) to reaffirm its support for all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces, including General David H. Petraeus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force--Iraq;

(2) to strongly condemn any effort to attack the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all the members of the United States Armed Forces; and

(3) to specifically repudiate the unwarranted personal attack on General Petraeus by the liberal activist group

The Cornryn amendment glories Petraeus, implies falsely that MoveOn attacked every member of the Armed Forces, and attacks MoveOn specifically. Compare this with the Boxer amendment, which follows in full:

(a) FINDINGS.--The Senate makes the following findings:

(1) The men and women of the United States Armed Forces and our veterans deserve to be supported, honored, and defended when their patriotism is attacked;

(2) In 2002, a Senator from Georgia who is a Vietnam veteran, triple amputee, and the recipient of a Silver Star and Bronze Star, had his courage and patriotism attacked in an advertisement in which he was visually linked to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein;

(3) This attack was aptly described by a Senator and Vietnam veteran as "reprehensible";

(4) In 2004, a Senator from Massachusetts who is a Vietnam veteran and the recipient of a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat V, and three Purple Hearts, was personally attacked and accused of dishonoring his country;

(5) This attack was aptly described by a Senator and Vietnam veteran as "dishonest and dishonorable."

(6) On September 10, 2007, an advertisement in The New York Times was an unwarranted personal attack on General Petraeus, who is honorably leading our Armed Forces in Iraq and carrying out the mission assigned to him by the President of the United States; and

(7) Such personal attacks on those with distinguished military service to our nation have become all too frequent.

(b) SENSE OF SENATE.--It is the sense of the Senate--

(1) to reaffirm its strong support for all of the men and women of the United States Armed Forces; and

(2) to strongly condemn all attacks on the honor, integrity, and patriotism of any individual who is serving or has served honorably in the United States Armed Forces, by any person or organization.

First, and years too late, the service of Max Cleland, John Kerry and other dissenting members of the Armed Forces is honored. Virtually no Republican ever stood to defend the heinous attacks on Cleland; only John McCain made even a slight effort to defend Kerry from the lies of the Swift Boaters. But of course, when their own guy is attacked, suddenly the Rs decide the crime demands the immediate action of the nation's highest legislative body.

(Anyone else smell the foul lingering aroma of the Shiavo debacle?)

So why not just vote against Cornryn and leave it at that? Why bother to offer an alternate amendment that also defended Petraeus, a military man who allowed himself to become a political pawn in Bush's desperate effort to save his failed war? Why not be take the bloggers' advice and simply not show up to vote? Let the GOP look exactly what they are: political grandstanders?

Because some of the Dems are finally wising up to how the game works. Every time they've tried to take the high road and keep out of these nasty little blame games the wingnuts pull, guys like Rove use that as an opportunity to beat them like a Mafia pistolwhipping. The Cornryn amendment was a booby trap of the worst kind, and to do nothing — or worse, to vote against it — would be to provide the righties with tons of ammo against every Democrat in the country.

Of course, it didn't help that MoveOn decided to run such a nasty ad before Petraeus even showed up on Capital Hill. Yes, his report was written by the White House; yes, he was going to read his script faithfully, good soldier that he is. But the man hadn't had his day in court, so to speak; MoveOn struck pre-emptively to paint him with the most scurrilous word to be used against any member of any military: betrayal.

They might as well have shown a picture of Benedict Arnold next to Petraeus in the ad. This ad was not their brightest move. MoveOn is a great organization, one of the most important agencies of democracy and grassroots activism in the country; they do not, however, walk on water. And this ad fully demonstrated their feet of stone. Did MoveOn think the right would just make squawking noises about the ad and leave it at that? Were they surprised to be subjected to two Senate votes? I'm thinking, no, but the outcome of that "notoriety" was not all bad. Here's the beginning of the email sent to MoveOn members following the vote:

Dear MoveOn member,

Yesterday, an amazing thing happened. After the Senate's shameful vote, and after President Bush called MoveOn "disgusting,"1 our email started to fill up with messages like this one:

I'm currently in Iraq. I do not agree with this war, and if I did support this war, it would not matter. You have the RIGHT to speak the truth. We KNOW that you support us. Thank you for speaking out for being our voice. We do not have a voice. We are overshooted by those who say that we soldiers do not support organizations like MoveOn. WE DO.

YOU ARE OUR voice.

And then came the donations. By midnight, over 12,000 people had donated $500,000 — more than we've raised any day this year — for our new ad calling out the Republicans who blocked adequate rest for troops headed back to Iraq.

The message from MoveOn members was loud and clear: Don't back down. Take the fight back to the issues that matter.

Half-a-million in one day. Wow. I gotta get in on this: "Hey, that colonel on the news the other night, he's so incompetent he's gotta be a traitor!" That should net me at least fifty thou after the Senate gets done with me.

But once the GOP decided this was one of the very rare opportunities they've had lately to return to the glory days of Rovian lies and reality-creation, the Dems had two choices. Sadly, a bunch of them made the wrong choice; some through habit (Baucus, MT), fear of the bad Republicans making them look like wimps again (Baucus, MT) or inexperience with the shit machine that was being cranked up (Tester, MT). Barbara Boxer, the Senate's finest woman and the one who I wish was Majority Leader, was not about to fall for the tricks — nor was she going to sit back and let the wingnuts' tactics work unchallenged.

But how do you avoid being shown supporting those who called a U.S. Army general a traitor while standing up for free speech and not kowtowing to the fearmongers of the right? So far, not many people have figured that one out. Democrats have a special knack for getting these kind of conundrums exactly wrong. John Kerry was clueless in 2004, as had been the Gore campaign (of course, there is little of importance on which Terry McAuliffe is not clueless), Dukakis in 1988, and all the Democratic Congressional leaders in the lost years following 1980.

But Sen Boxer is a sharp cookie. She's also one of the Senate's leading liberals; this amendment coming from her was not only surprising, it made the strategy even more effective. Democrats needed to insulate themselves from the trap the Rs were setting for them, not try to avoid it. And Boxer's amendment did just that.

The fifty Senators who voted for the Boxer amendment — that included independent Bernie Sanders, lone Republican Arlen Specter and, surprisingly, quasi-Republican Joe Lieberman — did not merely say that the attack on Petraeus was wrong, they also condemned the attacks on Max Cleland and John Kerry. The literal meaning of the Boxer amendment was not that MoveOn (who were not mentioned by name) was wrong but that attacking the patriotism of any member or former member of the armed forces for political purposes is wrong. And while cleary that's what the Republican campaign attacks on Cleland and Kerry were, so was the MoveOn ad. They were trying to frame the coming event in the Senate, which was not a search for truth — no one paying the least bit of attention to the whole thing could have been that naive — but a battle to set the political stage for how the debate on the war would proceed. MoveOn wanted to undermine Gen Petraeus's appearance before the Senate for political ends. And 50 U.S. Senators said, No.

Which means 46 Republican Senators (Russ Feingold voted against both amendments) voted that attacking the military service and patriotism of Max Cleland and John Kerry was something they were cool with. Rather than spend energy attacking the Democrats who voted that that was indeed wrong, the left wing bloggers should be taking that one to the bank. Get the message out that 45 Republican Senators — and of course that means Gordon Smith, cowardly opportunistic party hack that he is — approve of political attacks on a man who gave three of his limbs in Vietnam. A relentless Fox-style repetition of that message might finally get across to Americans who are fed up with the daily slaughter of our troops in a senseless war that the people pushing the war just don't give a damn about patriotism or service — just their political power and ideology.

I hope the likes of Jane Hamsher take up this refrain, but I also hope they pay attention to what is gained by Democrats like Barack Obama who voted for the Boxer amendment. The Republicans cannot attack him for refusing to defend an "heroic" Army general; Sen Obama did indeed vote to condemn the attack on Petraeus "Oh, and I also voted to condemn attacks on any American serviceman or woman — all such attacks are wrong, and that's what I said with my vote." (Not Obama's, words, just my donation to his speechwriter's stash of really good stuff.) No, nothing can stop the right wing noise machine from making up whatever nasty shit they want, but this is one bit of ammo the GOP nominee cannot drag out in a Presidential debate.

At the same time, Obama, by leaving the building almost immediately after his vote on Boxer, has no record — and by "no" I mean neither Nay or Yay, which are the poison pills — to be used against him regarding Cornryn. He had already condemned the attack on Petraeus; did he really have to repeat himself? Especially when the Cornryn amendment included language implying that the MoveOn ad was an attack on the grunts — a total lie. Obama played no part in that. Had he voted No on Cornryn, he would have given them a Kerryesque "I voted for it before I voted against it" moment, of the kind that proved so harmful in 2004.

And further, Obama's vote "against" MoveOn is muted to the point of irrelevance. He voted to condemn a specific type of speech — attacking a soldier's patriotism for political purposes. And given the respect he readily acknowledges for those with the willingness to live out their beliefs by serving in the military, I think Obama meant that vote. He no doubt cherishes MoveOn's role in democracy and will probably try to make nice with Eli and the rest at some point, but the ad represents the kind of politics he has spent his political career opposing. His vote on Boxer was perfectly consistent with his brand of non-adversarial politics.

There was no good approach to these votes. Russ Feingold can vote any damn way he wants because he's not running for president and has a safe seat in the Senate. That's the same reason outliers like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul can run for president and not worry about losing their seats in Congress. Barack Obama doesn't have that luxury, nor do many other Dems. It's taken years of corruption in the White House and Congress, not to mention a horrific war and Katrina, to bring a mere four-to-six Republican Senators into danger. Democrats can become endangered in a matter of months, thanks to the way the conservative owned-and-operated mainstream media functions. There may be a lot of political scheming going on in things like the Boxer amendment, but the alternative is to go down in flames and let the foxes retake control of the henhouse.

For years now, liberals and progressives have been bemoaning the inability of Democrats to match the political skills of people like Atwater and Rove. We don't want to use their main tactics — propaganda, lies, fear, etc — we just want to be as smart, as resourceful, as aware of both opportunity and danger. And on the day that Barbara Boxer was all that, she and those for whom her amendment worked so well are attacked by the same people who would be pillorying her down the road when a standalone Cornryn vote was used to eviscerate Democrats. We could ask Harry Reid to treat the Senate as callously as Tom Delay did the House and not let the Republicans bring forward these kinds of political stunts, but that kind of control of what is meant to be our greatest deliberative body should be repellant to any lover of democracy. So we have to live with what that means: hacks like Cornryn can use the Senate to try to score political points by pretending to defend Gen Petraeus.

I am just glad some Democrats with the foresight, smarts and guts were able to one-up the wingnuts on this. It makes a nice change from being their doormat.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    For years now, liberals and progressives have been bemoaning the inability of Democrats to match the political skills of people like Atwater and Rove.

    Other than subscribing to such abysmal credos as "Winning is the only thing" and "The end justifies the means" I can't imagine why any liberal or progressive would want to emulate the morally bankrupt political skills of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. They increased the level of putrescence in an already foul political sewer and betrayed any American aspiring to end the divisiveness in this nation and bring liberty and justice for all. Rove greased the wheels of the machine that got the United States into this Iraq disaster. James Carville and Paul Begala (Democrats but not necessarily liberals or progressives) would no doubt like to have Rove's power and influence, but despite my negative opinions of these pundits I would hope they would temper their advice to would-be presidents with some small degree of ethics and morality that was totally absent in Atwater and Rove. On the other hand, I wouldn't bet on Carville or Begala to do what is right.

    PS: Cornryn should be Cornyn

  • LT (unverified)

    "Virtually no Republican ever stood to defend the heinous attacks on Cleland; "

    Gee that news report I read some years ago must be wrong then---that Chuck Hagel went to the RNC or the Republican campaign comm. or whatever and said they would take down the ad or he would run his own ad saying he was ashamed of his party. The news report said after that the ad was re-edited to take out the Osama pictures.

    What evidence is there that news report was wrong?

  • Harry (unverified)

    I agree that the Boxer amendment is much better, on a number of accounts. Good for her to call a spade a spade and tell it like it is, even if belatedly.

    But this last sentence caught me by surprise: "But of course, when their own guy is attacked, suddenly the Rs decide the crime demands the immediate action of the nation's highest legislative body."


    When you say "their own guy" do you mean that Gen. Petraeus is their (Republican's) guy? I thought that he was a military man, niether Dem or Rep.

    Would the General consider himself "their guy"?
    Would the majority (unanimous??) of the Senators who voted to confirm his appointment say he is "their guy"? Would Stormin Norman be considered a "republican's guy" even if the President who appointed him was a Dem?

    Does one become "their guy" by virture of one's belief's? ...or by the party label attached to the President who appoints him to his (or her) most recent position?

    How does one become "their guy"?

    Or is that just a label arbitrarily stuck on the General only by the author of this post?

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)

    I agree with Mr. Barnhart that MoveOn shouldn't have run the "betray-us" ad, and should at least have the decency to apologize about it now. No matter how mad America is with Bush and the Republicans, this country will not elect a McGovern as President.

    Which brings me to my disagreement with Mr. Barnhart: Barbara Boxer. Contrary to his laudatory words, she is an awful Senator, who has been elected and re-elected in California only due to the utter ineptness of the Golden State Republican Party. Majority leader? Barf me out! This resolution is the first bit of political savvy I have ever seen the far-left Ms. Boxer show in the Senate.

    If you are going to laud a female Democratic Senator from California, there is another one of them who leaves Barbara Boxer in the dust.

  • LT (unverified)

    "this country will not elect a McGovern as President."

    You mean they won't elect a war hero whose politics they dislike? Read THE WILD BLUE by Steven Ambrose.

    If you don't like McGovern's politics, say so specifically. But this is a topic about respecting the service of those who served in combat. That does include McGovern even if there has been a generation of GOP operatives (most of them not combat vets) trying to portray the man who flew B-24s in Europe during WWII as somehow less than patriotic.

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    UPO, huh?

    You seem to be confusing Boxer, who is a good Senator, with Feinstein who is a borderline DINO Senator.

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    lestatdelc, UPO is not confusing them. UPO's trashing Boxer for being too leftist, which ipso facto makes her bad, apparently. Idiotic position, since Boxer does keep getting elected. But not surprising coming from a centrist holier than though purist.

    t.a., come on, not only lefties in the D.P. are holier-than-thou or purists.

    In point of fact MoveOn did not call Petraeus Betray-Us. The headline had a question mark. They asked a question about whether he was betraying us by painting a falsely positive picture of the success of his surge strategy. It was widely known and reported what he would say, and he said it.

    As a MoveOn member I wish they'd chosen a different headline mainly because it didn't actually reflect the main content of the ad -- it was a sophomoric cheap shot based on a pseudo-pun that singled out one man. But I think the question of whether the WAR is betraying us, and the policy of protracting it indefinitely is betraying us, is perfectly legitimate, and one I am inclined to answer in the affirmative. The organization may owe General Petraeus an apology for making him a scapegoat by singling him out.

    I am not actually sure about what I think about General Petraeus' honor in this situation -- he strikes me as being rather like Colin Powell at the U.N. He may not have betrayed us, but I wonder if he betrayed himself to play the good soldier?

    Military people are not all honorable just because they're military. That's why they have dishonorable discharges.

    The senior officer corps in Iraq in particular seem to me to have acted rather dishonorably around Abu Ghraib torture, by protecting the senior officers who were responsible and falsely placing the blame only on low level soldiers, by restricting the scope of General Taguba's investigation, and then by prematurely ending General Taguba's career because he told the truth about what he was allowed to investigate. Likewise they acted dishonorably in covering up a number of similar situations at other prisons.

    I am not sure where if anywhere General Petraeus may have fit in that picture.

    I think the ad was misdirected in one other key sense: the real problem here is that the congressional Democrats left the evaluation of the success of General Petraeus to him, rather than seeking an independent assessment. They betrayed themselves and us by putting General Petraeus in the situation of conflict of interest he was in.

  • dartagnan (unverified)

    The MoveOn Petraeus/Betray Us ad was stupid and shameful. I think the best thing we can do now is shut up about it and (so to speak) move on. As long as we keep talking about it the rat-wingers will try to score political points with it. Let the story die.

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    A 72 hour media gift to the Republicans and Chris Matthews got an endless pro/con topic.

  • DanS (unverified)

    dartagnan is one of the few on the left that understands the reality of what has just happened.

    The left, and the Democratic party (not the same thing), had a chance to stick up for the military and bury MoveOn's blunder and chose not to. MoveOn will cost the Democrats the Presidency. Netroots does not have much of an impact on the election. Any wonder why most of the MoveOn & Blue Oregon lefties rank Hillary 3rd, 4th or 5th, yet she leads in polls? The nutroots (you) are out of touch. The MoveOn NY Times add just lays it bare.

    The troops (who actually do vote) and the public will not forget this ad.

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    "The public" won't remember it.

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    Tell you what, DanS, you might or might not be right, but trashing "lefties" isn't going to help matters. This conversation has given me another reason to think the MoveOn headline was stupid, which is that it has created another opening for that kind of attack among Democrats.

    The reason I'm going to try to get more active in DP politics this year is to have more of a voice, and a claim to that voice that will be recognized by other people doing work because I'm pitching in. I'm going to see how it goes and try to be patient about mindless ideological attacks in the DLC tradition like this or t.a.'s "purist" crack -- I say again that centrists can be as holier-than-thou as anyone else, as your post illustrates.

    On the whole, t.a.'s post doesn't have that character, btw. Although I don't exactly agree with it, it seems like a reasonable part of reasonable discussion among a grouping with a range of views, and it has given me things to think about that are worth thinking about.

    But what I'm not going to be doing this cycle is working so I can to be told to shut up about values I hold deeply. I don't expect my views to always be the ones adopted, but I do expect them to be treated with something more than contempt, and I will try as hard as I can to get the ones of greatest importance to me accepted.

    If it turns out that being told to shut up is in fact the price of admission, the cost of that centrist purism will my enthusiasm, & I expect that of many other folks who are very angry just now.

    Please note I'm not saying "do what I want or I'll take my glove and go home" -- to repeat, I don't expect my views always or immediately to be adopted. But if you want me as an ally, treat me like you do.

    Democratic centrist purists and self-proclaimed pragmatists shouldn't be surprised if trashing people for their values and ideas on a regular basis, or to put it another way, being pragmatic towards everyone but those to the left of them in their own party, ends up weakening the commitment of those being trashed. It's just human nature.

  • East Bank Thom (unverified)

    My hunch is that a "Senator Merkley" would have voted for the Resolution but issued a signing statement, err... i mean given a floor speech supporting the sentiment MoveOn tried (and failed) to convey.

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    Very lame demagogic attempt to smear Merkley, EBT.

    Signing statements have taken on the force of law, as we all know. And of course Senators don't make "signing statements" anyway. Floor speeches for or against nonbinding resolutions are an animal of a very, very different color. Trying to insinuate that they are similar not only insults the intelligence of the readers but calls your own ethics into question.

    If your favorite candidate is so great then why do you feel compelled to demagogue an issue? Can't he stand on his own merits?

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)

    Yes, George McGovern was a war hero. He is also a very sincere, dedicated man.

    Unfortunately for him, his politics made him unelectable, and would make any similar MoveOn darling of today unelectable. His political extremism is perhaps best exemplified by two events at the bookends of his career: 1) his support of Henry Wallace for President in 1948, and 2) his advocacy of a 100% tax on incomes above a certain level in his 1972 campaign.

    I repeat, just because America is mad at Bush doesn't mean America will elect the George McGovern of today as President.

    If Dianne Feinstein is a DINO, then the Democratic party is doomed. She is, in fact, right in the mainstream of today's party. That is, unless the MoveOn gang redefines the party just as the right wing crazies in the Republican party have redefined themselves out of a Congressional majority and probably out of the Presidency.

    The parallels between MoveOn and the organizations that destroyed today's Republican party are just too eerie for words.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    When you say "their own guy" do you mean that Gen. Petraeus is their (Republican's) guy? I thought that he was a military man, niether Dem or Rep.

    Would the General consider himself "their guy"?

    An oped article in one of the major newspapers on the East Coast over Petraeus's name got him some criticism for dabbling in politics. Whether he wrote it or some staffer at the White House did is an open question.

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    Posted by: DanS | Sep 26, 2007 8:31:04 AM dartagnan is one of the few on the left that understands the reality of what has just happened. The left, and the Democratic party (not the same thing), had a chance to stick up for the military and bury MoveOn's blunder and chose not to. MoveOn will cost the Democrats the Presidency


    The MoveOn ad will also kill kittens and cause mutants to eat babies, real live babies!!!

    doom... Doom... DOOM I tell you!!!

    Nobody outside of the D.C. punditry and the Fright-Wing propaganda catapult crew gives a rat's ass about a MoveOn ad (which BTW basically says what over %6% of the public thinks about the veracity of the "Petraus" report being truthful) much less that it will "cost Democrats" the presidency in an election over a year from now.

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    stephanie, you are half-right, which is why i wrote this. the public has probably already forgotten this (didn't Britney get busted or something?). but the GOP hacks have shit like this stored up for future use. and as i said, it's the kind of thing they'd drag out for a presidential debate or a hit ad of their own. i think Obama is sanitized on this (i guess Hillary is, too, or would have been if she hadn't shot off her mouth more on it).

    what's pathetic to me is how left bloggers are castigating Obama and Edwards (and Hillary) for kowtowing to the wingnuts. that's not what happened, but then again, as long as the Congress fails to end this war, everything they do will be bad in these people's eyes (and probably mine, if they fail to end the war -- and time is running out). but they are fighting the wrong battle here. attacking our own is stupid, but Kos insists on pointing out the Dems who are against us -- as if there is a single right vote. yet another circular firing squad.

    and i still think MoveOn is going to be a key player in getting a Dem in the White House.

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    which BTW basically says what over %6% of the public thinks about the veracity of the "Petraus" report being truthful

    Should read:

    which BTW basically says what over 56% of the public thinks about the veracity of the "Petraus" report being truthful
  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    If Dianne Feinstein is a DINO, then the Democratic party is doomed. She is, in fact, right in the mainstream of today's party.

    <h2>Feinstein's votes and actions are class based. She considered Colin Powell's lies on behalf of his masters in the Bush Administration to have been a compelling case. Feinstein could only have come to this conclusion from paying more attention to his image and position in the power elite than to facts made public by Hans Blix, Scott Ritter and others with direct and long experience in Iraq. They made cogent arguments against Powell's charade and have since been proven right. Feinstein ignored them and voted to give Bush authority to go to war. If she's in the mainstream of the Democratic Party that is another reason for those of us who are non-aligned or independent to remain so.</h2>

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