When Sen. Jon Tester ruled out of order an amendment on the Senate floor condemning the now infamous MoveOn.org ad that called General Petraeus "General Betray Us," saying that it was not germane to the bill under consideration, there was some, shall we say, strong reaction from the right -- implying that Tester had made his ruling because he owed MoveOn a favor.
Now, Tester did indeed greatly benefit from MoveOn's largesse in his razor-thin victory over Sen. Burns. There is no need to detail the various direct and indirect help MoveOn provided. The Montana Headlines household has particularly fond memories of the numerous phone calls we received from places like New York and New Hampshire, making sure that we Montanans learned things about Conrad Burns that folks up in the Northeast were more up on than us.
Someone in the MH household must have been involved at one point in some sort of unsavory associations for the number to have made it so prominently onto the MoveOn telephone list, but no confessions were ever extracted, and the matter is now behind us.
Be that as it may, 527s are now part of the political game, and although conservatives were slow on the uptake in figuring out the new rules, John Kerry discovered that the blade can swiftly cut both ways, especially when it is being wielded by men who understand battle.
But back to that decision that Tester made on the floor of the Senate when presiding.
Now, anyone who thinks that Tester was actually the one who made that decision is dreaming. There's a reason why both parties feel comfortable having the most junior and least experienced Senators take turns sitting in the chair presiding over routine Senate floor proceedings.
Whoever made that decision -- the parliamentarian, the Majority Leader, or another high-ranking Senate leader -- doesn't matter. Tester may have announced the decision, but he didn't make it. Criticizing him for instructions that were whispered in his ear or that were texted to him on his Blackberry is unreasonable.
Then, Tester was furthermore criticized for not immediately condemning the MoveOn ad on his own. It was understandable, though, that Tester didn't do so, since he may either have agreed with the MoveOn sentiment that Gen. Petraeus was giving misleading testimony to Congress or he may just have thought that MoveOn had the right to say whatever they please about Petraeus -- soldier or not.
Republicans, of course, were planning to try again with another resolution, and Democrats were ready with a substitute amendment -- they proposed condeming not only the MoveOn ad but also, by implication, a few blasts from the past when prominent Democratic politicians who were veterans allegedly had their patriotism questioned in ads run against them in their campaigns.
It was an odd pairing, since the ads the Democrats objected to were from years ago and since they were directed not at someone serving on active duty but rather at politicians who were voluntarily in the rumble-tumble of electoral politics. It made sense as an attempt at political maneuvering, but little sense from a logical point-of-view.
Note the roll-call vote. Every single Democrat, including Sen. Tester, voted "to strongly condemn attacks on the honor, integrity, and patriotism of any individual who is serving or has served honorably in the United States Armed Forces, by any person or organization." Republicans knew what the "has served honorably" part meant: any veteran running on the Democratic ticket couldn't be criticized and should never have been criticized. They rightly voted against it.
But Republicans weren't ever claiming that a veteran was forever immune from criticism -- they were rather condemning an ad that could reasonably be read as impugning the patriotism and honesty of an active duty soldier. Either one agrees that such ads are inappropriate and that it is a legitimate function of Congress to defend the honor of a general appointed by unanimous consent, or one doesn't.
When Tester didn't have anything to say after his floor ruling, the logical assumption was that he disagreed with the sense of the Republican amendment -- otherwise he would have said something, as noted above, in order to avoid any appearance of being in thrall to MoveOn.
Knowing the firestorm that had been raised by the ruling that he announced on the floor, if he really felt that questioning the patriotism of General Petraeus was something worthy of condemnation, he could have squelched it immediately with an announcement saying that he agreed with the sense of the amendment, but had made a purely parliamentary ruling. Simple.
And it would have pre-empted any allegations that Tester made the ruling as a payoff to MoveOn -- or out of fear of retribution from MoveOn and the liberal netroots. Such a statement would have avoided any appearance of being indebted to an organization that poured money into his campaign. One would think that Tester, having run on ethics, would have been sensitive to this and beat Republicans to the punch, saying something before they had a chance to.
If, that is, he really agreed with the sense of the amendment that he later voted for.
Let's be completely clear: Montana Headlines is not saying that Tester should have made a statement like this if he didn't agree with the sentiment that the Senate should "strongly condemn personal attacks on the honor and integrity of General Petraeus..." There is a strong case to be made for having Congress stay out of the free speech of political organizations, as David Crisp has pointed out.
Old-school conservative Republican Ron Paul, AKA "Dr. No," would probably have voted against it for that very reason.
So why did Tester vote for either amendment -- the Democratic one, let alone the Republican one?
Why did Tester wait until he was forced into a vote by Republicans -- and then blink?
Tester's vote shows that his votes and decisions were neither motivated by his conviction that the MoveOn ad was worthy of condemnation, nor by concerns of avoiding the appearance of being owned by MoveOn, nor by a belief in having the Congress stay out of the free political speech of others.
His base is not is not impressed at the way he caved in and threw a bone to his right, Baucus-style.
And the rest of us would only have been impressed with such a condemnation of the MoveOn ad had it happened right away after the floor ruling -- demonstrating that Tester both knew his own mind on this matter and that he wasn't hesitant to express it for fear of the netroots. We recognize a bone when one is insultingly tossed on the ground in front of us.
MH would have been impressed had he voted against all of the amendments, saying that it was none of Congress's business. We would even have respected him for saying that he agreed with the MoveOn ad and wasn't going to condemn something that he thought was true.
As it is, we still don't know what Tester really thinks. But we do again learn that whatever is at the front of his mind, it isn't an abundance of caution avoiding the appearance of voting according to his campaign pocketbook.