History may well record that the beginning of the end of the American nightmare in Iraq came on November 17, when an old warrior said it was time for the troops to come home. But that will happen only if Congressional Democrats seize the opportunity that Representative John Murtha has offered them to become the tribune of popular sentiment against the war. Like many Americans, Murtha, a Korean and Vietnam war veteran who for three decades has been the pre-eminent Democratic hawk in the House, did not come quickly to the conclusion that the fight in Iraq will not be won by sacrificing more American lives. A backer of the 2002 resolution authorizing George W. Bush to use force, Murtha remained a defender of the misadventure long after many Democrats, and even some Republicans, began to question it. But when Murtha moved, he moved all the way. Describing the war as the result of “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” he told Congress. “Our military is suffering. The future of the country is at risk.” The retired colonel, who during his thirty-seven years as a marine earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts on the field of battle, closed his address by saying what needed to be said, “Our military has done everything that has been asked of them…. It is time to bring them home.”
Because Murtha has for decades been the Democrat closest to the Pentagon–and a frequent ally of Republican Presidents on military issues–his statement shocked the Bush Administration as no other show of Congressional opposition has since Bush and his aides began plotting to invade and occupy Iraq. The fear on the part of the Administration was palpable and led to a counterattack that was as fierce as it was ridiculous. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that it is “baffling that [Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party.” Vice President Cheney suggested that Murtha and other war-supporters-turned-critics were losing their “backbone.” Ohio Republican Representative Jean Schmidt went so far as to dismiss the retired marine as a “coward” during the bizarre debate over a trumped-up attempt by House GOP leaders to warp Murtha’s message into a “cut and run” resolution. None of the efforts to trash Murtha worked, as evidenced by Bush’s calling off the dogs and offering some words of conciliation.
The mistake made by too many observers on both sides of the partisan divide was to try to establish who had come out ahead in the first skirmishes. Did Murtha’s statement capture the imagination of the American people? Did White House battering of the Congressman minimize the damage? These calculations will ultimately prove to be beside the point. As Murtha noted, after being overwhelmed with messages of support from veterans and family members of troops serving in Iraq, “The public turned against this war before I said it. The public is emotionally tied into finding a solution to this thing, and that’s what I hope this Administration is going to find out.”
For that to happen, however, Democratic leaders must get the message as well. After Murtha spoke up, a number of key Democrats distanced themselves from the man they have so frequently turned to as their spokesman when they want to appear tough on military matters. “Jack Murtha went out and spoke for Jack Murtha,” griped Representative Rahm Emanuel, who as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is supposed to be in charge of figuring out how to mount the most politically effective opposition to the Administration and its House allies. Instead, Emanuel told reporters who asked where House Democratic leaders stand on the war, “At the right time, we will have a position.” If anyone wants to know why Democrats struggle to gain traction even as popular opinion turns sharply against the Bush Administration, they need only follow Emanuel’s pronouncements.
Murtha is right: The public has turned against the war. The job of Democrats and responsible Republicans in Congress is to give voice to that opposition, a process begun with the Homeward Bound resolution, co-sponsored by House Democrat Neil Abercrombie and Republican Walter Jones. Murtha has made the task easier by offering a serious, workable plan for bringing the troops home quickly and for focusing on the real work–much of it diplomatic–of stabilizing Iraq. Democrats must recognize, as Murtha has, that by putting aside politics and doing what is right for the country they will not only establish their party as the alternative that is needed; they will isolate the Administration and create a space where sensible Republicans can join a new bipartisan drive to get this country’s troops out of the Iraq quagmire.