Political tides ebb and flow with a momentum not nearly as well understood as the seas’. Turning points are reached, often through the action, inaction, hubris, or desperation of one faction or another. We may just have witnessed a rare triple turning point last week, when political thought caught up with reality, and business as usual was a grave miscalculation.
On Thursday Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha opined that the conquest and occupation of Iraq had proven to be a failure, and it was time to start bringing the troops home. Murtha’s no bleeding heart; he was a strong hawk when Dubya requested war powers, with a resume to match: two Purple Hearts, a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Bronze Star with Combat V, and a Distinguished Service Medal after thirty-seven years in the Marine Corps.
It’s not his style to seek the spotlight; it’s doubtful if he’s ever been on a Sunday talk show before this weekend. Speaking out like this indicates a serious crisis of conscience for a man who has proven his devotion and willingness to sacrifice for his country many times over.
Republicans responded in their tried and true method: they vilified him. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Murtha endorsed “the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.” Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, said Murtha's call for withdrawal was “reprehensible and irresponsible,” and showed “a policy of retreat and defeatism.”
The House’s most junior member, Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, showed that while she may be new, she understands contemporary Republican politics. Schmidt told Congress about a call she received from Marine Colonel Danny Buhp, who asked her to tell the House to stay the course, because “only cowards cut and run; Marines never do.”
That almost started a fist fight. Democrats immediately called for Schmidt to retract her statement. When order was restored, Schmidt requested her words be “taken down,” and said her comments weren’t directed at any member of the chamber.
She left unsaid that Colonel Buhp, self-appointed determiner of all things Marine, is a Republican member of the Ohio legislature. He’s also a career reservist who has never seen combat. There’s no shame in that; I’m sure he’s done everything that has been asked of him. For Schmidt to use his comment in that context could not be construed as anything but a direct slap at Murtha by someone of purportedly equal military credentials. (Buhp has since distanced himself from what Schmidt said he told her.)
This is classic Republican 21st Century strategy. No matter who opposes you (John McCain in South Carolina, Max Cleland in Georgia, John Kerry everywhere), no matter how his record compares to yours, malign and degrade him until counterarguments are moot, then make a smarmy disclaimer when it doesn’t matter anymore.
It didn’t work this time. Public sentiment toward Schmidt’s transparent attempt to defame Murtha was quick and hostile, even in her own district. The White House has run away from McClellan’s initial comments faster than France can clear the road to Dunkirk.
Possible Turning Point One: Will Murtha’s comments be as significant as Walter Cronkite’s were about Vietnam? Marginalizing the anti-war forces was easy until America’s most-trusted newsman said it was a lost cause. Murtha’s not as well-known as Cronkite was, but his bona fides are better. McClellan’s linking of Murtha to liberal wing-nut Michael Moore was a clear attempt to marginalize him; it lasted even less time than anyone took Moore seriously.
Possible Turning Point Two: Have Americans finally had enough of lowest common denominator politics? It’s a rough business, but I’m old enough to remember when political argument stopped short of demonizing the opponent, or maliciously spinning a superior record against him. Is it becoming passé for a Republican to praise the military, then in the next breath slur those whose valor and sacrifice made it possible for the chickenhawk to avoid service in the first place? We can only hope.
Possible Turning Point Three: Have the Democrats finally found some onions? After years of being afraid to insult or offend anyone, are they actually going to stand for something, even if it means an occasional intemperate word? Murtha took point again when told of comments Bush and Cheney made immediately after his statement. “I like guys who got five deferments and [have] never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.” When’s the last time a politician with some street cred laid it on the line like that?
Not having served is no disqualification for leadership, but it’s not too much to expect leaders to be willing to learn from those whose experience trumps their own, and to consider opposing viewpoints. Bush and Cheney routinely flog anyone who voted in favor of war powers for even hinting they’ve changed their mind. No congressional vote gives any president a blank check to do as he wishes in perpetuity. Bush won election last year, in part, by criticizing Kerry for changing his positions over a thirty-year career. Bush apparently has never changed his mind. Of course, for him, life truly began at forty; anything before that is off-limits, probably because he can’t remember himself. Never changing one’s mind is a sign of not learning anything, and rarely has any public figure needed to learn as much as George W. Bush.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” A great nation has rarely been ruled by such a large collection of little minds as our selfishness has inflicted upon us now. John Murtha may be right, he may be wrong; he may be remembered as a hero, or become a forgotten historical footnote. For now, he represents what is best about us, right or wrong: a man who has seen his duty, and consistently done it. Even if that contradicts something he’s done before.