With New Clout, Antiwar Groups Push Democrats
WASHINGTON, May 4 - Every morning, representatives from a cluster of antiwar groups gather for a conference call with Democratic leadership staff members in the House and the Senate.
Shortly after, in a cramped meeting room here, they convene for a call with organizers across the country. They hash out plans for rallies. They sketch out talking points for "rapid response" news conferences. They discuss polls they have conducted in several dozen crucial Congressional districts and states across the country.
Over the last four months, the Iraq deliberations in Congress have lurched from a purely symbolic resolution rebuking the president's strategy to timetables for the withdrawal of American troops. Behind the scenes, an elaborate political operation, organized by a coalition of antiwar groups and fine-tuned to wrestle members of Congress into place one by one, has helped nudge the debate forward.
But there are tensions in the relationship between the groups, which banded together earlier this year under the umbrella of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, and the Democratic leadership. The fissures could be magnified in coming weeks as the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, struggle to cobble together a strategy after President Bush's veto of the $124 billion Iraq spending bill that tied the money to a timetable for withdrawal.
On Thursday, leaders of the liberal group MoveOn.org, including Tom Matzzie, the group's Washington director who also serves as the campaign manager for the coalition, sent a harshly worded warning to the Democratic leadership.
"In the past few days, we have seen what appear to be trial balloons signaling a significant weakening of the Democratic position," the letter read. "On this, we want to be perfectly clear: if Democrats appear to capitulate to Bush - passing a bill without measures to end the war - the unity Democrats have enjoyed and Democratic leadership has so expertly built, will immediately disappear."
The letter went on to say that if Democrats passed a bill "without a timeline and with all five months of funding," they would essentially be endorsing a "war without end." MoveOn, it said, "will move to a position of opposition."
The antiwar coalition combines the online mobilization capabilities of MoveOn with the old-school political muscle of organized labor. They have been working in tandem with Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate on a systematic strategy to unify Democrats, divide Republicans and isolate the president.
The alliance, including MoveOn, chose to stick with Ms. Pelosi as she ushered through a war financing bill that included a timeline for withdrawal, but many peace advocates called the measure too timid. Some critics accused the alliance of becoming too cozy with the Democratic leadership and selling out the cause.
"There's a dividing line between those groups who feel the most important thing is to be clear on bringing the troops home as soon as possible, and the groups that feel that unity within the Democratic Party is most important and the most important thing is for the Democrats to win the White House," said Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, an antiwar group that is not part of the alliance. "So the groups who feel the most important thing is to win the White House would naturally be more inclined to listening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she says the only way we can get a vote through is if we water it down."
Many of the major players in Americans Against Escalation in Iraq earned their stripes not from sit-ins, marches and other acts of civil disobedience but as Democratic operatives on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns. The sophisticated political operation they have built is a testament to how far the antiwar movement has come since the Vietnam era.
But Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and the national director of Win Without War, a member of the coalition, said there existed a "healthy tension" between working closely with Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, many of whom were former colleagues and friends, and continuing to prod them to end the war.
"Our constituency is the people across this country who want to shut this war down," Mr. Andrews said. "It's not the Democratic Party."
Mr. Matzzie underscored the coalition's approach to a roomful of members on Thursday at the outset of a planning retreat at the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union here.
"The principle under which we've been operating is more like a political campaign," Mr. Matzzie said. "The central strategy is creating that toxic environment for people who want to continue this debacle."
The discussion at the retreat mirrored that of planning meetings for traditional political campaigns, with presentations on polling, strategy and field operations.
"It's no different than if you went over to the offices of Clinton for President, Obama for President, Giuliani for President," said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, which has roots in organized labor and came out of the legislative battle over social security in 2005.
The coalition, which has raised $7.1 million since January, has concentrated its activities on 57 House districts and senators in nine states, places where they believe Republican lawmakers face tough races in 2008 or have shown signs of wavering in their support for the president.
The service employees' union has mobilized its phone bank in New York City and asked local leaders to call members of Congress. Leaders of the union, long closely allied with liberal lawmakers, helped assuage many progressives who were uneasy about voting for the war-financing bill, fearing criticism from the left.
The National Security Network, a collection of liberal-leaning military and foreign policy experts headed by Rand Beers, former national security adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry, has deployed former generals and officials to persuade individual lawmakers.
The coalition's influence comes from its connections on Capitol Hill and political shrewdness, as well as its grass-roots reach. "The whole movement has updated themselves to be where campaign-style politics are generally," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist. "They're just incredibly savvy, tactically and politically. They know how to use the news cycle."
Most important for lawmakers, said Mr. Andrews, the former congressman from Maine, the coalition members are committed to using their resources to changing the political climate in their districts, which gives them credibility on Capitol Hill.
"We want members of Congress to do the right thing and do very well as a result," he said. "We're not just there asking them to do the right thing without fully recognizing the task we have on hand."
Rodell Mollineau, a spokesman for Mr. Reid's office, said the coalition amplifies what Democrats are trying to do in Washington to end the war.
"It helps us reverberate a unified message outside the Beltway," he said. "These groups give voice to a message we're trying to get outside."
One of the coalition's strengths is its diversity, bringing to together groups like MoveOn.org and organized labor on one end and former Iraq veterans in the group Votevets.org on the other, members said. But that diversity can also create some tense moments, as each of the groups have different constituencies and some of the groups are more invested in the Democratic Party than others.
But the organizations came together based on a sense of pragmatism, said Mr. Woodhouse, of Americans United for Change, "that we're better fighting together than fighting apart."
After the president's veto this week, the coalition organized 358 rallies and more than 20 news conferences across the country. Organizers had met with leadership staff members the week before to coordinate.
On Friday, in a daily conference call, Tara McGuinness, the coalition's deputy campaign manager, told members that leadership aides had expressed gratitude for the work, saying it had helped bolster members of their caucus.
Ms. McGuiness also told them that she had received assurances from leadership staff members that all options were still being considered for the new version of the war spending bill.
"The latest word from them is they are talking more and more about a short-leash option," she said, referring to a plan in the House that would finance the war for only about three more months and require the administration to report back on progress being made by the Iraqi government. Congress would then vote again on the rest of the money requested by Mr. Bush.
Members of the Senate appear to be cool to the idea, but it has currency among some liberal advocates and members of the coalition.
Mr. Matzzie, of MoveOn, was clear about the stakes in the coming weeks, saying his group was only getting started. He emphasized that the next emergency spending bill must be one "to end the war."
"This is act one of a three-act play," he said. "Act two will be the summer. During the summer, our job is to create a firestorm of opposition."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company