Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Jack Murtha, RIP

Congressman John "Jack" Murtha, who passed away yesterday, was symbolic of an era of the Democratic party that appears to be in its political twilight. With Murtha's death it appears that we are at the end of the era of Democratic rule in Pennsylvania’s Twelfth Congressional District (which, we cannot fail to note, John McCain carried in 2008). Pennsylvania, if the President is not careful, could be going the way of Virginia and New Jersey and once Blue Massachusetts. Once again, Murtha may be a predictive bellwether -- even from beyond the grave. From TNR:

By last summer, it was obvious that John Murtha did not have much time left in Congress. This was partly due to the efforts of Washington ethics cops and Western Pennsylvania Republicans, both of whom had spent the past few years working feverishly, through either judicial or electoral means, to remove him from office.

Murtha was front-and-center in maneuvering the Bush administration into drawing down the Iraq War (after, of course, voting for it). The Chairman used his position as head of the Appropriation Committee’s military subcommittee to maximum effect in curbing the excesses in Bush's Iraq war. Murtha's rock-solid military bona fides made him an important face in the anti-Iraq war effort that ultimately propelled the Democrats into becoming the majority party in the 109th Congress. The Democrats, particularly after decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 Presidential election against dubious veteran George Bush, suffered, ironically, from a lack of credibility with soldiers. Murtha's unassailable record on matters military strengthened the Democrat Party's opposition to the Iraq war. Alas, the political sea-change of the 109th congress did not occur in time to save the U.S. Senate seat of decorated veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland.

Murtha was also something of a loyal lieutenant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As Speaker of the House, one of Pelosi's first decisions was to back Murtha for Senate Majority Leader in the wake of the 2006 landslide. That didn't work out (Ironically, one of Obama's first decisions was to back the now-embattled Rahm for Chief of Staff).

Jack Murtha's life is festooned with symbolism and hubris. He died two days after becoming the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history. He exits stage left, dramatically, just as Pennsylvania is in the midst of a do-or-die political moment in the Specter-Toomey race. Murtha was the first Vietnam combat veteran to serve in Congress, and the face of veterans against Iraq in 2006. Finally, TNR argues that his working class district with a manufacturing base will probably also in the near future cease to exist with the Congressman's death and the cessation of his pork lagniappe.

"All politics is local," famously said Murtha's political mentor, Tip O'Neal. And Murtha -- perhaps more than anyone in Congress took that maxim to heart. Murtha, who represented a district in working-class Western Pennsylvania, was a bellwether in 1974. By beating the then Republican party favorite Harry Fox, his campaign signalled the end of Nixon and Vietnam-era politicking. Murtha's reputation for shovelling pork into his own local district destroyed his chances at becoming Majority Leader. That having been said, from TNR:

.... (H)is obituary writers will invariably describe him as “The King of Pork.” While the term is not meant as a compliment—and, in fact, Murtha’s political and legal troubles over the last few years stemmed from that well-deserved reputation—it’s worth remembering that, to the recipients of that pork, Murtha was a hero. For the last 15 years, he steered a steady stream of federal money—by some accounts as much as $2 billion—to Johnstown and, in the process, allowed the city to escape the fate of other once-booming steel towns that were unable to survive the collapse of that industry. Indeed, to visit Johnstown today is to encounter an oasis of relative prosperity—a city that boasts glass-and-steel office buildings, a Wine Spectator-award winning restaurant, even a symphony orchestra—in a desert of economic despair.

All politics, apparently, was local for Murtha. And while Murtha looked out for his people, his community -- at the quite literal expense, we cannot fail to note, of the nation -- there is something to be said for that kind of local populist politics. It does not win my vote, but his "clan" in Western Pennsylvania was as protected as a rust-belt district can be from the effects of The Great Recession. He tried.

John "Jack" Murtha, RIP.

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