GADFLY: The Murtha Matter 

As usual, the Democrats experience confusion in dealing with a main chance.


The events of the past week in the U.S. House of Representatives have been rather dramatic.  When Congressman John Murtha, from my old home territory of Western Pennsylvania, called for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq “at the earliest practicable date,” it set off a tidal wave in Washington.  This wasn't, after all, a wild-eyed liberal, like Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who had previously called for a timetable for withdrawal. This was a blue collar Democrat, with a history of supporting the Pentagon in all of its warmongering activities, including increasing defense budgets, new weapons systems, “star wars” missile defense, and other pet projects so dear to defense hawks.  Lest his conservative bona fides be questioned, he even offered a resolution this year seeking an amendment to the Constitution to allow voluntary prayer in public schools.


While it isn't clear whether or not Murtha was an independent contractor in launching his broadside attack, or just the canary in the mine for the Democrat caucus in the House, testing the  to see whether there might be support for a rapidly-phased withdrawal, it is clear that Murtha's announcement caught a number of folks by surprise, mostly the members of his own party.  Not, however, the members of the majority, who quickly figured out a way to relegate Murtha's proposal to parliamentary oblivion.  Murtha's resolution was quickly referred to a committee so it couldn't be promptly considered or voted on by the House.


But the republicans' simultaneously presented their own version of the Murtha resolution, considerably abbreviated from the one Murtha submitted, and notably lacking the qualifying language “at the earliest practicable date,” of Murtha's resolution, substituting instead the word “immediately.” Here's what the GOP resolution says:


Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately.


This resolution was submitted by Rep. Duncan Hunter, the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, whose finest moment was undoubtedly when, at a press conference, he served (literally) examples of the culinary delights the prisoners at Guantanamo were being served to contradict the by-then ubiquitous assertions that those prisoners were being abused.


The Republican resolution put the issue in the starkest terms, and eliminated not only the important qualifier on Murtha's resolution (“at the earliest practicable date”), but also eliminated a detailed preamble Murtha had placed in his version which recited all the reasons he had listed during his press conference for his belief it was time for American forces to leave Iraq (e.g., no progress, 2,079 deaths, G.I.'s the target of insurgents, $277 billion appropriated, etc.). 


Murtha's resolution reflected the reasoning that had already been expressed by military intelligence experts for prompt withdrawal, and also served to further debunk the notion that withdrawal should be conditioned on the state of preparedness of the Iraqi army, an illusory goal, according to the authoritative piece by James Fallows in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly. And let's not forget that the majority of Americans now favor a short-term withdrawal from Iraq: 


But the Republicans couldn't be bothered with such details.  They wanted to put the question, down and dirty, to the House, knowing that, reworded as it was, there was no way their resolution would pass, and even more importantly, that they could avoid a debate on the war that wasn't based on phony jingo-patriotism (the American equivalent of “Islamo-fascism”), which is precisely what the “debate” that ensued on the House floor degenerated into. 


In other words, the Republicans really weren't interested in debating the wisdom of a withdrawal on the terms, or for the reasons, Murtha suggested; they wanted to rub Murtha's face in the very idea of withdrawing troops at all, in essence saying to the Democrats, “so you want withdrawal, do you; well, we'll give you withdrawal,” or as Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee put it:


Since they [Democrats] have been wanting it [debate], we're going to have it. They're going to take the heat and take the debate.


The same resolution which shoved Murtha's resolution off the House agenda also placed the substitute resolution on that agenda for immediate debate, without the necessity for committee action, one of the privileges of majority rule. The Democrats, realizing they had been outflanked, vociferously protested the substitution of the Republican resolution for Murtha's.  “Give us a real debate, don't bring this piece of garbage to the floor,” said Rep.  James McGovern of Massachusetts.


And, of course, the flashpoint of the debate came when Rep. Jean Schmidt (they don't call her “mean Jean” for nothing) made her now-infamous statement accusing Murtha of being a cut and run coward.  Which, to his credit, caused my congressman, Harold Ford, Jr.,  according to the account in the New York Times, to “charge across the chamber's center aisle to the Republican side screaming that Ms. Schmidt's attack had been unwarranted.” Unwarranted!  Not exactly “give me liberty or give me death,” but a fighting word nonetheless.


A different account of Ford's outburst appeared in the Washington Times: "Say it to Murtha," Mr. Ford supposedly shouted at Rep. Tancredo while he [Ford] was being restrained by other members. Ford also, by some accounts, supposedly menacingly jabbed a finger at Tancredo during their confrontation, coming dangerously close to kicking some Republican butt (now,  that would have been worth the price of basic cable C-Span).  Ford, in spite of his willingness to storm the Republican ramparts in support of his fellow congressman, wasn't willing to support him in a much more important way---by co-sponsoring the bill, which 13 of his Democrat colleagues, including Reps.  Rangel, Jackson-Lee and the outspoken Rep.  McGovern (see above), found the kojones to do.  Putting his vote where his mouth was apparently didn't interest Mr.  Ford.


And as if to emphasize the point, here's how Congressman “Finger Jabber” Ford, characterized the discussion on the House floor during his appearance on “Hardball:”


The Murtha, or should I say the withdrawal, resolution that J.D. [Hayworth]was a part of bringing was the first time in more than three years that we‘ve had an open, honest and essential debate about Iraq.


Open and honest?  Debate? Oh really, Mr.  Ford?  I guess, despite your theatrics, that scamming the congress into considering a resolution that was not Murtha's in an effort to discredit the resolution that was his, and thereby evading the discussion of a responsible “exit strategy,” was your idea of “open and honest.”


To show how “open and honest” the debate was, J.D. Hayworth, Ford's Republican counterpart on “Hardball,” during his remarks in the well of the house floor displayed the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post from that day (November 18th), both of which led with headlines that characterized Murtha's announcement as calling for “immediate” withdrawal.  That the MSM got it wrong is one thing (we're used to that), but the fact that Hayworth didn't have the integrity to refer to the actual wording of the Murtha resolution speaks for itself.  (I'm convinced Hayworth and Schmidt have their hair wrapped too tightly---have you seen their “do's”---and that's what makes them so bitter). 


Ford's remark may be why one of Matthews' other guests on the program, Stuart Rothenberg, of the Rothenberg Political Report, said of Ford's appearance:


[T]hey [Democrats) are divided.  When you listen to Harold Ford and compare that to Ted Kennedy or something, how many parties do we have here?  Their problem is that they don‘t have a single message.


Ford 's statement undercut his party's righteous position on the Murtha withdrawal proposal, and worse, contradicted his party's leaders on the floor, none of whom wanted a bogus debate on the  bogus Hunter resolution.  Nonetheless, when it came time for a vote, only three of the over 400 who voted on the Hunter resolution voted in its favor. The rest of the Democrats ran for cover, fearing that in the war against un-patriotism being waged so much more successfully by the GOP than the war against terror, they would be the victims, when they could (and should) have maintained their righteousness on the Murtha proposal and refused to vote at all on Hunter's. Six representatives (including New York's Jerry Nadler) did precisely that, bless their hearts (as we say down here).


Sadly, as fractious and fractionated as the Republicans have become, as low as the president's poll numbers may be (or may be likely to go), and as graphic as the picture of the party in power's corruption is becoming, the Democrats still haven't figured out how to capitalize on their adversaries' weaknesses.  And if Rep.  Ford's performance on “Hardball,” is any indication, they won't be ready to do so until they've figured out how to minimize their own.

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