If John Murtha Loses, Do We Care?

by Eve Fairbanks | October 27, 2008

It takes terrible luck or astonishing talent for a congressional Democrat to be endangered this year. Still, there are a half-dozen Democrats who really could lose their seats a week from tomorrow.

On the bad-luck end, there's Nick Lampson, the Texan who replaced Tom DeLay in 2006 and who'll probably get bumped out again thanks to the district's deep-rooted conservatism. There's Louisiana's Don Cazayoux, a conservative Democrat who won a special election only to see another Democrat enter the November race as an independent spoiler. There's New Hampshire freshman Carol Shea-Porter, whose generally likable Republican opponent from last cycle is returning for a rematch. And there's Pennsylvania's Paul Kanjorski, an unremarkable Democrat who has the misfortune of being challenged by a rock star of the anti-amnesty movement.

On the talent side, nobody tops Palm Beach freshman Tim Mahoney, who's so unbelievably self-sabotaging he deserves a Darwin Award. Fellow freshman Steve Kagen also helped put his moderate Wisconsin seat up for grabs with his cringe-inducing -- and probably exaggerated -- boasts of bullying Karl Rove in a White House bathroom. ("You’re in the White House and think you’re safe, huh?” he claimed he said, although Rove denied it. “You recognize me?... I kicked your ass.”) But perhaps the Democrat who's most surprisingly dragged his own seat into play is John Murtha.

Could Murtha -- a 34-year House veteran who's weathered endless political storms -- actually lose? Absolutely. After telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his district was "a racist area," he gave a disastrous apology in which he called his constituents "rednecks." A subsequent poll showed him ahead of his unknown GOP challenger by a mere 5 points.

The better question is, if John Murtha loses his race, do we really care? I say no.

Okay, if Murtha is defeated, Republicans -- looking for any source of pride amid the grim ruins of their rule -- will do endless irritating victory marches with his head on a stake. But not everybody with a (D) next to his name deserves a seat in Congress merely to deny the GOP a scrap of pleasure. And Murtha has always been a sore spot in Democrats' efforts to claim they want a cleaner Washington -- a shameless porker in the Don Young tradition and one of only three Democrats to make Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington's "Most Corrupt" list every year. (The other two are Bill "Cash In My Freezer" Jefferson and Alan "Too Crooked To Sit On the Ethics Committee" Mollohan. Fine company!) Even if you forgive Murtha for the long-ago sins of ABSCAM, the CREW complaint details many more recent abuses, like leveraging his Defense Appropriations Subcommittee chairmanship to "benefit the lobbying firm of a former long-term staffer and ... threatening to block earmarks of other members for political purposes."

Murtha's courage on Iraq used to counterweigh his ethical shadiness for a lot of Democrats: It's easy to forget how tough it was for a congressman who was also a veteran to be as critical of the war as he was in November 2005. But the party has plenty of strong military voices on Iraq now, people like Representative Patrick Murphy and Senator Jim Webb. Murtha's just not as crucial a dissenting veteran voice he once was.

And, to my mind, Murtha's denigration of his constituents as racists and rednecks wasn't merely an awkward gaffe. The concept of an existential, cultural, and unbridgeable rural-urban divide has been one of this election's lamest themes. That concept can be invoked pejoratively, as Murtha did, but it can also be invoked as an anti-liberal bludgeon (see "real Virginia"), which is even more infuriating. It'll be a pleasure if voters reject that idea and its proponents on Election Day. If poll-goers vote down a Democrat who touted this insulting concept as well as the Republicans who demagogued it, I can't say I'll be that sorry.

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