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Jack in the Box

A moderate Democratic representative is on the phone, relating a thought he had a few days earlier about his party's prospects for winning back the House in November. "Things look really good," he had mused to himself. "You've got to wonder how we're gonna screw it up."

As if on cue, House Democrats--who had been coasting on GOP scandal and disunity--turned against one another. Last Friday, Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha picked a leadership fight over the central issue that splits his party: Iraq. Murtha, who wants a near-immediate withdrawal from Iraq, announced plans to challenge House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who preaches patience with the occupation, for the job of majority leader. That job would come open if Democrats win back the House in November--hardly a sure thing--making Nancy Pelosi the House speaker. Until last Friday, Hoyer was the widely assumed heir to the majority leader's post. "Nobody saw this coming," one stunned Democratic chief of staff said that afternoon.

Dashing from the House floor to an elevator on Monday evening, the lumbering 74-year-old ex-Marine with the grandfatherly face broadcasted supreme confidence. When I asked about his candidacy, Murtha gripped my elbow tightly and fixed me with penetrating green eyes. "You'll see when the votes come out. I'm gonna win this race. I've never lost a race. Ever."

But Murtha hardly thundered out of the gate. Early news reports were filled with quotes from Democratic House members who groused that Murtha's bid was a diversion from their goals of focusing the press on Republican disarray and uniting to win back the House. What's more, all but the most antiwar Democrats were loath to accentuate their caucus's divisions over Iraq policy. (Republicans, who fully appreciate this, gleefully forced yet another symbolic House debate on the war this week.) And so, less than 24 hours after Murtha's defiant words to me, Pelosi released a statement announcing on the Pennsylvanian's behalf that he would "suspend" his campaign until after the midterm elections. But, as one senior Democratic aide puts it, "the damage has been done," and an intrigue-laden sub rosa campaign is sure to continue anyway. Murtha's feint has sown new mistrust and resentment among House Democrats--and reignited long-standing complaints about Pelosi's leadership. It's a reminder that, as Democrats lunge for victory in the fall elections, their internal divisions may be their own worst enemy.

It's hard to fault Murtha for acting on his obviously sincere belief that the Iraq war is a debacle. As Murtha put it on MSNBC this week: "I think it's absolutely imperative--there's no more important issue to this country than the war. That's why I got involved in the majority leader's race."

Still, the now-suspended campaign is a reminder that Jack Murtha has always been an unlikely liberal hero. A plain-spoken, blue-collar "hawk" who supports big military budgets and voted for both Gulf wars, Murtha stepped out of character last November when he delivered a heart-rending speech about his visits with wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, declared the war unwinnable, and called for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops. The resulting explosion of publicity completely reinvented his political image. For most of his 32-year congressional career, Murtha has been known as a behind-the-scenes operator. His entry in the authoritative Almanac of American Politics, written before Murtha began crusading against the war, explains: "He speaks for attribution to few national or local reporters, hardly ever appears on television, and rarely speaks in the House chamber." That has changed drastically: In recent months, Murtha has been a regular fixture on TV talk shows like "Meet the Press" and an icon to the antiwar left--many of them the sort of radical activists who might once have been disgusted by his "pro-military" worldview.

Hoyer--a dapper, backslapping Marylander--has followed an opposite trajectory straight into the crosshairs of angry liberals. Days after Murtha's out-of-Iraq speech last fall, Hoyer responded with a statement warning that a premature withdrawal could result in "disaster." Hoyer has also contended with fury from the left over his pro-business stances, such as support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement and last year's bankruptcy reform bill. Along with his efforts to build ties with K Street lobbyists--ostensibly for the not-absurd purpose of raising more campaign cash for Democrats--Hoyer has been branded "Steny Whore" in some corners of the liberal blogosphere.

But a majority leader has enormous responsibilities over what happens on the House floor--and, in that respect, Murtha should also give liberals pause. It's true that, on economic issues like free trade and bankruptcy, Murtha has taken a more liberal, pro-labor tack than Hoyer. (Both oppose most of the Bush tax cuts.) But Murtha, who represents a culturally conservative steel-and-coal district outside of Pittsburgh, is a Reagan Democrat whose positions on social issues would appall the Burlington City Council. Murtha voted for oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance. He is a pro-lifer who regularly gets a flat zero rating from NARAL. His grade from the National Rifle Association tends to be an A+, thanks to votes like the one he cast in 2004 against Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban.

Nor does Murtha have a dream CV when it comes to one of the prevailing issues of the day: ethics. A longtime Appropriations Committee baron, Murtha was notorious for his chumminess with defense lobbyists. Last June, the Los Angeles Times reported that a defense appropriations bill Murtha helped to write funneled more than $20 million to at least ten companies represented by the lobbying firm where his brother, Kit, is a senior partner.

More troubling is Murtha's role in Congress's last massive corruption scandal: the 1980 Abscam case. Murtha was videotaped meeting with an FBI agent masquerading undercover as an Arab sheik. When the "sheik" offered Murtha $50,000 in exchange for help gaining U.S. residency, Murtha demurred, saying he wasn't interested "at this time"--but suggested he might rethink it after getting to know the sheik better. Murtha later admitted he'd hoped the sheik might "invest" money in his district, which might be legal but certainly doesn't sound pristine. The Justice Department named Murtha an unindicted co-conspirator, and, when the House Ethics Committee ultimately voted not to bring charges against him, the Committee's special counsel resigned in protest. It doesn't help matters that Murtha was one of exactly four Democrats to vote against their own caucus' motion last month promoting a tougher ethics reform bill than a sham Republican version. Abscam may be ancient history, and no sinister confluence between Murtha's work and his brother's lobbying has been established. Still, Murtha may not be an ideal leader--symbolically, at least--for a party determined to reform a "culture of corruption."

So why are some liberals attracted to Murtha? To many, Iraq is all that matters right now. Murtha also enjoys a surprisingly strong bond with Pelosi. He helped to manage her 2002 run for House leader and, along with California's George Miller, plays a part in many of Pelosi's key decisions. "Pelosi, Miller, and Murtha are a troika," explains a former House Democratic aide. Pelosi may also see Murtha as a useful counterweight to Hoyer, whom she has never fully trusted since she defeated him in a 2001 battle for the job of Democratic whip. Murtha also has little love for Hoyer. After Hoyer's statement about Iraq last fall, Murtha cornered New York Democrat Joe Crowley and barked at him, as The Hill reported, to "'tell your friend Hoyer' to stop stirring up trouble."

Disgruntled Democrats offer two interpretations of the fact that Pelosi had prior warning of Murtha's announcement: One is that she tried and failed to stop Murtha from challenging Hoyer. The other is that she encouraged Murtha to do so but then realized her mistake and persuaded him to change direction. Neither option makes Pelosi look like a strong and competent leader, and some Democratic aides were reporting deep anger about the whole affair--even within normally pro-Pelosi offices.

Earlier this month, a Time magazine reporter asked Pelosi about criticism of Howard Dean from some fellow Democrats. "I wish the Democratic divisions could go away," Pelosi replied, so that the party could focus on beating Republicans. "There's so much at stake here." Too bad Jack Murtha found a way to screw it up.