A Choice for Democrats

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LOYALTY IS an admirable quality, but sometimes it can be taken too far. That is the case with the decision by the incoming House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to offer a public endorsement of the bid of Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha (D) to become majority leader. Ms. Pelosi's preference for Mr. Murtha was no secret; he managed her campaign for minority leader against Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), now Mr. Murtha's rival for the majority leader post. What was surprising was that Ms. Pelosi would weigh in publicly on Mr. Murtha's behalf, albeit -- as she pointedly noted at the beginning of her letter -- in response to his request.

On the merits, Mr. Hoyer is by far the better choice for the job. He is a moderate and highly capable legislator whose selection would reinforce Ms. Pelosi's announced commitment to govern from the center.

Mr. Murtha's candidacy is troubling for several reasons, beginning with his position on the war in Iraq. A former Marine, Mr. Murtha deserves credit for sounding an alarm about the deteriorating situation a year ago. But his descriptions of the stakes there have been consistently unrealistic, and his solutions irresponsible. Just last week he denied that the United States was fighting terrorism in Iraq, though al-Qaeda is known to play a major part in the insurgency. He said the United States should abandon even the effort to train the Iraqi army and should "redeploy as soon as practicable," an extreme step that most congressional Democrats oppose. He claimed that "stability in the Middle East, stability in Iraq," would come from such an abrupt withdrawal; in fact, virtually all Iraqi and Middle Eastern leaders have said that it would lead to a greatly escalated conflict that could spread through the region.

Mr. Murtha would also be the wrong choice as majority leader after an election in which a large number of voters expressed unhappiness with Washington business as usual. Mr. Murtha has been a force against stronger ethics and lobbying rules. He was one of just four Democrats whose votes helped kill a strong Democratic package of lobbying reforms this spring.

As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, he has been an avid participant in the orgy of earmarking, including numerous projects sought by a lobbying firm that employed his brother. During the Abscam congressional bribery investigation in 1980, Mr. Murtha was videotaped discussing a bribe with an undercover FBI agent. ("You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know," Mr. Murtha said.) He wasn't indicted, but it's fair to say the episode raised questions about his integrity.

Mr. Hoyer says he has the support of a majority of members of the Democratic caucus. We hope they aren't persuaded otherwise by Ms. Pelosi's letter.

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