Three days that transformed America

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   Nov. 17, 2005 at 10:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- On Thursday, a Democratic national politician for the first time managed to do what former Vice President Al Gore, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, their running mates and more than $150 million of Democratic consulting and campaign resources signally failed to do in more than five years and two national elections: He mauled President George W. Bush.

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It's a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of the members of Congress," said Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania as he called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from that country.

"The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq. But it's time for a change in direction," Murtha said. "Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region. "

Murtha's blistering speech Thursday could have been easily shrugged off if it came from Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, or even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. But Murtha had been gung ho for the war and accepted the intelligence evaluations at face value that were presented to Congress arguing the necessity of it.

Now, he has transformed the political dynamics of the Democratic Party. He is the first prominent Democrat since former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in his meteoric lightning rise and fall in 2003 to early 2004 to attack the president head-on on Iraq. In January 2004 in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Democratic voters overwhelmingly repudiated Dean's bold stand against the war and not a single leading Democrat since has dared to oppose it outspokenly and consistently.

But Murtha, who has no presidential ambitions -- at least not so far -- has smashed that consensus and that taboo. And he did so only weeks after the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice president Dick Cheney's longtime chief of staff in the Valerie Plame leak case, and within weeks of the U.S. military death toll in Iraq finally breaking the 2,000 barrier

Murtha's speech was the third of three political body blows to hammer the president in this, yet another "black" week for he man who just a year ago was reelected to a second term with more votes than any American had ever received in history.

First, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the Vietnam vet who has always opposed the Iraq war, came out with his strongest condemnation of the president's policies yet in a Tuesday speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.

"Trust and confidence in the United States has been seriously eroded," Hagel said. "We are seen by many in the Middle East as an obstacle to peace, an aggressor and an occupier. Our policies are a significant source of friction. ... We have made very bad decision we could possibly make. ... The problem now is how to get out without further destabilizing the Middle East."

In the first months after the rapid occupation of Iraq, Hagel was looked down upon by the GOP rank and file as a wild, romantic maverick, and even during the first year of the occupation of Iraq as the insurgency there slowly but inexorably took hold in the Sunni Muslim areas, he was still seen as an isolated eccentric by most of his fellow GOP senators.

But now Hagel is steadily emerging as one of the most influential and respected figures in the party. As Republican congressmen in long-safe but suddenly vulnerable districts seek to distance themselves from the president's plunging approval ratings as fast as they can, he alone of all the prominent figures in the party offers the prospect of some kind of inoculation against the Iraq virus that is decimating the party's supporters nationwide.

For also on Tuesday, a Black Tuesday indeed for the White House, the Senate overwhelmingly passed virtually unanimously by 98 votes to nil -- easily a veto-proof majority, a resolution demanding progress reports and accountability from the administration on progress -- or the lack of it -- in Iraq.

The resolution was helmed by one of the most experienced and respected mainstream Republican leaders in the Senate, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Hagel, far from being isolated, is now a key leader even of Republican majority thinking in the Senate. The overwhelming approval of the resolution was a huge personal triumph for him. Tellingly, he described it as "a critical turning point in congressional involvement" on war policymaking.

And on Wednesday, the House and Senate at a reconciliation conference agreed to even rein in some of the government's more far-reaching powers as conditions for renewing the Patriot Act.

But it is the rise of Hagel and the emergence of Murtha as an outspoken and devastating critic of the war that are the worst news for the White House.

A year ago, Hagel was an isolated figure in the Senate and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Bush's personal handpicked choice for the post, was spoken of as a likely front-running presidential candidate for 2008. Bush's legacy appeared to be good for years, if not decades to come.

But now First is a busted flush, embarrassed by revelations and investigations about conflict of interest on stock sales and widely discredited by his rash and unsupported diagnosis and handling of the Terry Schiavo right to die case.

A vast political shift took place in Washington this week. It splintered the Republican majority in the Senate and it energized the Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives. And none of the fierce and impassioned political counter-attacks of the president and Vice President Dick Cheney as yet have shown any sign of putting those two Category 5 political hurricanes back in the bottle.

Cheney Wednesday night condemned critics of the Iraq war and told a supportive conservative audience from the Frontiers of Freedom group, "The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone, but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history,"

But the 73-year-old Murtha, a Vietnam vet himself, did not sit back passively the way Sen. Kerry did through August 2004 when he was endlessly mauled by Bush supporters trashing his Vietnam combat record. The Pennsylvania congressman hit back, and hit back hard.

In a pointed reference to Cheney's own failure to serve in Vietnam, he said "people with five deferments" had no right to make such remarks. If Kerry had fought back that way 15 months ago, he might have had a chance of winning.

As it was, Murtha has pioneered the a new attack strategy for Democrats in the next year's run up to the crucial 2006 congressional elections: Do not cower in a corner any more on national security issues, but come out swinging with both fists.

It took only three days to transfer the dynamic of U.S. national politics, but the consequences are going to take months and even years to reveal their full implications.

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