Saturday, November 26, 2005

John Murtha the Bellwether

Nixon in 1974

Many news stories dutifully report that Representative John Murtha (D-PA) was first elected to Congress in 1974. I have not seen any reports, however, that provide much context for that fact, using it instead as mere background for today's news about Murtha's surprising role as a vociferous "peace hawk." The youngsters among us can be forgiven for not recalling the circumstances, but 1974 should resonate in the minds of middle-aged Americans. There are lessons for 2005.

The Vietnam War was by no means over at the beginning of 1974, although the fragile Paris Peace Accords were in place, U.S. POWs had been released, and President Richard Nixon was hoping to wind down American involvement in a dignified manner (as opposed to the actual rout over which the hapless Gerald Ford presided in spring of the following year). The longtime representative in Pennsylvania's 12th district had died in office and a special election was being held on February 5. Democrat John Murtha of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives jumped into the race, which would result in his becoming the first Vietnam veteran in the U.S. House of Representatives. His opponent was Republican Harry Fox (the administrative assistant to the late congressman from that district).

Fox found himself saddled with a highly questionable campaign asset. President Nixon was under threat of impeachment for the Watergate scandals (wiretapping, hush money, obstruction of justice, perjury, etc.) and had not reaped the hoped-for political benefit of the quasi-peace in Vietnam. Senator Sam Ervin had presided over devastating hearings on Capitol Hill where former presidential counsel John Dean had described his "cancer on the presidency" conversation with Nixon and White House aide Alexander Butterfield had revealed the existence of the corroborating White House tapes, which the U.S. Supreme Court later forced Nixon to turn over to the Watergate special prosecutor. Nixon was eager to promote Fox's campaign in the hopes that a Republican victory would strengthen his hand and demonstrate his continued political viability. Since the president himself was damaged goods, he dispatched Vice President Ford to the 12th District.

In a news segment on CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reported that Murtha was avoiding making the special election a referendum on Nixon and Watergate while Fox was eager to depict Watergate as a locally irrelevant obsession of the national media. Nevertheless, the broader significance of the contest was widely recognized and Murtha's narrow victory was interpreted as yet another defeat for the beleaguered president. A month later it happened again in Michigan, when a Republican congressional district changed hands to the Democrats in yet another special election (Thomas Luken vs. Willis Gradison), but Murtha's victory was the first to highlight Nixon's vulnerability.

Now Congressman Murtha is taking on another damaged Republican president, although this time his assault is direct rather than incidental. With both houses of Congress in Republican hands, George W. Bush is in no significant danger of impeachment, but other parallels are more striking. The current Bush administration is increasingly seen as the most dishonest since Nixon's, the president himself widely denounced for misleading the public and members of Congress.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Bush is seen as a liar, as Nixon was before him. Bush's approval ratings are contending with Nixon's for the record low. A special prosecutor is chipping away at the president's White House staff and scandals abound in every quarter. Nixon's included illegal campaign funds, the criminal gang known as the White House plumbers, and disinformation attacks on political opponents. Bush's include smaller transgressions—such as turning scientific reports into propaganda—and greater ones, such as distorting military intelligence, cronyism involving incompetence: FEMA, Homeland Security, and the planning and overseeing of the war in Iraq. John Murtha has just made it impossible for Bush's defenders to paint all war opponents with the broad brush of anti-military liberalism. Murtha is a staunch military supporter who knows failure when he sees it. Though some of the sleazier GOP lifeforms slithered out from under their rocks to denounce Murtha as a treasonous leftwinger, the president himself soon felt obligated to distance his administration from those ridiculous charges. Bush found himself in the position of saying nice things about the man who dramatically turned the issue of the Iraq war against him.

The Republican Party has had a long, happy ride during its years of ascendancy. However, the glorious victory of 2004 may have been a last gasp rather than a new lease on life. The Bush administration has become a millstone around the party's neck, dragging the GOP toward a debacle like the 1974 general election, after which the Democratic majorities had grown to 61 versus 37 in the U.S. Senate (2 were independent) and 291 versus 144 in the U.S. House. (Observe that 61 votes in the Senate is more than enough to invoke cloture on a filibuster without extralegal maneuvers and lacks only six votes of being able to convict on a bill of impeachment.) Of course, these days Democrats are in the minority in both houses. The task in 2006 is to gain new majorities, not augment existing ones. Should Democrats get their act together rather than merely rely on Bush's continued stumbling and bumbling (and I wish I were more confident that that will occur), in 2007 we could have Bush cornered and stymied by new Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. There's a consummation devoutly to be wished, since a president without his current congressional wrecking crew would at least be limited in the further damage he could do. In particular, a Democratic Senate could put brakes on Bush's attempt to pack the courts with rightwing ideologues.

I doubt that Bush's administration will unravel to the degree that Nixon's did. Back in 1974, everyone thought of Nixon as the sly mastermind behind the White House chicanery. Today more people are likely to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, regarding him as a false front for the monied interests who bankrolled his ascension into power. President Bush is likely to remain in office until his successor takes over in January 2009, a date still disappointingly far in the future. Bush's tenure would likely be cut short only if it were discovered that he was a driving force behind the lies and distortions spoken in his name rather than merely Cheney's Charlie McCarthy. But what would be the benefit of that? Instead of the dummy, we would then be stuck with the ventriloquist. Does anyone think President Cheney would be an improvement over President Bush?

However, it does occur to one to speculate that Cheney's health would not be equal to the onerous burdens of the chief executive's office. Perhaps he would have to reluctantly stand aside. The next in line to the presidency is the speaker of the house. Right now the speaker is the unremarked and unremarkable Dennis Hastert, but that could change after 2006.

President Pelosi? Perhaps you read it first here.

Update: If this is the first place you saw the words "President Pelosi" side by side, you don't get around enough. Randi Rhodes and Daily Kos, among others, beat me by a mile. Check out this Google search.

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