The New York Times

Can Lobbyists Stop The War?

The New York Times — Sunday, September 9, 2007


One weekday morning in mid-July, perhaps two dozen liberal organizers gathered around a conference table in an office building on Washington's K Street. Their mission: American withdrawal from Iraq. In one sense, the location was unlikely; K Street is a symbolic address, like Madison Avenue or Fleet Street, in this case representing the capital's thriving industry of trade associations and corporate lobbyists. Yet this was a group of mostly young progressives drawing meager salaries who had no ties to corporate America. Still, the venue was not inappropriate. Those arranged around the table represented the new face of the antiwar movement – now one of Washington's most vigorous single-issue lobbies.

The purpose of the meeting was the daily conference call conducted by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a coalition of activists, policy outfits and labor unions brought together this year by, the 3.4-million-member-strong liberal advocacy group, which was convinced that Democrats on Capitol Hill needed help to end the war. By the end of this month, Americans Against Escalation will have spent $12 million on a combination of grass-roots organizing, polling and television advertisements in order to get the United States out of Iraq.

Tom Matzzie, the group's campaign manager, was in charge. Only 32 years old, Matzzie is a rising star of the resurgent progressive movement. Neither bohemian nor slick technocrat, Matzzie is an Italian-American who grew up in Mount Lebanon, a middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh. Apart from his attire – on this day, a pink dress shirt and pin-striped suit pants – he wouldn't seem out of place at a Steelers tailgate party; he's heavyset, bearded and his terse speech can have a gruff edge. He is also a sharp political analyst with a gift for spin and broad strategic thought. When I first met him he illustrated his idea of how to force Republicans to end the war by sketching into my notebook a diagram of something called Bernoulli's principle, which describes the relationship between pressure and speed in the movement of fluids.

An A.A.E.I. staff member began the conference call, which connects the group with advisors and activists around town and around the country, by summarizing the morning's key war-related headlines. A suicide bombing in Kirkuk that left 85 people dead drew an audible sigh from somewhere in the room. Then the conversation moved to the war votes scheduled in the Senate that day, including an amendment to a military spending bill sponsored by John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, resolving that America won't allow Iraq to become a failed state and a haven for terrorists.

"We'd better make sure they get less than 50 votes, gang," said Robert Creamer, a longtime organizer on behalf of progressive causes.

"It's the R.N.C.'s talking points," Matzzie added, describing the Cornyn amendment. "I called over there and said, 'You guys better have a strategy on this.' " By "there," Matzzie meant the offices of Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, with which he or his staff communicates on a near-daily basis; Matzzie has personal relationships with several senior Democratic members of Congress.

Next, someone raised the name of Jim Walsh, a Republican congressman from New York, arguing that A.A.E.I. should inflict more political pain on him for his refusal to support timelines for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "We should see if we can make him a poster child," the staff member said.

"O.K.," Matzzie replied. "I'll see if I can drum up some money for that."

Then someone else chimed in with a report from a moderate Republican congressman who had recently visited the White House to appeal for a change of course in the war: "He said he's met with Bush. He pointed to his black leather chair and said, 'It's like talking to the chair and asking the leather to come off.' "

While some antiwar groups have castigated Democrats for not pushing more boldly to end the war – as has A.A.E.I. at times – Matzzie's strategy of late stresses Democratic unity and driving a wedge between Republicans and President Bush. This was the thinking behind A.A.E.I.'s "Iraq Summer," a three-month campaign that focused on 40 Republicans in Congress in more than a dozen states, including prominent senators like the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, about whom A.A.E.I. ran television ads saying he had voted 15 times to support "Bush's war." As long as George Bush has a willingness to wield vetoes and stubborn allies in Congress to uphold them, Matzzie reasons, no legislation will get America out of Iraq. The war will only end, Matzzie told me, if a group of Republicans "walks down to the White House and says, 'You have got to get us out of this mess.' "

That's what Matzzie and his colleagues are hoping will happen in the coming weeks, when Congress and the White House face off over the war. Later this week the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and the United States ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, are expected to testify before Congress on political and military progress in Iraq since Bush decided in January to send more than 20,000 additional troops there in what has come to be called the surge. After hearing from Petraeus and Crocker, Democrats in Congress may try to legislate timelines for the withdrawal of American troops, something Bush has promised to veto. As the White House shifts its public-relations machine into high gear to sustain a heavy troop presence into at least next year, A.A.E.I. sees itself as the most important opposition to that plan. Hence the group spent the summer furiously trying to spin the national media in order to shape what Matzzie calls "the narrative" about the troop surge, and last week it began running more than a million dollars' worth of television ads pressuring Republicans to abandon Bush and his effort to keep fighting the war. In a sign that this work is not going unnoticed, the Republican National Committee recently issued a press release depicting A.A.E.I. as a radical left-wing cartel "advocating surrender in Iraq."

The playbook for opposing a war has changed markedly since the street-protest ethos of the anti-Vietnam movement. Tie-dyed shirts and flowers have been replaced by oxfords and BlackBerries. Politicians are as likely to be lobbied politely as berated. And instead of a freewheeling circus managed from college campuses and coffee houses, the new antiwar movement is a multimillion-dollar operation run by media-savvy professionals. "They are to the left what the N.R.A. is to the right," says a Democratic strategist with close ties to the party's congressional leadership. "They're very effective in turning up the volume and demanding a response."

Matzzie put it this way to me: "Last time [it] was done in the streets. People were concerned about civil society breaking down. You have to play in politics, which is something we do very explicitly."

Americans Against Escalation in Iraq was founded last winter. Democrats had won back Congress but, contrary to many liberals' assumptions that the war would end soon thereafter, President Bush responded with a plan to send even more troops to Iraq. Wes Boyd, the Berkeley-based millionaire who co-founded MoveOn, and Matzzie, who is its Washington director, were frustrated. "We realized we needed a big campaign on the war because there was this mandate out of the election, but the Democratic majorities were thin and they hadn't been united on the war, ever," Matzzie says.

Matzzie, who took undergraduate courses in peace studies at Notre Dame in the 1990s, joined MoveOn in 2005 after several years of working for liberal causes, including a stint as online mobilization director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and four months devoted to John Kerry's presidential bid as his director of online organizing. At MoveOn, Matzzie helped spearhead the opposition that stymied Bush's proposed reform of Social Security. Last year he worked on behalf of Ned Lamont, who was seeking to unseat the pro-war Democrat-turned-Independent senator of Connecticut, Joe Lieberman.

With Boyd's blessing, Matzzie convinced a large team of liberal activists to join Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a new antiwar coalition that would, in his words, require "the sort of effort that goes into a presidential campaign." The result is a kind of vast left-wing conspiracy. Matzzie convinced the Service Employees International Union to contribute its organizing power. Policy heft was provided by two liberal research firms: John Podesta's Center for American Progress and the National Security Network. The antiwar veterans group offered public surrogates with moral authority. Other member organizations like Campaign for America's Future, Americans United for Change and a pre-existing coalition called Win Without War brought influence with the progressive grass roots. Two public relations firms provided media savvy. Matzzie also hired the prominent Democratic pollsters, Stan Greenberg and his daughter Anna. Financing came mainly from the coffers of MoveOn, with support from S.E.I.U. and individual donors whose identities Matzzie will not disclose. (The group's name was meant to rebrand the surge as an "escalation," although Matzzie admits that, months later, the moniker has "become a point of confusion.")

Matzzie's job is to draw on poll data, expert opinion and his own political cunning (along with that of others) to devise tactics that, he hopes, will push Washington politicians into ending the war. Shaping media coverage is "a huge part of what we do. We're influencing the environment that the debate is taking place in." He went on to say: "We also now have a huge ability to drive a counterpoint to the Bush administration. When they're out there saying there's progress, we're able to say, 'Look, this is the bloodiest summer, more Americans have died this summer than any since the war began, and Iraqis are dying at nearly double the pace of last year.' That wasn't happening before. Someone would say something and maybe Jon Stewart would make fun of it, but we didn't have a counterpoint. We do now. And it's integrated across the media. It's mainstream press, it's blogs, it's YouTube, and it's national and local."

Matzzie cites the example of John McCain's walk through a Baghdad market in April, which the senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate presented afterward as evidence of greatly improved security conditions. "That's something we picked up on and turned into a big story," Matzzie says. "We grabbed the photos" – showing McCain surrounded by a heavy military escort – "and we sent them around and we made sure everyone saw it." Embarrassed by the publicity, McCain was later forced to hedge his claims.

Another more recent example is when Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the war czar for the White House, said one Friday in an interview on National Public Radio that he couldn't rule out the possibility of a future draft. One of Matzzie's deputies, a veteran Democratic campaign operative named Tara McGuinness, oversaw the quick creation of a video advertisement that night and warned her staff to be ready for an early conference call Saturday morning to make sure the press didn't miss it over a mid-August weekend. "It was kind of a random N.P.R. story that didn't get much pickup until we started screaming about it," McGuinness says.

A.A.E.I. doesn't work only through the media. Matzzie's team coordinates extensively with Democrats on Capitol Hill. Matzzie himself meets with Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, "maybe once a month," he says, adding that he talks to their staffs "once a day, or at least a couple times a week." (Senior Democratic aides sometimes even join A.A.E.I.'s conference calls.) This might entail discussions of political strategy or more substantive policy briefings by experts from A.A.E.I.'s member think tanks. Matzzie's BlackBerry was especially active this spring, when the new Democratic Congress had its first confrontation with Bush over the war's financing. The results, from A.A.E.I.'s perspective, were disappointing. After the White House, in February, requested about $100 billion for continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, staunch antiwar liberals in the House pushed back with a proposal for a total withdrawal of American troops by the end of the year. But Pelosi and Reid knew such a measure couldn't win a majority, or even a majority of Democrats. (Some liberals, along with conservatives, have genuine qualms about the moral and strategic implications of a sudden exit by the United States.) Instead, Pelosi, whose chamber acted first, embraced a plan to begin withdrawing troops in the summer of 2007, with a deadline of exiting Iraq by the end of summer in 2008.

Many war opponents found the bill unacceptable – they wanted the troops out now. A.A.E.I., which consults its member groups before taking public positions, at first remained neutral. But MoveOn publicly backed Pelosi and urged House liberals of the get-out-now persuasion to hold their tongues and support it, lest Pelosi suffer an embarrassing legislative defeat. Matzzie did his best to frame the debate, saying that even a protest vote against Pelosi's position was essentially "a vote for a war without end." Progressives who favored a tougher antiwar approach didn't appreciate this; some accused Matzzie of having been co-opted by the party leaders with whom he frequently rubs elbows.

Eventually, the timeline passed the House and Senate, barely, with the last-minute support of reluctant liberals. Bush then vetoed the bill and warned Congress to stop making "political statements" and send him a clean bill lest money run short for troop training and equipment. In the end, Bush got his way. With nowhere near the votes required to override his veto, and fearing that an extended battle with the White House might allow Bush to claim that funds for the troops had run out, Democrats ultimately approved his $100 billion request without timelines. The new Democratic Congress thus effectively enabled several more months of war. For many war opponents, this was precisely the blank check the Democrats had been elected to prevent.

This time, Matzzie and A.A.E.I. denounced the outcome. (Pelosi, who, in a rare move, voted against the final bill, was spared.) Still, some war opponents on Capitol Hill complained that, had Matzzie and MoveOn demanded Pelosi and others take a tougher position from the outset, they would have enjoyed a stronger negotiating position in the second round, after Bush's veto. Matzzie "could have been bolder," says Lynn Woolsey, a Democratic congresswoman from California and an ardent war opponent who has given more than 200 five-minute speeches in the House about the war, "and we would be at a different place now." But Matzzie, who insists that Democratic unity is critical to pressuring Republicans, told me that opposing the speaker's strategy would have been counterproductive. "That's not responsible," he says. "Pelosi is one of the strongest antiwar voices in Congress. We need to make her feel confident and emboldened, not under siege."

For some of A.A.E.I.'s older members, their work is the continuation of something bigger, a movement that began in the 1960s but was temporarily knocked off course. "I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," said a wiry, fast-talking New Yorker named Alan Charney. It was early June and Charney, the program director with the liberal grass-roots group USAction, was speaking onstage in a Baltimore auditorium at a training session for roughly 100 A.A.E.I. activists who would be dispatched across the country to stage rallies, protests and door-knocking campaigns against Republicans who back the war. "The moment we're in can change the course of American history," he said. "We can show that conservatives can never again be trusted to run the foreign policy of this nation." The very name "Iraq Summer," Charney told the assembled activists – nearly all of whom appeared to be under 30 – was intended to echo the "Vietnam Summer" of 1967, "and even hearkens back to the Freedom Summer in the South."

But while today's antiwar activists may draw inspiration from those times, they hardly seek to emulate the 1960s. Nor is that possible. There is no draft, taxes remain low and the economy has been fairly strong. For most Americans, the direct cost of the war amounts to a few more dollars at the gas pump. Nothing today compares to what Tom Hayden, the antiwar celebrity of the 60s, calls the "existential dread" of the draft.

A.A.E.I. is far more integrated into the political and media establishments than the hippies ever were. "They couldn't figure if they wanted to take their clothes off, smoke pot, burn the Capitol or end the war," Wiley Pearson, Matzzie's other deputy, says of the 1960s counterculture protesters. Pearson, who is 59, spent 22 years in the Marines before finding a second career promoting progressive causes. Matzzie says political and lifestyle radicalism was a gift to supporters of the Vietnam War that his allies will not give again. "Nixon's strategy was to demonize his opponents," Matzzie says. "Some of the politicians who are supporting the war want to be protested by fringe groups. We're not going to play that game – we're not going to let them off the hook. We're going to put their own constituents in their faces."

Even those encounters rarely get too brusque. On a recent mid-August morning, a group of A.A.E.I. activists converged on Seton Hill University, not far from Pittsburgh. Their mission was to confront the state's senior Republican senator, Arlen Specter, at a town hall forum. Though Specter often breaks with his party and has expressed frustration with the war, he has refused to support Democratic timelines for troop withdrawal. After arriving two hours early to get good seats, A.A.E.I. activists peppered an irritated-looking Specter with questions about Iraq. "When will you take a stand with our troops . . . against Bush and his endless war?" one asked, to hearty applause. Later, a man in his 20s who said that he had marched all the way from Chicago asked Specter why he was supporting "endless war." At the end, a woman handed Specter a giant check, made out to the United States Treasury, for $28.43 – raised from a bake sale to offset military costs.

But that was as radical as the protesters got. Specter said repeatedly that he would wait to hear from Petraeus and Crocker "and then make a judgment." From the activists' perspective, this wasn't terribly satisfying. But no one interrupted or demanded a follow-up question. After Specter finished, a young A.A.E.I. worker waited patiently for her turn to meet the senator. When she did, she didn't hector him. She politely invited him to an upcoming A.A.E.I. rally. Specter genially promised to consider it and had a friendly aide take down the details.

The Internet, not the street, not the campus, is the fundamental component of today's antiwar movement – a force for organizing, raising money and influencing politicians and the media via blogs and e-mail messages. Earlier this year, MoveOn even staged a "virtual march on Washington" in which participants' phone calls to Congress were aggregated on an online map of the country. When A.A.E.I. was trying to settle on its position on Pelosi's Iraq bill last March, it conducted an online poll of its members. But Leslie Cagan, a political organizer since the Vietnam War who is now national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice – a group unaffiliated with A.A.E.I. that has organized large antiwar marches – wonders if all that bandwidth exacts a steep price. "The Internet is a mixed blessing," Cagan says. "It's a tremendous asset in terms of getting the word out, announcing activities, everything from meetings to mass mobilization. I also think it has, in a way that history will tell when we have more distance, undermined a little the more traditional approach to organizing, where you go and knock on doors and talk to people. . . . People think, 'Oh, well, I've signed a petition online so I've done my bit.' So I think a lot of us as organizers have become a little sloppy. We haven't put enough attention into talking to our neighbors, talking on the shopping line."

Although A.A.E.I. says turnout at its events has been consistently high, the crowds aren't always there. In Biddeford, a town in southern Maine, I joined Matzzie for an A.A.E.I. rally that was meant to pressure the state's moderate Republican senator, Susan Collins, to support a timeline for getting the troops out of Iraq. The former mill town is home to many Catholic swing voters vital to Collins. "We're hitting her where it hurts to get her to change her mind," Matzzie told me. But only 35 or so people gathered in Biddeford that day, many of them senior citizens clearly not up for the hours of door-knocking that had been planned. "Doesn't look like the hearty canvass type," Matzzie conceded. Meanwhile, Biddeford's downtown was nearly empty. A local resident wearing a MoveOn T-shirt lamented that more people weren't in the streets. Gesturing to her husband, she said: "We feel like people are just at the mall. And we have to wake them up." The event did lead to a mention on the local CBS affiliate and a couple of tiny local newspaper articles, but that was all.

Earlier this summer, A.A.E.I. and senior members of Congress were among those who organized an antiwar vigil outside the Capitol. The event was meant to showcase Democratic unity, but before long some angry attendees began heckling the Democratic leaders onstage, including Pelosi and Reid, about Congress's approval in the spring of Bush's request to finance the war. "Stop the funding!" someone bellowed. "Stop giving them what they want!" One furious man caused such a scene that Democrats onstage privately discussed bringing the rally to an abrupt end. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan pleaded for calm, saying, "Tonight is a night to be united, not divided!" Matzzie, who'd been watching from the edge of the crowd, stepped forward and positioned his substantial frame between the loudest screamer and the stage, and eventually helped talk him down in a quiet voice.

The episode captured a basic friction within the antiwar movement: Are Democrats trying hard enough to end the war – and does applying pressure make them bolder, or does it simply anger and divide them? While A.A.E.I. is focused mostly on Republicans for now, others have taken another tack that has recently been on display outside Nancy Pelosi's red-brick house in San Francisco, where protesters staged a two-week hunger strike last month. They were members of Code Pink, a theatrical antiwar outfit with a mostly female membership known for turning up at committee hearings dressed from head to toe in pink (with the occasional plastic tiara) or storming congressional offices of Democrats and Republicans alike.

Code Pink, which is not an A.A.E.I. member, has an office in Pelosi's home town of San Francisco, also home to the group's co-founder, a longtime activist in her 50s named Medea Benjamin. However much they might loathe George Bush and the Republicans, activists like Benjamin are furious that Democrats haven't done more to end the war. Pelosi, Benjamin says, "should have come out swinging from the day she was named speaker and used the kind of talk we've been pushing, like, 'Funding the war is killing the troops.' And to show that if you really wanted to support the troops you would bring them home." Democratic leaders argue that their narrow majorities, which include several moderate members from conservative areas, limit their ability to pass more aggressive measures. So Benjamin and her allies want a different strategy altogether: they want Pelosi and Reid to use their power over the legislative agenda to deny Bush any additional financing for the war that does not mandate the removing of American forces from Iraq. "She has the power to put something on the floor or not put something on the floor," Benjamin says of Pelosi. "If George Bush vetoes a bill, she has the power to just not give him another one."

Matzzie, for his part, is far more interested in working with Democrats than against them. For that reason, A.A.E.I. has generally avoided getting involved in the Democratic presidential primaries. "It's an easy way to split the coalition," Matzzie says, and fracture "the unity we have in opposition to the Bush strategy." But Matzzie says groups in the A.A.E.I. coalition have, at times, encouraged their members to complain to Democratic candidates who go off-message about Iraq – for instance, when Barack Obama warned Democrats last spring not to "play chicken" with American troops in their showdown with President Bush over war financing, or when Hillary Rodham Clinton recently conceded that new tactics were working in some areas. "At key moments when people do unhelpful things, we let them know," Matzzie says.

Any such brush-back pitches are just part of A.A.E.I.'s intensive effort to win a public debate with the Bush administration and its supporters. Over the next several weeks the fate of the war will be contested campaign-style, particularly given the arrival of Freedom's Watch, an independent new group co-founded by the former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Freedom's Watch plans to run $15 million in advertisements in support of a continued American military presence in Iraq. Even before summer's end, Matzzie and company were working to undermine the credibility of an upbeat progress report from Petraeus, who appears to oppose a substantial drawdown of troops in Iraq. "Most of what we have to do will be done before he lands in Washington," Matzzie told me in late August. "We have to frame his statements before he makes them. He's not Saint Petraeus – he's General Petraeus."

That Petraeus was very much on A.A.E.I.'s radar was clear from another conference call I witnessed late last month. This time, Matzzie was running the show from a hotel room in Louisville – part of a three-state tour he was making to check up on his outfit's field operation. He was pleased to learn that A.A.E.I.'s operatives in Kentucky were hounding Mitch McConnell at his private residence, forcing him to slip in though a back door rather than confront the protesters outside. One participant told Matzzie that her team had caught McConnell waiting for an elevator and peppered the captive senator with questions. "You got that up on YouTube?" Matzzie asked. (Yes, they had.) But the main topic of conversation was a story in that day's Washington Post reporting that Petraeus had "softened" judgments in a recent White House National Intelligence Estimate to reflect improved conditions on the ground in Iraq. The operatives saw a chance to bash the White House for distorting intelligence and to depict Petraeus as a calculated spinner. "I'm gonna move it around like it's a big deal," said Brad Woodhouse, a progressive gadfly with Americans United for Change, an A.A.E.I. coalition member, who specializes in bombarding reporters with advocacy e-mails. "This administration has a history of hyping intelligence, distorting intelligence – "

"Cherry picking!" Matzzie chimed in.

"Cherry-picking intelligence! We may as well continue to knock down [Petraeus's] credibility as we move forward."

An hour later, a press release from Woodhouse arrived in my inbox: "Not Again?!" read the headline. "Petraeus Alters N.I.E. to Hype Progress."

Matzzie remains skeptical, however, that the next round of congressional votes, expected in late September, will begin to wind down the war. And Democrats point out that they are still far from mustering the two-thirds majorities needed to override vetoes. So while the White House and Republicans could well agree to a partial drawdown of troops by the end of this year to defuse short-term political pressure – Senator John Warner, the influential Republican from Virginia, last month proposed bringing some troops home by Christmas – that would still leave tens of thousands of American soldiers caught in a civil war in a Muslim nation, as Matzzie is well aware.

And so Matzzie intends to keep A.A.E.I. – or something like it, maybe under a new name – in business into 2008. To that end he recently hired a new fund-raiser, Shari Yost Gold, who held the same job in 2004 for America Coming Together, a liberal campaign organization that raised huge sums in the 2004 campaign cycle. For the last several months A.A.E.I. has been pressuring politicians to change their votes on the war. But if that doesn't yield results, Matzzie says, the goal becomes influencing voters directly, with an eye to the elections in 2008. "We're not going away," he told me. "At some point, when the legislative process breaks down completely, which seems more and more likely, this is just political, and this is about beating the people who keep the war going in the next election. Period."

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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