Protesters: No-Show or Go-Slow
Republican incumbents back home for recess aren't feeling the antiwar heat just yet
MANCHESTER, N.H.—Pinning down Sen. John Sununu's schedule back home, antiwar activists grumble, is a real headache. He's one of their top targets right now; the idea is to put enough pressure on Sununu this August recess to persuade him to break with President Bush's Iraq war policy. So far, Sununu has been avoiding the activists, but now, finally, they've found him, speaking before 50-odd members of the Manchester Republican Committee at the William H. Jutras American Legion Hall. He is struggling in the polls and is up for a grueling re-election battle next fall, but Sununu does his best to sound upbeat: "2008 will look a lot different than 2006"; Iraq has "certainly improved over the last six months"; and "no one will outcampaign me."
Sitting squarely in front of the senator: Indiana native Aaron Corn, an organizer for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. The senator wraps up his stump speech, makes his way for the door, and then doubles back for a few questions: border security, trade policy, health insurance. He leaves without fielding a single question from the crowd about Iraq. There are no signs, hecklers, bullhorns, cameras, bloggers, and, nope, no protest rally. "We debated it," Corn says of a rally, "but decided not to." The reason? The senator might be more receptive to "dialogue" and "behind the scenes" pressure.
Nuance. It's a far cry from the protests of the Vietnam War era. Or even the rallies in New York and Los Angeles in the run-up to the Iraq war that turned out thousands. Antiwar activists and Democrats say this is the crucial month to turn up the heat on Republican lawmakers. A decisive moment looms—the Iraq progress report from Gen. David Petraeus is due in September—so the strategy is to win over enough Republican votes in the Senate in particular to pass a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But out in the field, it turns out, the strategy calls for nuance—small events, canvassing, online videos, local media, paid advertising, constituent requests for meetings on the war, and daily grass-roots organizing. Translating all of that into votes on Capitol Hill may be a very tall order.
Tom Matzzie, Washington-based head of the "Iraq Summer" campaign, is undaunted. "The tone is of civic engagement instead of protest," says Matzzie, whose group is targeting 40 Republicans in the House and Senate, many of whom will also surely be targeted in 2008. Matzzie says his group is not staging large protests because to do so would play into Republicans' hands by making the politicians look moderate in comparison. And "we want [Sununu] to know it's his constituents doing this, not rabble-rousers from D.C.," adds New Hampshire field director Tim Liszewski.
Headquartered on K Street, Washington lobbyists' home, the campaign war room is a mix of disillusioned Iraq war veterans, liberal 20-somethings, and grizzled political campaigners. Thirty staffers blast out E-mails to the media and coordinate about 100 field organizers nationwide. Tara McGuinness, deputy campaign manager, keeps head shots of her top prizes—Sununu, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, among others—pinned to her wall. On her table: a copy of Ending the War in Iraq, a recent screed by 1960s antiwar protester Tom Hayden. A session each morning includes a roundup of field work and chatter on potential strategies—should activists wear bulletproof vests or helmets to mock New York Rep. Randy Kuhl, who said he would consider "packin'" after a run-in with protesters? (The word, Kuhl says, was misinterpreted.)