By David Sirota
Baltimore Sun (Permalink)

There is one more election that will happen this year, the year history may one day call the “Great Democratic Realignment.” It is the election for House majority leader between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, set for today.

The position Mr. Hoyer and Mr. 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 Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Murtha, both of whom serve on that panel. They seem very similar at first glance.

Both are pragmatic institutionalists, not bomb-throwing, anti-establishment revolutionaries. Both are deal makers, not rabble-rousers. And after an election where stopping rampant corruption was among voters’ top concerns, both have liabilities that put them at odds with the new “clean up Washington” mandate.

Mr. Hoyer, for instance, has often bragged to reporters about his efforts to establish a Democratic version of indicted former Rep. Tom DeLay’s “K Street Project” – the operation that trades legislative favors for money from corporate lobbyists. He trumpeted an article about this program on his official congressional Web site at the very time Democrats were campaigning against Republicans’ “culture of corruption.”

Then again, Mr. Murtha is no saint. He is known as a sometimes too close friend of defense industry lobbyists, using his considerable clout to steer earmarks to allies. He was also tainted by (although not indicted in) the Abscam scandal in the late 1970s.

But while Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Murtha’s similarities are obvious, their paths sharply diverge on Iraq and 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. Meanwhile, as a new report from the nonpartisan Public Citizen shows, opposition to America’s job-killing “free trade” policies was used by candidates in 100 campaigns nationwide, resulting in “fair trade” Democrats capturing an astounding seven new Senate seats and 27 new House seats, many in traditionally Republican areas.

On Iraq, Mr. 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 Ms. Pelosi said in supporting Mr. Murtha, the announcement “changed the debate” on Iraq, with various Democrats, military leaders, media pundits and candidates soon following him.

Mr. Hoyer’s reaction to Mr. Murtha’s Iraq announcement was telling. He ran to The Washington Post, not to praise Mr. Murtha for his courageous leadership in shifting the debate on the most important national security issue in a generation, but to say Mr. Murtha’s announcement “could lead to disaster.”

On trade, it’s the same thing. Mr. Murtha represents Johnstown, Pa., 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Clinton by voting against the China trade deal in 2000.

Mr. Hoyer, by contrast, voted for the China pact and a number of other trade agreements opposed by Mr. 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.

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 such as 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.

 

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