Texas Republican Louie Gohmert is famous on the Internet for saying we’d all be speaking Japanese or German if an anti-war Democrat like John Murtha had been in Congress during World War II. Murtha, a gruff ex-Marine who served in Korea and Vietnam, was on the House floor when Gohmert made his remark. Was the gentleman from Texas at Normandy, Vietnam, Murtha jabbed. The answer was no. What about Iraq? “I’ve been over there,” Gohmert replied, “but I wasn’t fighting.”
“Suits on the ground,” Murtha harrumphed.
The video clip of this exchange got a hundred thousand hits on YouTube at a time last year when the Republicans were calling Democrats terrorist-coddlers and defeatists. A more recent video of Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy calling for a moment of silence to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War—and to honor the 19 members of the 82nd Airborne unit he served in who didn’t make it home—has gotten 13,000 hits.
Thanks to technology, what goes on in the confines of Congress doesn’t have to stay in the chambers’ corridors. “There’s no more transparent moment than putting something on the Internet,” says Karina Newton, director of new media for Speaker Pelosi. It’s her job to glean the moments and put them out on YouTube, and what breaks through is sometimes a surprise. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank being heckled by Republicans and asking, “Does whining come out of my time,” drew nearly 50,000 hits. A 10-minute clip of bureaucratic jousting about what constitutes a power-point presentation attracted almost 100,000 viewers. “It’s where the message and the medium come together,” says Newton, echoing Marshall McLuhan, whose “the medium is the message” defined the television age.
Newton screened the video clips for an audience of political operatives on Capitol Hill Wednesday, as Congress moves into the next round of the war-funding standoff. The Democrats want the country to know they’re pushing back against a president who appears to be stubborn enough to stick with a failed policy in Iraq even if it means taking down his party with him. The ability to form a message out of the raw material of speeches and spin will ultimately determine the course of the war and who pays the price for whatever follows. Republican presidential candidates by and large are sticking with President Bush. They’re courting GOP primary voters, and two thirds of the base still backs Bush’s war plan—even though two thirds of the country now opposes the president on the war. “We look at this politically as a branding moment,” says Tom Matzzie, political director for MoveOn. “The Republicans are bleeding. The more the president opens his mouth, the worse it gets.”
Matzzie looks like someone who lives on bad food, caffeine and adrenaline, the mother’s milk of campaigns. He’s pumped that his side, the fractious Democrats, have discovered there is power in unity. Polling shows they’re winning points with the public. But as Democrats fashion a war-spending bill they can live with and Bush can sign, a handful of liberals will peel off, and Republicans will have to make up the difference. That process is underway, with Republicans facing re-election in ’08 talking up benchmarks as the magic formula that could win their vote for a compromise on war spending. The Democratic strategy is to ratchet up the pressure on Republicans by forcing them to take tough votes that isolate them from the voters. “It’s a political strategy to end the war rather than a policy strategy,” says Matzzie. “We want to keep the Republicans looking over their shoulders nervously.”
If enough Republicans defect, Bush will be forced to reassess. Matzzie’s target list begins with the 17 Republicans in the House who voted with the Democrats in February for a nonbinding resolution of no confidence in the president’s surge policy. Then there’s what he calls the “party before country” caucus—another 25 Republicans, like Connecticut Republican Chris Shays, who are on the record lamenting the war but still sticking with Bush. Lastly, there are those Matzzie has dubbed “squealers.” They’re Republicans like Ohio’s Deborah Pryce and Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach who barely survived in ’06 and whom Matzzie expects will soon be squealing to their party about their plight.
Part Two of the Democrats’ strategy: seize Republican constituencies like veterans and military families, whose support of the GOP is weakening because of the failures in Iraq. “The idea that this group is up for grabs is like evangelicals being up for grabs,” says Matzzie. There’s been a 20-point shift from the Republicans to the Democrats since 2004, and retired generals speaking out have become a regular feature of the anti-war movement. In a phone call with reporters Thursday, Brig. Gen. John H. Johns disputed Bush’s contention that the standoff in Washington was hurting the troops’ morale. “Soldiers fight for their buddies and the unit; they don’t philosophize,” he said. “There are times when you need to educate the public and undermine the lockstep saluting of a failed policy.” The question now is whether the Democrats can stay in lockstep in pressuring Bush in the next phase of the political war over the war.