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Jewish World Review June 26, 2006 / 30 Sivan 5766

John H. Fund

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Is Murtha the man to lead the Dems? | Two Vietnam veterans now serving in Congress gave speeches over the weekend that help explain why the American people hold both political parties in low esteem , and also why Democrats have largely failed to capitalize on the failures of a Republican president and Congress.

Friday night Sen. John McCain addressed an audience at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and bluntly stated that too many Republicans have "adopted the practices of our opponents who believe the bigger the government the better. I'm afraid it's because at times we value our incumbency more than our principles." In referring to recent lobbying scandals he said that "the best and only lasting answer to the problem of political corruption is a smaller government" — an admonition he might have kept in mind before he pushed for the McCain-Feingold curbs on free speech, but nonetheless a welcome stance.

The day after Mr. McCain articulated why many voters see Republicans as inconsistent and ineffective, a leading Democrat, speaking in Miami, made it crystal clear why his party is an unacceptable alternative. Pennsylvania's Rep. John Murtha, who became a hero to the antiwar left when he called in November for immediate withdrawal from Iraq , went further at a town hall meeting for Rep. Kendrick Meek. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel quoted Mr. Murtha as claiming that the "American presence in Iraq is more dangerous to world peace than nuclear threats from North Korea or Iran." He also told the audience of 200 that "we want as many Americans out of [Iraq] as possible" because "we have become the enemy."

Mr. Murtha has been sticking his foot in his mouth a lot lately. He accused Marines in Iraq of murdering civilians "in cold blood," contradicted himself in the same breath by saying they had "overreacted," and asserted that higher-ups covered up the purported crime without backing his statements up. He told a startled Tim Russert of NBC that U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq could be "redeployed" to Okinawa, Japan, whence they could return "very quickly" to Baghdad — which is 4,899 miles away. And more than once he has offered these examples of presidential leadership: "In Beirut, President Reagan changed direction. In Somalia, President Clinton changed direction."

Here's another take on the change of direction in Somalia: "After a few blows . . . [the U.S.] rushed out of Somalia in shame and disgrace, dragging the bodies of its soldiers." That was Osama bin Laden, in an ABC interview in 1998, the same year al Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, murdering more than 220. Two years later he struck at the U.S.S Cole off Yemen and killed 17 sailors. The next year his suicide bombers hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed more than 3,000 Americans.

"Mr. Murtha sounds less like a Marine colonel these days, and more like a male Cindy Sheehan," writes Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which circulates in Mr. Murtha's district. But all the adulation from left-wing bloggers has apparently convinced the 74-year-old Mr. Murtha that he has a shot at higher office. "The more he gets out there, the more he realizes that he truly has taken on a leadership role," a Murtha aide told Time magazine. This month he told his colleagues that he plans to run for majority leader, the No. 2 job in the House, if Democrats take control this November. It is assumed he would have the tacit or open support of many close allies of the current minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, who won a leadership post in 2001 in large part because Mr. Murtha was her campaign manager and convinced some moderates she was not an antimilitary left-winger.

If Jack Murtha, a backroom operator who is blunder-prone when speaking publicly, is Democrats' idea of fresh leadership, the party is in real trouble. Far from advancing the Democratic argument that Republicans have bred a "culture of corruption" while in power, Mr. Murtha's leadership bid would open a Pandora's box of questions about his own record.

In 1980, prosecutors named Mr. Murtha an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Abscam scandal. The FBI captured him on tape saying he wasn't interested in taking a $50,000 payment from agents posing as Arab sheiks "at this point," but he was open to further discussions. The House Ethics Committee cleared him, but E. Barrett Prettyman, the committee's special counsel for the Abscam probe, questioned the panel's competence, likeining it to "a misdemeanor court faced with a multiple murder." Mr. Prettyman abruptly resigned his post the same afternoon the committee voted to clear Mr. Murtha. While Mr. Prettyman continues to refuse to discuss the case, he told Roll Call newspaper in 1990 that it would "a logical conclusion" that he resigned over the committee's exoneration of Mr. Murtha.

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In direct contrast to Sen. McCain, whose experience in the 1990 Keating Five scandal turned him into a good-government reformer, Mr. Murtha's brush with infamy stirred in him a pit-bull conviction that members of Congress deserve more protection from ethics probes. In 1997 Mr. Murtha joined with Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, in blocking outside groups from filing complaints directly with the House Ethics Committee. He also unsuccessfully pushed for a law that would require the Justice Department to reimburse the legal bills of any member of Congress it investigated if it was shown the probe was not "substantially justified" — a privilege no other American has. Small wonder that Gary Ruskin, director of the liberal Congressional Accountability Project, told Roll Call that "when it comes to institutional policing of corruption in Congress, John Murtha is a one-man wrecking crew."

Mr. Murtha has been front and center in the controversy over earmarks, the individual portions of pork members of Congress often secretly secure for their districts or favored constituents. A Harper's magazine study has concluded that "the most effective ally for the earmark-seeker is a lobbyist who is actually related, by blood or marriage, to a powerful member of an appropriations committee."

Rep. Murtha is the ranking Democratic member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and for the past three years has been the House's top recipient of defense industry cash . Therefore, few in Washington are surprised that his lobbyist brother, Robert "Kit" Murtha, is an enormously successful "earmark specialist" for the Beltway firm KSA Consulting. In recent years, Kit Murtha has brought in a mother lode of earmarks for or at least 16 defense manufacturers with business before the Appropriations Committee.

Last year the Los Angeles Times reported that "most of KSA's defense contractor clients hired the firm in hopes of securing funding from Rep. Murtha's subcommittee, according to lobbying records and interviews. And most retained the firm after Kit Murtha became a senior partner in 2002." Kit Murtha told the Times that he saw Rep. Murtha only infrequently but said the congressman knew he was a KSA lobbyist. "I don't think that influences him," Kit said of his brother. "I certainly would hope not."

A poll taken last month by Democratic consultants James Carville and Stan Greenberg found that "Democrats are underperforming" and that "the current measures of Democratic turnout and enthusiasm are not impressive. They conclude that their party must "show voters something more" than they already have or they — along with Republicans — could see "a stay-at-home protest" this fall.

Primaries this year are already showing signs that voters are so far voting with their backsides. Earlier this month, only 3.45% out of 4.5 million eligible registered voters went to the polls in Virginia to decide a hotly contested race to pick the Democratic Party's U.S. Senate nominee. Sen. McCain has identified some of the reasons for Republican apathy. But not enough attention has been given to how much Democrats are flopping in their attempts to provide a better alternative.

By pushing forward Rep. Murtha as a fresh leader for their party, they are reinforcing the worst stereotype many swing voters have of a congressional Democrat: a big spender tarnished by scandal who holds wacky foreign-policy views.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund