Five years ago David Petraeus was at the center of a political controversy. In the run-up to the 2008 election, MoveOn.org took out an ad questioning General Petraeus’ leadership and whether he was dishonest in his calls for the US to continue the war in Iraq. In the ad the group labeled him “Betray Us” and sparked strong condemnation on the right, including then-President G.W. Bush. In fact, there was such an outcry that the Senate and the House passed bills explicitly condemning the ad and, “to strongly condemn any effort to attack the honor and integrity of General Petraeus.” The text of the Senate bill actually lists seven different ways Petraeus is awesome before their condemnation to at least make it look like they did their homework. The amendment was non-binding, or in other words, the Senate didn’t have to go out and condemn every attack on Petraeus, nor is it forcing them to do so now, despite the irony. This type of resolution is just for show and has no meaning now other than for us to mock the hubris in hindsight.
Two notable Senators who didn’t support the bill were Obama and Clinton, calling the amendment an empty gesture purely for political purposes. Surely many Republicans hoped that by putting forth this amendment for a vote they could force the then-candidates Obama and Hillary to choose between a more moderate position or an appeal to their base. Well history has taken some strange turns.
While the congressional legislation was probably political, MoveOn’s response after the election of Obama certainly was. Obama decided to keep Petraeus as commander and bring him into his administration. In response MoveOn scrubbed their website of the ad, giving the impression that their motivation all along was electing a Democrat rather than a genuine concern for the issues.
Meanwhile the GOP has done something quite remarkable, they have essentially withdrawn their previous support for the resolution, even before the latest Petraeus scandal broke. They did this by setting new House rules when they took over in the 2010 midterms. I should first acknowledge that Republican support for Petraeus didn’t really dwindle as he stayed on during Obama’s term and even this present controversy has drawn him plenty of support from the right (while plenty of blame for Obama of course). Anyway, when the GOP took over the House they pledged to tackle a serious problem during the Bush years – utterly stupid and non-binding resolutions, like recognitions, commemorations, unofficial honors, and of course, condemnations. The CRS found that in the 110th Congress, more than half of the bills introduced were non-binding like “Recognizing the rich and resounding impact of 50-years of Memphis-originating soul music.” Under the rules of the 112th Congress the GOP promised to get rid of this nonsense and has so far kept its word. I take this as a sign of regret at passing all those previous useless bills and as a sign that perhaps Congress is looking to get some work done, rather than some cynical political maneuver. It also says that the Cornyn amendment was just some stupid useless gesture in itself and wouldn’t have been tolerated under this Congress. In light of Petraeus’s recent scandal the GOP got ahead of history by rejecting these meaningless gestures before one could come back and make a fool of them.