Murtha finds himself a target because of Iraq war opposition

Rep. John Murtha’s suspended, but not abandoned, quest to become House Democratic leader has added one more layer of scrutiny to the already intense responses to his outspoken critique of the Bush’s administration’s war policy.

The veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker’s criticism of the administration, heightened by his recent predictions that military inquiries would find that a Marine unit committed war crimes in the Iraqi town of Haditha, is central to the battle to shape public perceptions of the war in Iraq. It’s also central to the November struggle for control of the House, to a potential intraparty leadership fight and, finally and closest to home, to the congressman’s re-election to a 17th term.

Murtha professes confidence about his side’s chances in each of those arenas, but some critics argue that talk about his political ambitions has dulled the clarity of his antiwar message.

Republicans, including his November opponent, Washington County, Pa., Commissioner Diana Irey, hope it will play into their hands in allowing them to nationalize his re-election race, thereby changing what now appear to be daunting odds against her.

“He’s decided to make himself a national figure,” said a Republican strategist involved in Irey’s campaign. “When you do that, you make yourself a target.”

Five days after he announced it, Murtha suspended his bid for the No. 2 spot in the Democratic caucus, a move that had put him on a collision course with the current Democratic whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Murtha, 74, announced the decision after conferring with Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, who would presumably become the House’s first female speaker if the Democrats win, opening the spot of floor leader. After a fund-raising appearance in Pittsburgh last week, Pelosi rejected the suggestion that the maneuvering had vitiated Murtha’s clout in the Iraq debate.

“Quite the opposite,” she said. “My view is that one of the reasons he announced his candidacy was to enhance his capacity to advance his Iraq message. And he certainly has done that.”

Murtha acknowledged, however, that he was concerned that a focus on the party fight could weaken the impact of his statements on the war or hinder Democratic unity in the effort to recapture the majority they lost in 1994.

“I just wanted to put a placeholder there,” he said of the timing of his first statement of interest. “I saw a political opponent already trying to line up support, but, yes, I didn’t want to be distracted from the main issue.”

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., a close Murtha ally, maintained that some criticism of his friend was misinformed.

“Some people questioned the timing when Jack did that,” he said, “but you’ve got to understand the inside-baseball part of it, and that is that other people were moving in a vacuum to sew up the race before it happened. He just wanted other members to know of his interest.”

Doyle predicted that the official hiatus had not stopped his colleague’s momentum.

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and an expert on Congress, suggested that the talk about the party post played into the hands of Murtha’s critics.

“I don’t think it was well-advised,” he said. “It sort of allowed people to look back and say, ‘Was this the reason for his outspokenness?’ “

Murtha argues that such criticism is being fomented by the White House.

“You saw Karl Rove attack me personally,” he said, referring to a recent speech in New Hampshire by the presidential adviser in which he targeted Murtha, along with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, as advocates of what the GOP hierarchy characterizes as a “cut-and-run” approach to the war.

“These personal attacks are just trying to distract from the real policy, which they don’t want to talk about,” he said. “They’re trying to distract the public and distract me, but I won’t be distracted. It’s too important to the country, and it’s too important to the troops who are suffering. … They’re the first reason I got into this.”

Pelosi said she was confident in her ally’s continuing effectiveness as a voice against the war.

“In November, when he made his statement, he changed everything,” she said. “The Bush administration has been on its heels ever since. … This man has such credibility. There couldn’t be a better messenger for change in Iraq.”

But some observers have argued that the clarity of Murtha’s position is not an unalloyed strategic bonus for his party.

In a column last week, congressional analyst Charlie Cook suggested that the effect of Murtha’s broadside was not all negative, from the White House’s point of view.

“(Murtha) declared that the United States should pull out its troops as soon as possible, effectively shifting the spotlight away from how and why we went to war, the Bush administration’s Achilles’ heel, and toward the question of what do we do now?” Cook said. “There is no national consensus on that question, making it a political jump ball.”

Baker, of Rutgers, said of Murtha’s call for redeployment, “It was an electrifying statement. But in some sense, he deprived Democrats of the political cover of ambiguity, which a lot of them were comfortable with.”

The debate over Murtha, as with most political subjects, is particularly intense on the Internet. Once known as the ultimate insider, adept at quiet congressional deal-making, he has become an unlikely hero of the blogs on the left and a ready target for those on the right.

In addition to vivisections of Murtha’s current political stands, some blogs have pointed a spotlight on Murtha’s brush with Abscam, an FBI investigation of corruption in Congress more than 25 years ago. While Murtha turned down a bribe in the sting operation, he encouraged a bogus sheik to consider investment in his district and ended up being identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

Web sites have also recycled allegations by former political opponents who maintain that he did not deserve the two Purple Hearts he was awarded for service in Vietnam. Another frequent point of attack is Murtha’s image as a champion of pork-barrel spending.

The Democrat has repeatedly shrugged off such attacks as efforts to change the subject from the war, and, if anything, he has been more outspoken in the months since he has been the focus of such criticism.

On the Web and on conservative talk shows, criticism of Murtha reached a new high with his predictions that Marines would be found guilty of having killed Iraqi civilians “in cold blood” in the town of Haditha. Irey seized on the statement in a Washington news conference in which she demanded that he make a public apology. Murtha said his military sources had told him the investigations would back his account.

(Irey has her own unusual Iraq connection. Her husband, Robert Irey, was a partner in a firm that received a multimillion-dollar Iraq reconstruction contract. The project, according to an extensive Associated Press report in January, came to a tragic end last year when a partner and friend, Dale Stoffel, was killed in Iraq under mysterious circumstances after making accusations of corruption involving the Iraqi defense ministry.)