Democrats closing ranks around Murtha

The House Democratic leadership is working to protect one of its own, but at what cost?

By Gabriel Winant
Published May 14, 2009 6:00PM (EDT)

There's an old saying: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." That hasn't held true for Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., who -- despite finding himself in quite a bit of hot water lately -- seems to have held on to a number of human friends in high places.

Politico reports that the House Democratic leadership has repeatedly made clear to the party rank-and-file that they are expected to oppose a proposal for an ethics inquiry into Murtha’s dealings. As the House was preparing to vote on Arizona Republican Jeff Flake’s resolution to refer Murtha to the House Ethics Committee, an e-mail went out to freshmen and sophomore Democrats urging them to vote to table it. The e-mail's subject line was, "Don’t be a Flake."

Sent by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a lieutenant of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the e-mail made clear that the message came from the top. Joining Van Hollen was Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, whose staff warned party members, "If the Flake resolution is referred to the Ethics Committee, members can expect attacks ads to be run against them alleging members to be 'under investigation by the House Ethics Committee.'"

Democrats say that if Flake is so concerned about Murtha he ought to follow the normal procedure and file an ethics complaint, as he is entitled to do. Pushing for floor legislation, they say, is just showboating. Replies Flake, “This is bigger than any one individual, and it’s not limited to one party. If I were to [file ethics charges], it would let too many others off the hook, including some in my own party.”

It may be true that the established procedure is more appropriate (though the Ethics Committee is in a bit of disarray), and the Arizonan may just be trying to bolster his credentials as a reformer. But as the American Prospect’s Tim Fernholz writes, Democratic leaders would be a whole lot more convincing if they seemed to care at all about the appearance of misbehavior on Murtha’s part. In short, the Democrats are repeating the Republican mistakes that helped Pelosi win the speaker’s gavel in the first place.

They may also be teaching the wrong lesson to the GOP. There’s a significant -- perhaps even dominant -- strain in the Republican Party that believes that the solution to their woes is, essentially, Flake-ism. When Republicans talk about where they went astray, they often dwell on precisely the sorts of issues that are at stake here -- transparency, earmarks and ethics. While their ethics troubles can’t have helped, it’s probably delusional to think that by simply cleaning up their act when it comes to the political process, they can avoid changing their unpopular positions on actual, substantive issues -- things like health care, taxes and the environment. By running scared on Murtha, Democrats aren’t just shielding a member from appropriate oversight. They’re also signaling their own insecurity. If they act as if the GOP can get political traction just by highlighting process issues, then they’re helping enable Republicans’ die-hard obstructionism, which is premised on the notion that becoming hand-to-God small government activists is all the party needs to do.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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