The Differing Trajectories of Lieberman and Murtha

There are some Republicans who point to the differences between Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CN) and Representative John Murtha (D-PA) on Iraq as a sign of a deep split in the Democratic Party. In reality, it is less of a split and more a sign of the increasing isolation of Lieberman in a Left-sliding Democratic Party and the radicalization of a formerly moderate representative like Murtha., a core interest group supporting the Democratic Party, is now considering the support of a challenger to Lieberman in the Democratic primary.

For Lieberman, it has been a quick five-year descent. In 2000, he was near enough to the mainstream of the Democratic Party to be its nominee for Vice-President in a hair-thin presidential election. In 2004, he ran an honest but mediocre bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Governor Howard Dean had radicalized the base of the Democratic Party and Lieberman was too moderate to secure the nomination. Now an important Democratic constituency is eager to dispose of Lieberman’s lucid but inconvenient voice: a voice that is too often ignored.

John Murtha has rocketed in the opposite trajectory. Considered a rather obscure pro-defense Democrat, perhaps a little of a pro-life, pro-gun Pennsylvania embarrassment to the Left-wing elements of the Democratic Party, he has obtained more national attention in the last few weeks than in his entire previous Congressional career by coming out for “immediate redeployment” of troops in Iraq. For the Left and the media being anti-Bush on Iraq apparently trumps even abortion and gun control.

While Murtha claims that 80% of Iraqis “strongly oppose” the presence of Coalition troops, Lieberman claims “Two-thirds [of Iraqis] say they are better off than they were under Saddam, and a resounding 82% are confident their lives in Iraq will be better a year from now than they are today.” While both statements could be technically true, probably only one reflects the true sentiments of Iraqis.

While Murtha claims that the troops are a “broken, worn out” force. In the midst of record re-enlistment rates for activity-duty personal in Iraq, Lieberman says our troops “are courageous, smart, effective, innovative, very honorable and very proud.” Again, both statements reflect some truth, but they suggest a radically different assessment of the state of the military.

Murtha believes “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.” After his fourth trip to Iraq in 17 months, Lieberman sees far more progress and promise. While eager to have American troops replaced by Iraqis as soon as possible, “What a colossal mistake it would be,” Lieberman warns, “for America’s bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory.”

Both men have a right, indeed a duty, to express their opinions. Both positions are borne of sincere concern. In the last few weeks, both men have been clear in their assessment of policy in Iraq. However, only one voice has been heard.

Murtha has been given far more press coverage than Lieberman. This despite the fact that Lieberman is a well-know Senator and Murtha was an obscure Congressman. Murtha’s call for withdraw neatly fits into the media template that the War in Iraq is hopeless. Lieberman’s view of the war does not fit into the press’s paradigm and is left to languish unexamined.

Some have claimed that this disparity in coverage is simply the traditional “bad news bias.” One does not report on how many planes landed safely, but the rare crash draws press attention. This explanation is not sufficient. The fact that many planes land safely is common knowledge. However, the present state of affairs in Iraq is not common knowledge or even broadly agreed upon. Therefore, the media have an obligation to report on important diverging assessments.

Joseph Lieberman gave his assessment in a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Our Troops Must Stay.” Usually, such a significant statement by a former vice-presidential candidate from a major party on a crucial national topic would echo in the other media. One could imagine the coverage Lieberman might have received had his message aligned with Murtha’s. Lieberman’s voice instead attenuated into the darkness on major media outlets. Murtha’s criticism of the president was a major story on the newscasts of all three major networks. Lieberman got only a sound bite on NBC .

There used to be a time, before talk radio and the Internet, when events ignored by the major news broadcasts may as well not have happened. There is some consolation in that news is now more fluid, but it would be far better for the country, if the major networks could manage even the appearance of even-handedness.

Despite genuine calls for keeping troops in Iraq until the Iraqis can stand on their own from prominent Democrats like Lieberman, Democratic Whip Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and others, the heart of the Democratic Party is strongly opposed to US military action. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was originally vocal about the threat posed by Saddam’s Iraq, but ever the weather vane, she is toning down her rhetoric and increasing her criticism of the President’s war efforts lest other in the Democratic Party challenge her from the Left for the presidential nomination in 2008. What ever minor fissures divide Democrats, they are united by a visceral dislike of President George Bush and all other differences fade in importance. Unfortunately, shrillness is not persuasive; hostility is not leadership; and perpetual and habitual opposition is not policy

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