Of course, House Democrats made a mistake in choosing the slick favorite of Washington special interests, Steny Hoyer, over shambling populist John Murtha to serve as House Majority Leader. In one of the more ridiculous exercises of journalistic irresponsibility by a Washington press corps that is distinguished by nothing so much as its ineptness when it comes to offering useful perspective to the American people, Murtha was dismissed as an ethically-challenged mess of a man while Hoyer, the candidate of K. Street, was presented as the tidier Democrat.
The coverage of the Murtha-Hoyer fight was commendable in the sense that Americans were reminded that it matters when members of Congress choose their leaders. Perhaps, soon, reporters will remind the populace that, under the Constitution, Congress is a co-equal branch of government charged with checking and balancing the excesses of the executive.
But, while it was nice to see a little attention paid to Congress, the failure of perspective when it came to reporting the realities of the leadership race was glaring. While Murtha certainly failed as a paragon of virtue, his alleged misdeeds tended to be petty and self-serving. Yet, they were blown up into such a "scandal" -- complete with the 24/7 repetition of grainy Abscam investigation videos that featured Murtha turning down a bribe but not doing so firmly enough -- that even Democrats who might have been inclined to respond to House Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi's pro-Murtha pleas decided to go with Hoyer.
While Murtha may be an imperfect individual, Hoyers imperfections are systemic. The Marylander who served as minority whip before the election is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the insider Democrats of Washington: He votes right on just enough issues to keep in the good graces of Democratic special-interest groups. But he votes wrong on just enough economic issues to keep the doors of corporate America open to his fund-raising appeals. The sly strategy has worked for Hoyer -- Public Citizen rated the Maryland congressman as the "most dependent on special-interest money" in the House and ranked him fifth out of the 433 members reviewed for contributions received from lobbyists.
In the critical measure of who gets money from corporate political action committees, Hoyer beats Murtha 2-1. Why?
Where Murtha could point to a consistent record of standing up to Wall Street on the most fundamental of economic issues, trade policy, Hoyer's record is one of abandoning the interests of workers, communities and the environment in order to meet the demands of multinational corporations and their lobbying groups. Even when human rights groups pleaded with Congress not to award permanent most-favored-nation trading status to China, Hoyer broke with most Democrats to back the move. In fact, Hoyer was the highest ranking Democrat in the House to support the shift. He also backed the North America Free Trade Act and other trade deals that most Democrats -- including Murtha -- opposed.
Where Murtha made his name by challenging the neo-conservative consensus on the war in Iraq in particular and foreign policy in general, Hoyer criticized his colleague for taking a stand, saying doing so "could lead to disaster."
Where Murtha defined the issues on which Democrats won in 2OO6, Hoyer was an anonymous backroom operative.
Nancy Pelosi knew that.
She backed the better contender for the majority leader post.
As usual, Pelosi did the right thing. Remember, this is the woman who voted against authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq and who stood up to former President Bill Clinton on trade with China.
But, also as usual, Pelosi did the right thing wrong. She came out for Murtha long after it was possible for her to influence the race in the Pennsylvanian's favor. Had Pelosi begun laying the groundwork before the November 7 -- especially with women in the caucus who respect and like her but who have never been so comfortable with Murtha -- she might well have been able to get the result she wanted. Had she used her prominence and her position to make the leadership vote more of a referendum on Iraq policy, rather than to allow it to be a murky choice within the caucus, she might have turned the focus away from the discussion of what Murtha did or did not do a quarter century ago and toward what he did in the fall of 2OO5, when the former Marine jumpstarted the discussion about exiting Iraq.
By backing Murtha so late and so ineptly, Pelosi made herself look weak and ineffectual. Even worse, she allowed a wrong signal to be sent -- the false message that the House Democratic Caucus was scared by Murtha's talk of quickly bringing the troops home from Iraq. With the key player in the Out of Iraq Caucus, California Democrat Maxine Waters, backing Hoyer for reasons of personal allegiance, it was always clear to honest observers that the leadership race was not a referendum on Iraq. Unfortunately, there are a lot of dishonest observers in Washington, and Pelosi should have known that.
As has been the case since she entered the House leadership, Nancy Pelosi, with her endorsement of Murtha, displayed a reasonably good sense of what Democrats should do. But, when she acted upon that endorsement, she displayed a particularly poor sense of how to do it. No one should be shocked by the latest stumble. This is, after all, the woman who knows that Democrats must hold the Bush administration to account for lying about the reasons for attacking Iraq, for condoning war profiteering, for warrantless wiretapping, for using positions of power to punish critics and, yet, declared before and after the election that talk of impeaching the wrongdoers is "off the table."
Pelosi's bumbling approach to the race for the majority leadership ought to serve as a wake-up call for the woman who will be Speaker of the House. She is about to come into immense power. She needs to exercise that power aggressively and without compromise. She should not be waiting until it is too late to make it clear who she wants on her leadership team, and to make the case to her allies for why they must vote with her. She should not be taking Constitutional procedures "off the table." She should not be pulling her punches.
Nancy Pelosi should trust her judgement and act upon it. She is the leader. She needs lead -- more firmly, more strategically and more effectively.
John Nichols' new book, The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press.
2006 The Nation