Stance on Iraq turns Murtha into powerful political force

What a difference nine months makes.

Last November Rep. John P. “Jack” Murtha, D-Pa., thundered onto the national scene insisting that the U.S. military could accomplish nothing more in Iraq, could only make things worse. He called for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.

At the time, many of his Democratic colleagues considered his stance suicidal for their party when they’re trying to regain control of Congress despite having long been seen as weak on national security.

Rep. Jack Murtha (Photo by Win McNamee)

Rep. Jack Murtha (Photo by Win McNamee)

Now, Murtha is one of the most popular Democrats around. In recent weeks he’s raised money for Democrats campaigning in New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and California. In Tennessee, he was former Vice President Al Gore’s guest at a fundraiser for local Democrats. After Labor Day, Murtha will head back out on the road, helping up to four dozen of his party’s candidates.

He said events had proved him right.

“Everything I said has turned out to be true,” Murtha said Wednesday, taking a break at his campaign headquarters in Johnstown. “You can’t win militarily. Military leaders are now saying it publicly where they said it only privately before. I get standing ovations every place I go. The public is looking for a solution to this open-ended policy, which is killing kids.”

Murtha, 74, is an imposing man with white hair and sharp eyes. A decorated Marine, he was the first combat veteran of the Vietnam War elected to the House of Representatives. Long regarded as a hawk on national security, Murtha is the ranking Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

He’s never been seen as charismatic, until now.

On Aug. 9 at the Tavern on the Green restaurant in New York’s Central Park, Murtha appeared at a rally for Eric Massa, a retired Navy commander who’s trying to unseat Rep. John “Randy” Kuhl, R-N.Y.

Massa said Murtha “couldn’t speak, the applause and the standing ovation was so prolonged and intense. He speaks the truth. He’s not deterred by critics. As the failures of the Bush administration in Iraq have become more obvious, his credibility has significantly increased.”

Murtha said he was too old to consider running for president, but that he’d try to become majority leader if Democrats gained the 15 seats they needed to take charge of the House.

“I’m on a mission here, and the mission is to help change the direction of the country,” he said.

The identity of his southwestern Pennsylvania district has long been entwined with the catastrophic flood that tore through Johnstown in 1889 and with the steel industry, which abandoned it over the past few decades. It has a conservative bent, with a constituency older and more heavily veteran than average. Democrats outnumber Republicans.

Until his emergence last fall as a foe of the Iraq war, Murtha had operated largely behind the scenes. To counter a local unemployment rate that he said hit 24 percent in the 1980s, he used his appropriations post to send home lucrative dollars for defense contracts, medical research, flood-related tourism and infrastructure.

A local airport is named for him. So is an institute for the study of neuroscience and pain. A breast-cancer center bears the name of his wife, Joyce.

Murtha is expected to win re-election handily. Even Diana Irey, his Republican challenger, acknowledged in an interview this week that she’s facing “an uphill battle.”

But Irey added: “The war issue has made people raise an eyebrow . . . and given us an opportunity to tell people who he really is.” She mentions Murtha’s opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage: “Jack Murtha acts more like he’s representing liberal San Francisco than conservative southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Some voters are listening to her.

David Gray, 45, a Republican accountant, said Murtha hadn’t been able to replace the steel industry with anything similarly big or permanent.

“It’s all a lot of little things. As soon as Murtha’s gone, they’re all gone, these defense contracts. What good is that?”

More seem to stand by Murtha.

“People said Johnstown will never come back,” said Jack Ray, 57, a Democrat and a clerk at a clothing store. “I think Johnstown is coming back. And he’s been involved in most things that have happened.”

Helen Davis, 76, a Republican whose late husband worked for Bethlehem Steel, agrees with Murtha’s stance on Iraq.

“I don’t think we’re accomplishing anything there, and I hate to see these young men sacrificed for people who don’t even want us there,” she said.