There is one more election that will happen in this, the year that history may one day call the Great Democratic Realignment. It is the election for House majority leader between contenders US Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jack Murtha, set for Thursday.
The position Hoyer and Murtha are fighting for, which is one step below House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, is the only contested Democratic congressional leadership race, and will serve as the first proxy battle in deciding the direction of the new Congress.
When I was the Democratic spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, I worked with Hoyer and Murtha, who both serve on that panel. Both men seem very similar, at first glance.
Both are pragmatic, and institutionalists–not bomb-throwing anti-Establishment revolutionaries. They are both dealmakers, not rabble rousers. And, following an election where stopping rampant corruption was among voters’ top concerns, both men admittedly have liabilities that put them at odds with the new “clean up Washington” mandate. Hoyer, for instance, spent the last many years bragging to reporters about his efforts to establish a Democratic version of indicted-Rep. Tom DeLay’s K Street Project–the operation that trades legislative favors for money from corporate lobbyists. He famously trumpeted an article about his K Street Project on his official congressional Web site at the very same time Democrats were campaigning against Republicans’ “culture of corruption.”
Then again, Murtha is no saint. He is known as a sometimes-too-close friend of defense industry lobbyists, using his considerable clout to steer special “earmarks” (pork) to allies. He was also tainted by the Abscam scandal in the late 1970s.
But while Hoyer and Murtha’s similarities are obvious, their paths sharply diverge on Iraq and “free” trade–the two issues that made the difference for Democrats in this landmark election.
Exit polls showed that opposition to the war in Iraq was a major factor across the country on election day. Meanwhile, as a new report from nonpartisan Public Citizen shows, opposition to America’s job-killing “free” trade policies was used by candidates in 115 campaigns nationwide, resulting in “fair” trade Democrats capturing an astounding seven new Senate seats and at least twenty-seven new House seats, many in traditionally Republican areas.
On Iraq, Murtha is the congressional leader most responsible for shifting the national conversation on the war. As a Marine, Vietnam War hero and longtime hawk who supported the invasion of Iraq, he shocked Washington last year with a call to begin withdrawing American troops from the increasingly chaotic quagmire. As Pelosi said in supporting Murtha, the announcement “changed the debate” on Iraq, with various Democrats, military leaders, media pundits and candidates soon following him.
Hoyer’s reaction to Murtha’s Iraq announcement was telling. He ran to the Washington Post, not to praise Murtha for his courageous leadership in shifting the debate on the most important national security issue in a generation, but instead to say Murtha’s announcement “could lead to disaster.” Days later, he tried to publicly humiliate Pelosi for supporting Murtha’s withdrawal idea, with the Post reporting that Hoyer “told colleagues that Pelosi’s recent endorsement of a [Murtha’s plan for] speedy withdrawal [from Iraq] combined with her claim that more than half of House Democrats support her position, could backfire on the party.”
On trade, it’s the same thing. Murtha represents Johnstown, Pennsylvania–the type of hardscrabble, working-class district Democrats have too often lost since President Bill Clinton joined with Wall Street to push free-trade pacts in the mid-1990s. In representing this kind of district, Murtha has opposed many of the most destructive trade agreements that sell out American workers. In the most high-profile example, he went up against Clinton by voting against the China free trade deal in 2000.
Hoyer, by contrast, voted for the China pact, and a number of other “free” trade agreements opposed by Murtha and progressive Democrats. He has parroted much of the rhetoric of the Democratic Leadership Council–the corporate front group that has relentlessly pushed Democrats to provide the crucial congressional votes necessary to pass “free” trade pacts. As Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch said when Hoyer ran against Pelosi in a previous leadership race: “Hoyer has repositioned himself–one can only assume for political purposes — as the DLC, business candidate.”
Neither candidate, of course, is perfect. But this is far more than merely a lesser-of-two-evils choice.
If Democrats are looking for a follower to speak for their majority–a person who regurgitates the Beltway’s conventional wisdom of the day, no matter how bad for the party and the country–then they have their candidate in Steny Hoyer.
But after a mandate election like this year’s, Democrats do not have to settle. They have a rare opportunity to define themselves for the long-term on the crucial national security and economic issues key to changing our country and keeping control of Congress. They must find the courage to choose not a follower, but a majority leader. His name is Jack Murtha.