Against the history of great American protests, 800 people howling like a pack of hyenas in a university gathering hall doesn’t stack up to King’s March on Washington or mid-May 1970, when 100,000 strangers pounded on Washington’s doorstep demanding an end to the Vietnam War. But in a content Midwestern city that hasn’t had a crisis of conflict since Gerald Ford was in office, a place that’s also home to an increasingly unpopular Senate Minority Leader tied inextricably to the latest war disaster, it doesn’t have to.
The crush of people collectively publicizing their opposition to the Iraq war at Bellarmine University last Tuesday evening provided the most direct statement this city has made on the issue to date. A scene normally reserved for the most dedicated among them — the flower-sniffing hippie archetype that Republicans (at least in the case of this war) love to flog publicly — the number of avowed, placard-waving Catholics Against the War there alone should have tipped anyone off to the broader significance of the quiet suddenly becoming the loud.
It was the country’s largest single gathering on a night full of them, the culmination of a 10-week, highly coordinated national campaign trying to force Congress to initiate a change in White House war policy. Forty-nine other “Take a Stand” rallies took place that evening, a combined gathering of more than 11,000 people across 15 states.
Most conspicuously absent was Kentucky’s senior senator, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an unflinching Iraq war supporter. Early estimates say McConnell is walking headlong into a brutal re-election campaign next year. Much of the clamor hounding the senator can be attributed to a loose coalition of antiwar, labor and grassroots activist groups hungry for the blood that comes with political responsibility. Iraq is an albatross for McConnell.
For better or worse, though, serious politicians don’t show up at places where they’re guaranteed to take a whipping — especially guys like McConnell who are known for dealing with matters behind the scenes, ruthlessly, severely and sometimes cripplingly. Leave the public humiliation thing to guys like Mark Foley and Larry Craig.
In light of all of that, about 250 protesters exited the Bellarmine event and walked the quarter-mile to McConnell’s residence Tuesday night, where they promptly set up right in front, hurling general banter for three hours or so at what appeared to be an empty crib. A decidedly issue-oriented campaign centered on the Iraq war translated into a direct electoral message on the sidewalk in front of the Louisville townhouse that McConnell shares with his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Its growing strength has led to some deep, ugly chatter in political circles about the future of McConnell and the Republican Party, both in Kentucky and nationwide.
The office is simple in a classic, 1950s accountant way, utilitarian and lived-in but with an overarching lightness about it. There is a wall-sized calendar, for instance, pieced together by smaller sheets, color-coded by the Kentucky city where members of Iraq Summer — staff and volunteers — are supposed to be on a given day. It’s messy in a college-student way, marked up and marker-bled with importance. The furniture is donated, along with the coffee pot, blender and a cupboard full of sweets.
Iraq Summer is a coalition of progressive and union groups formed early this year in direct response to President Bush’s announced “surge,” the 21,500 additional troops sent to escalate the war that has been under way for more than four years. Iraq Summer’s title sponsors, as it were, are Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, MoveOn.org and the Service Employees International Union, among a number of others.
The group operates like a political campaign: There are field ops in 40 congressional districts, chosen for their proximity to members of Congress who openly oppose a timeline for troop withdrawal. As the ranking Congressional Republican and therefore bagman for Bush and the war, McConnell was a natural target. Rep. John Yarmuth, the congressman here, has stood solidly against the Iraq war — he showed up to the rally unannounced Tuesday evening, and took the largest ovation of the night.
I am in their office two days after the “Take a Stand” rally. The four staff members, all under 35, are beaming: Aniello Alioto is the field director, and Daniel Ritchie, Sara Choate and Shawn Reilly help run the general operations. It is your standard Internet-Age campaign, a low-rent grassroots deal staffed by people whose personal lives allow for 16-hour days at $400 a week. The entire national budget for Iraq Summer, scheduled to end last weekend but now set to go through December because of unexpected success, was $12 million. McConnell’s senatorial campaign has already raised almost that much.
A carryover of the massive grassroots efforts the Internet has enabled in recent years, Iraq Summer seems to have captured a mood across the state: decidedly antiwar, fed up and ready to talk about it. The Kentucky Iraq Summer crew hounded McConnell through statewide appearances last week, catching some of their encounters, and a lot of people protesting, on publicly available video. Most notable is a clip of McConnell’s state director, Larry Cox, telling a crowd of protesters in Berea last Wednesday, “True leadership is not going with the majority.” There is also a young man’s attempt to ask McConnell directly about why he’s ignoring the majority of Kentuckians on the war issue, with the senator simply refusing to answer as a bodyguard stands in the man’s face, all of them waiting in blanket awkwardness for an elevator.
Along with Facebook, e-mail and online “word-of-mouth,” the group has been successful drawing people in through YouTube. As of last week, Iraq Summer had 265 amateur videos on YouTube documenting successful protests, marches and attempts at direct contact with various members of Congress. If you think this sort of stuff can’t have an effect, ask George Allen, the former Presidential hopeful in waiting who lost his Senate reelection bid in disgrace after his off-color, racist comment at a 2006 campaign event was captured and widely circulated on YouTube. Once the media picked up on it, Allen’s political career was finished: He lost to Jim Webb in what was thought to be an open-and-shut race.
“It’s an electric time,” Choate said. “We are in a pivotal moment. You can taste it.”
“Nobody really expected us to have this much success,” Alioto said. “All the other targets were picked on their voting record and coalition affiliates on the ground. We have none (in Louisville),” with the exception of the Louisville Peace Action Community.
Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn.org who is at the helm of Iraq Summer, spent his “Take a Stand” day in Louisville. He said Kentucky’s progressive movement is among the strongest and most active he’s seeing right now, and he wanted to see for himself how strong the outpouring here would be.
“The Kentucky progressive community is sick of Mitch McConnell obstructing an end to the war,” he said, referencing McConnell’s orchestration of the July blockage of the Levin-Reed amendment, which would have begun a phased redeployment of U.S. troops by the end of the year, from moving to a vote in the Senate. This obstructionism — an admittedly tried and true tactic of the minority party, and used by both Republicans and Democrats — is one major reason the new Democratic Congress has made little progress on the war issue.
It is important to remember that Iraq Summer is an issue campaign, not an electoral one, as Alioto told me Thursday. The difference is that, theoretically, they don’t care if McConnell wins or loses next year; their goal is to force him to change his position on Iraq.
There are several groups in Kentucky, however, whose direct interest is to see McConnell go down in ’08. They are online groups, mostly led by bloggers. They are becoming unified. And they are drawing attention.
“We’re creating a true foundation for a lasting progressive movement in rural America,” Matt Gunterman, founder and editor-in-chief of DitchMitchKY.com, said in a recent phone interview.
The site, which went live March 12 and morphed from a Facebook group of the same name, collects work from six bloggers working in various parts of the country, most from a progressive perspective. It gets about 2,000 unique visitors a day. Last Wednesday, the day after “Take a Stand,” it got 6,000.
Gunterman told me Kentucky’s progressive blogosphere has developed organically, and largely along the idea that a commercially successful political blog in the state is still unlikely (Mark Nickolas has always had difficulty sustaining BluegrassReport.org on advertising alone), so it’s better to develop a community and work off each other. Following DitchMitchKY.com’s lead of multiple bloggers, the superb BluegrassRoots.org has just reinvented itself — it now offers reader diaries, a feature popularized by DailyKos.com, the most widely read political blog in the country. There is also the brand-new PageOneKentucky.com, a progressive, for-profit digest of state and national politics.
Jim Pence runs HillbillyReport.com. He travels the state documenting resistance to and reaction against Republicans, and lately it’s been mostly McConnell on the receiving end of the 69-year-old’s pointed video camera.
“People out there are really committed, and they have friends, friends of friends,” said Pence, who also blogs frequently for DitchMitchKY.com. “This thing is kind of snowballing, I think.”
What does all this mean for McConnell? Perhaps most substantially, it appears he will to need to revise his well-worn campaign style — ignore criticism, then spin, distort and attack — to cope with the increasing volume of discontent at home.
“You have to play hardball on McConnell’s level,” Cliff Schecter, a well-known blogger and journalist who works for Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, said. Schecter, a senior contributor to DitchMitchKY.com whose work also appears in the American Prospect, Washington Monthly and HuffingtonPost.com, worked on the 2002 campaign of McConnell’s opponent, Democrat Lois Combs Weinberg.
McConnell is in an uncomfortable wedge right now. Many Republicans recently called his leadership into question after a last-minute turnaround vote on a controversial immigration bill, largely perceived as an act to placate his base that went against his party. A majority of his constituency stands at odds with his position on Iraq, and navigating those waters is becoming more difficult by the week.
“Part of (his problem) is his position as minority leader,” Lt. Col. Andrew Horne, a former congressional candidate and high-profile member of the antiwar crowd in Louisville, said. “Now, people are starting to see where he’s standing on some things that I think before he was able to distance himself from.”
His constituents want him to support an end to the war: The Courier-Journal’s Bluegrass Poll said in February that 52 percent of Kentuckians wanted McConnell to oppose the troop surge; perhaps more telling, only 40 percent supported his decision to vote for it.
“This is not a kind of minor thing people are angry about,” Schecter said. “Here, you’ve got a war that the country is in turmoil over and wants to get out of. He refuses to listen to people.”
Gunterman said the profound corporate interest in American politics, and the unprecedented waste, fraud and abuse that has resulted from the privatization of the war effort specifically, is the manifestation of McConnell’s “money equals free speech” ethos — and that will curb him in the end.
“I think what you’re actually seeing, the argument you’re going to see coalescing, is that the Iraq war is the most wicked manifestation overall of the corruption” currently in the Republican Party, Gunterman said. “I know we are going to make (McConnell’s) life miserable over the next year, and I know we’re going to make sure he inherits the legacy he deserves as being the father of the culture of influence-mongering and money-grubbing in D.C. and Frankfort that has paralyzed our nation’s institutions of government at a time when the people need them most.”
Billy Piper is McConnell’s chief of staff. In a recent phone interview, he dismissed the efforts of the Iraq Summer coalition, saying McConnell’s political future does not hang alone on the Iraq war.
“I am not discounting the very real passion that is out there by lots of people who feel strongly about the war, just as there are a whole lot of people who feel the effort should continue and we shouldn’t surrender until we’ve completed our work there,” he said. “That is a legitimate debate with strong feelings on both sides. The effort to mess with Sen. McConnell is about more than just the Iraq war.”
Piper said unions are bitter over McConnell’s recent efforts to block the union-supported Employee Free Choice Act, and they’re helping fund antiwar groups as a way to get back at his boss.
He also said McConnell would support recommendations similar to those given by the Iraq Study Group, which would include a reduced — though still forward-deployed — presence in Iraq. McConnell, Bush and the Republicans still supporting the current course are awaiting a report to be given by Gen. David Patraeus — reportedly with heavy editing by the White House — on Sept. 11.
Piper’s dismissal of the hounding efforts aside, McConnell has noticeably shifted his rhetoric on the war of late, perhaps to insulate himself from the backlash over his parroting of White House war policy over the past four years. Appearing on “FOX News Sunday” on Aug. 26, he admitted the political situation in Iraq is “pretty much a disaster” and proceeded to lay the blame for the quagmire there in the lap of the fledgling Iraqi government. Though several Republicans have broken from the party line on Iraq, it remains a political risk. But with the pressure ratcheting from antiwar groups and a moment of truth similar to the 2006 elections beckoning, McConnell appears to be sweating.
There is also the matter of Gov. Ernie Fletcher. The embattled Republican was a McConnell protégé, handpicked for the Governor’s Mansion, the concrete on which Republicans would reframe state politics long dominated by Democrats. Then Fletcher got himself into a nasty scandal, when his administration was caught hiring and firing state workers based on political affiliation, and things went to hell. The governor was indicted and suddenly, eerily, McConnell was silent about his former pal.
That is, until Fletcher won the May primary, defeating Anne Northup, another McConnell protégé who’d recently been ousted from her seat in the U.S. House by Yarmuth. Now there is a rift between McConnell and state Republicans who stood with Fletcher through the scandal and his historically low approval ratings.
Some think this rift will cripple McConnell next year. There is a movement afoot to draft Larry Forgy, a Fletcher loyalist, to run against McConnell in the primary. Forgy hasn’t made a decision yet. At the least, forcing McConnell through a primary challenge would be an affront to the man once seen as the supreme and omniscient puppeteer of Kentucky politics.
Other Republicans, though, think McConnell is still strong and relatively unscathed.
“Look at Fletcher, for example,” said one senior Republican official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Nobody would argue that Fletcher was operating from a position of strength. But there were, what was it, eight, nine Democrats that lined up to take him on. Not one lining up to take on Mitch McConnell. The contrast is pretty stark.”
There is plenty of evidence that McConnell remains a largely immovable object. He is currently the most well funded candidate in the nation, with $5.8 million on hand as of July (he draws a lot of corporate PAC contributions), and he’s raised about $10 million thus far, with the election more than year away.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has run a TV ad in Louisville tying McConnell to the war, as has Americans United for Change; a group called Vets for Freedom has spent around $600,000 on ads in Louisville supporting the war and troop surge.
McConnell also has no opponent, though some are threatening. There is Forgy on the Republican side. Attorney General Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, has formed an exploratory committee and is raising money. Horne, a senior adviser to VoteVets.org, one of the Iraq Summer coalition partners, has also been widely discussed as a challenger, though he’s still mum on whether he’ll run.
“We definitely think there’s a need for a change,” he said. “We’re going to make a decision on that here probably in the next month or two.”
Perspective is essential here. We are 14 months from an election, an eternity where the space will probably be filled with one of the most savage and barbaric senate campaigns in this state’s history. Hippos don’t seem dangerous, at least to those who’ve watched one slunk through a muddy river content not to upset the balance. But step between a hippo and its young and the river-horse will charge and gore you with startling ferocity. Block its escape route and you should expect to get bloodied. Never forget what you’re dealing with.
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