Anti-War Leaders Stymied, Frustrated
A well-known anti-war leader has gone public with the transcript of a private conference call that shows peace activists are exasperated with the Democratic congressional leadership and at a loss for a long-term strategy.
The Aug. 29 call highlights divisions in the Democratic Party that Republicans are gearing up to try to exploit as Congress debates its response to the report on Iraq this week by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
On Monday, the pair begins two days of testimony on Capitol Hill.
Republicans say the call reflects the degree to which war opponents have failed to gain the advantage that many in both parties thought would build over the summer.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine, posted the transcript Friday on the website of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, of which he is a co-chair.
The transcript shows that opponents of the war in Iraq plan to try to convince freshman Democrats from conservative districts that they might not get reelected unless the party produces something serious in the way of resistance to the war.
But the call shows the war opponents are having little success because of fears about the impact on next year's elections if the party is seen as defeatist.
The call, which Lerner titled "Strategizing With Leaders of the Anti-War Movement," included two sympathetic members of Congress and representatives of groups ranging from Code Pink to the Progressive Democrats of America.
Lerner - who is based in Berkeley, Calif., and is a leader of what he calls "the religious left" - told Politico in a phone interview on Sunday that he concluded from the call that the anti-war movement does not have a long-term strategy, even though the war "is going to continue through the end of President Bush's administration" and perhaps into the term of the next president.
"A central point that the spiritual progressives are trying to make to the secular progressives is this: People in the U.S. are opposed to the war, but they feel that they need to have a picture of what the world would look like if the U.S. were to withdraw from the world by leaving Iraq," Lerner said.
Lerner said he posted the transcript in an effort to convince war opponents that they need "some fundamentally new thinking."
"Right now, we could write the story of this Congress as 'Profiles in Cowardice,'" Lerner said. "There's a great deal of frustration with the Democrats in the Congress - a sense almost of betrayal.
The Democrats don't have - and even the people in the anti-war movement don't have - a coherent alternative world view from which to base a strategy. That's why they end up debating everything on the same terms that the Republicans do."
Lerner, 64, said he is on the Orthodox side of the Jewish Renewal Movement; he gained a measure of fame early in the Clinton administration when then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton quoted his phrase "politics of meaning" in speeches.
Lerner said the transcript was prepared by his staff and that he is certain it is accurate.
Republicans are circulating the link to the transcript and think it makes their case that opponents of the war in Iraq are losing ground. "This call shows the tables may have turned," said one Republican official.
"It shows the tightrope Democrats have to walk with an angry group of liberal organizers who are sensing defeat."
The transcript quotes Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, as saying: "The people that need to hear are the moderate Democrats who are holding up the whole thing.
They're the ones who have to know that their people care, that they [want to] bring our troops home. They swear they don't. They swear that they'll lose their elections if they do the right thing."
When one peace organizer talks about "peeling away Republican support for the war," Woolsey interjects: "Maybe you folks should go after the Democrats."
Chris Shields, Woolsey's press secretary, said in reply: "As a leader of the anti-war movement, the congresswoman is committed to working with outside groups, her colleagues in the House and her party's leadership to bring our troops home to their families in a safe and orderly manner."
During the call, Woolsey advises the activists: "Help people change the conversation from 'abandoning the troops' to funding orderly redeployment. I'm telling you, that's going to take six months to a year. ... Progressives know that whether we spend money on this or not is going to make the difference. That's all the House can really do, the budget part of it."
The activists express discontent with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). At one point, Woolsey, who represents Marin and Sonoma counties, is quoted as saying: "I believe that Nancy is with us, and she's counting on you guys ... and me to push from the left in the Congress."
Lerner, in the interview with Politico, was not sympathetic. "We're not that concerned about what's going on in her heart," he said. "We're trying to end the war, and in that, she does not seem to be very much with us, [she] is not willing to take any serious political risk."
Jennifer Crider, a Pelosi aide who is communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in response: "We understand their frustration. Democrats are frustrated more Republicans won't listen to their constituents and join our fight to end the war."
The other lawmaker on the call, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), defends Pelosi. "The speaker doesn't have the votes," he said. "If you see what has happened in the Democratic Caucus, I don't think you'd be quite as critical of the speaker. She really is trying. ... We cobbled together a majority by winning in a lot of seats that tend to be conservative: in the South, in the rural Midwest, and so on. These members are very much afraid that if they get too far out front, they're going to lose their seat, and they're being advised to not take risks so we can sustain this majority."
"You know, it's a calculated decision, and it's a difficult one," Moran added. "I think I know where Nancy is in her heart, and I think she is where we are. But she's in a leadership position now. She needs to represent more than her immediate constituency; she's got to represent the Democratic Party, and there's a whole lot of Democrats that are far more reluctant to challenge this president and to make waves."
Moran talks about finding cracks in Republican support. "Just as we have Democrats in conservative Republican seats, they've got more Republicans in what have become Democratic seats," he said.
"We've got to target them. They're going to have to choose between their loyalty to their constituency versus their president. Their president is on his way out, and when you talk to them privately, they share a lot more misgivings than they express publicly, and I think we need to tap into those misgivings."
Lerner said he plans to hold a similar call "after the congressional thing plays out - probably in the middle of October." He said he is debating whom to invite and is not sure it makes sense to include the members of Congress.
"They're trying to explain to us why they can't stop the stop the war," Lerner said. "I have tremendous respect for these people, and I don't mean to be sounding too negative about them. But I don't know if it would be that profitable to have a conversation with people who have this need to protect Nancy."
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