Skullduggery, Parts I and II
Last week's announcement by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) that he would seek the Majority Leader post, and his endorsement Sunday by House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, sets the stage for the Democrats to conduct some of those high-profile pattycake-Shakespearean court intrigues that the Republicans so often indulged in while they held the majority. (They’ll continue to have their own, and indeed have already begun, but when you’re out of power nobody really cares, as the Dems have long known.)
The Houses of Pelosi, Murtha and (Steny) Hoyer have seen their fates inextricably intertwined, their ambitions in constantly shifting patterns of opposition and alignment, virtually since they all joined the national political scene, and intensely since the House Democratic Leadership began to shift in the first years of this decade. This recent Washington Monthly profile of Hoyer, written a few months back with the view that he likely would claim the Majority Leader position if the Democrats won, lays out the ugly history: Hoyer and Pelosi have been rivals for decades (from her Baltimore antecedents), Hoyer and Murtha have long detested each other, Murtha gave crucial support to Pelosi in a Whip race a few years back and indicated earlier this year that he wanted the Leader position). Pelosi, whose leadership style evidently has been marked by what rivals might describe as paranoia and vindictiveness, was just helping her ally and gently pushing back her old rival.
Because of that reputation, I have the weird feeling Pelosi’s support will be decisive, if she wants it to be. Behind the scenes, she’ll lean on the members to support Murtha; she determines committee assignments now, she’s got control over whatever potential pork there will be in the next budget (and presumably it’ll be plenty; these people hopefully won’t be as rapacious as the Republicans—-and if they are, they’ll be nailed for it—-but they’re still politicians and trying to lock in a majority), and she has a long memory. She won’t lean on everybody; she’ll want to let Hoyer save face. But she’ll push enough otherwise more or less indifferent members to back her guy.
Then the race will be on to define “Jack” Murtha.
If you’re not familiar with Murtha’s life and career, in some respects he’s got the perfect story and profile to serve as a high-visibility Democrat in a time of anxiety over national security. Murtha was a Marine who served with distinction both as a young man in Korea and a late-thirty-something in Vietnam. When he publicly came out against the Iraq war last year, it changed the whole tenor of the debate: suddenly it was safe, or safer, for Democrats to broadcast their opposition. He’s a conservative Democrat from an old union district in Western PA, known for the high regard in which he’s held by current and former military leaders and his bullish determination to advance the interests of the defense community.
That last sentence, though, should give you a hint why the Republicans would like to define Murtha. He comes with serious ethical questions, some very similar at least in atmosphere to the Abramoff-related corruption charges that did so damage to Republican hopes this year. And he sort of looks like an old-timey crooked pol.
The Democrats obviously want Murtha’s credibility on security issues, and perhaps as a signal-bearer that conservative-ish blue-collar guys should feel at home in today’s Democratic Party. And maybe-—this could be the genius element—-they figure that virtually every potential Republican critic can be counter-attacked by exposing their own strong ties to this and that lobby. But his ascension could allow the Republicans, if they can get Murtha’s ethics-question storyline into the mainstream fast enough—-and do so without seeming to attack his personal character, as that idiotic hag Mean Jean Schmidt did—-to actually present themselves as the reformers and ideologues they claimed to be twelve years ago. That's exciting not only for "the base," which has bought into the Gingrich mythos, but also for a certain kind of pundit that, hearkening back to the glory days of Newt and Armey, gets misty-eyed like an old Bolshevik 45 years ago thinking fondly paternal thoughts about Castro.