A New Group with an Old Message on the War

"I know what I lost," intones a stoic-sounding young Iraq war veteran via voiceover as he limps out his front door and struggles down his stairs on two prosthetic legs. "I also know that if we pull out now, everything I've given and sacrificed will mean nothing."

Then, a warning: "They attacked us, and they will again. They won't stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It's no time to quit -- it's no time for politics."

This television ad is one of four being broadcast by Freedom's Watch, a new organization seeking to halt the hemorrhaging of support for Bush's Iraq and Afghanistan policies, and to make life easier for pro-Iraq war lawmakers.

Freedom's Watch announced in a press release on Wednesday that it is "launching a nationwide grassroots campaign aimed at ensuring Congress continues to fully fund the troops with the ultimate goal of victory in the War on Terror." The release notes that the group plans to spend $15 million "on radio and television ads as well as grassroots activities" in a public relations blitz that will wrap up in mid-September.

"We're trying to reach the fair-minded American, regardless of party," said Freedom's Watch President Brad Blakeman. "And the message is one that is delivered eloquently by those people who appear in our ads, and that is surrender is not an option."

Blakemen said that Freedom's Watch was concerned that previously pro-war members of Congress could feel heat from their constituents and end up switching sides during the next Iraq vote. The group, therefore, is looking to send a message to lawmakers that "switching votes for political reasons is unacceptable."

Though the group's immediate focus is on Congress and managing the impact of Gen. David Petraeus's upcoming report on progress in Iraq, it's impossible to look at Freedom's Watch and not see the first stage of a long, difficult effort on the part of conservatives to smooth the path for a pro-war presidential candidate. The eventual GOP nominee will, after all, enter the general election hindered by a giant albatross. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the as-yet-unannounced Fred Thompson have all made support of the Iraq war a central part of their campaigns.

The four frontrunners have eagerly embraced the Bush administration's long-standing Iraq narrative: There is nothing optional about this fight. It is, rather, part of our existential struggle in the War on Terror -- a war from which we cannot afford to walk away. On the primary campaign trail, it isn't a liability for the four candidates to parrot this line; Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and Thompson are all jockeying for votes from likely GOP primary voters, a group whose opinion on the war diverges wildly from that of Americans as a whole. A recent CBS News poll shows that 53 percent of Republican voters think the Iraq war is going well, and an astounding 73 percent describe invading Iraq as having been the right thing to do.

Republican voters stand in contrast to the resounding pessimism most Americans feel about the war -- in another recent poll, only 29 percent said they thought the war was going well, and 43 percent thought invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Looking at these numbers, it becomes clear just how alien an environment the Republican nominee will find himself in once the primary dust settles. Freedom's Watch may currently bill itself as primarily a pre-Petraeus-report attempt to galvanize public support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but it will also be participating in a much more comprehensive effort to increase the odds that an unapologetically pro-war Republican can survive once he has exited the comfy confines of the primary race. Blakeman was clear about the group's long-term plans. "We'll have a presence, absolutely, in 2008 and beyond," he said.

TV ads, of course, will form a large part of that presence. According to the New York Times, the Freedom's Watch ads, which began airing on August 22, will run in more than 20 states and in 60 congressional districts (Blakeman wouldn't say anything about the sorts of districts targeted -- only that they were both Democratic and Republican.). The spots, which are available on the Freedom's Watch website, tell familiar tales. All four utilize the well-worn arguments for continuing the war: Exiting Iraq would endanger America; ending the war would "dishonor" the thousands of young soldiers who have been killed and maimed in combat; and, since we're finally making progress in Iraq, now is not the time to bail.

The commercials may not be saying anything new, but they are packaged in a visceral, heartbreaking way. Two are narrated by soldiers who lost the use of their legs in Iraq, and one is narrated by the mother of a dead soldier. In another, a woman discusses how she lost her uncle, a firefighter, on 9/11, and her husband, a soldier, in Iraq. "Congress did the right thing, voting to defeat terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan," she says. "Switching their votes now, for political reasons, it will mean more attacks in America."

The strategy here seems simple: Freedom's Watch is attempting to breathe new life into justifications for the Iraq war that are no longer resonant for most Americans. Anyone who has turned on a TV since 2003 has heard these arguments, all of which were adopted en masse by right-wing pundits and administration officials. Freedom's Watch seems to be hoping that, by bringing the conversation back down to the level of individual soldiers who have fought and died in Iraq, and their families, these narratives can regain their potency.

It's certainly a curious tactic. The group is, in effect, doubling down on a PR strategy that has already failed -- not among hard-line, ardently pro-war Republicans, but among the ads' targeted audience: moderate Republican voters who have turned against the war or who are thinking about it. Given that these voters have already been saturated with the same tired pro-war canards since 2003, it's hard to imagine that this last-ditch effort will sway them back toward the faithful.

But whether or not this short-term effort succeeds, the larger Republican strategy vis-à-vis the war is sure to adapt. The "long, hard slog" Donald Rumsfeld predicted back in 2003 may be an apt description of the Republican nominee's attempts to navigate his pro-war record, but groups like Freedom's Watch -- and its inevitable descendants -- will be providing cover every step of the way.

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