Muffing Murtha

How Bush’s rapid response went wrong.

For he’s a jolly good fellow

Let’s be clear: Members of the Bush administration think Jack Murtha is a jolly good fellow. On Nov. 20, the president went out of his way to praise the Pennsylvania congressman as “a good man who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman.” The next day, Vice President Cheney did the same. He praised Murtha as a “good man, a Marine, a patriot.”

There is almost no higher praise in Bushworld. To be called a good man means you are loyal, honest, and on America’s side. The week before, administration officials and GOP leaders had strongly suggested just the opposite in responding to Murtha’s call for a rapid redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq. That Bush and Cheney are now complimenting him so conspicuously is a sign of how badly their original attack backfired.

This is what happens when a party goes into campaign mode without a single opponent. With no specific person to target, the Bush administration ends up taking on all members of the opposition at once. The White House plugged Murtha into an indiscriminate and undifferentiated rapid-response machine and it didn’t work. Finally, Democrats have reason to be happy that they have no clear leader.

When Murtha first made his proposal, the White House press secretary pounced. Scott McClellan issued a statement directly targeting Murtha for “endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.” In calmer times, McClellan would have made the point in his regular daily briefing. But White House aides are in rapid-response mode, so they didn’t wait. They rebutted Murtha’s proposal immediately, the way they would have during the week before an election, and their disproportionate response itself became the issue.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert wrote on his blog (yes, Denny too!) that when Murtha announced his proposal, it was “the biggest show I’ve seen on television in a long time. And I don’t think it was an accident that it was done while the President was out of the country. Our President was on foreign soil and the Democrats were up there criticizing him on the War!” Murtha’s stunt, he said, was an example of how Democrats “seem to have made an agenda out of misrepresentations.”

Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, the newest member of the House, followed her leaders in the day’s now most notorious misstep. Speaking of Murtha’s ideas on the floor of the House, she quoted a colonel as saying, “Cowards cut and run, Marines never do.” Schmidt has been saying she’s sorry ever since: She immediately withdrew her remarks from the record and wrote Murtha an apology note. Tuesday, she apologized again, this time in public. (The colonel, an Ohio state representative, denies the remarks.) If this keeps up, Murtha can expect a large holiday fruit basket.

How did the Republicans screw this up so badly? Two weeks ago, the White House decided to go back into full campaign mode. A war room was formed. No charge would go unanswered. Staffers began issuing press releases rebutting claims by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

The first indication of trouble was the president’s effort to make John Kerry the face of the opposition. “Many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election,” said Bush in his Veteran’s Day speech. The gambit was obvious: to portray all those who are against the administration’s policies in Iraq as politically motivated and hypocrites like that famous flip-flopper from Massachusetts. But the effort to re-fight a campaign he won last year made Bush look a bit petty and desperate.

The effort ran further aground when administration aides had the bright idea of linking Murtha to Michael Moore. Comparing any opponent to the toxic filmmaker would only work after months of softening up his reputation. Murtha’s history probably makes even that impossible. In his 37 years in the military, Murtha won two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star with a Combat “V,” and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

The bungled Murtha response gave him more energy, validity, and acclaim than he probably would have gotten otherwise. It has made the withdrawal option in Iraq a far more serious topic of conversation than it would be otherwise. No one is signing on to Murtha’s quick timetable for withdrawal, but the idea can no longer be dismissed by merely mentioning the name of the person who offered it. Murtha’s next proposal will arrive with far more credibility because of this episode. People will pay attention to what he has to say. After all, he’s a good man. Just ask the president.