Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Back to earth and its grubby shades of gray

Political powerlessness has its compensations, and one of them is the exhilarating clarity of moral vision it makes possible, unsullied by any compromise. Compromise is a strange word. While compromise is the very heart and genius of political democracy, an affirmation that politics is the art of the possible, it may also signify the shabbiness of abject moral failure. The two senses of the word reflect our understanding that compromise can be a slippery slope, one on which we hope our political leaders will keep their ethical balance, while we fear that they won't.

It seems that nothing fuels moral judgment like being without political power. It's like standing on a mountain with a moral telescope of exceptional resolving power. Wherever you focus your lens on those in power, you see every manner of ethical lapse, from the most serious to the most trivial. You're confident that your side would never stoop so low. When you return to power and come down from the high ground, you suddenly find everything has turned a grubby shade of gray. As congressional Republicans found over the course of the last 12 years, what begins as shades of gray can, over time, become an impenetrable miasma of corruption. Where on that slippery slope do you draw the line?

It's easier to give examples than to define exactly where the elusive line should be. For example, John McCain walked right up to the edge of the line as one of the Keating Five, flirting with the end of his political career before seeing the light, being forgiven by the voters and becoming an advocate of campaign finance reform. McCain's fellow naval aviator and war hero, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, sailed right over the line to the tune of millions of dollars in bribes and is now doing hard time as a result. Ultimately, except in the rare cases that go to the courts, it's the voters who sort it all out. They're not naive, and they usually make their decision based on the total context of a politician's career, and they are capable of forgiving transgressions -- as they demonstrated not just with McCain, but with President Clinton as well.

The Democrats had a few days to relish their victory in the midterms, but the shades of gray were quick to settle in. Nancy Pelosi's backing of John Murtha for the House Majority Leader position over Rep. Steny Hoyer quickly became controversial. Ruth Marcus savaged Pelosi's decision in the Washington Post, pointing to Murtha's skating up to the very edge of the Abscam scandal 26 years ago.
"I'm not interested -- at this point," he says of the dangled bribe. "You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know." Indeed, he acknowledges, even though he needs to be careful -- "I expect to be in the [expletive] leadership of the House," he notes -- the money's awfully tempting. "It's hard for me to say, just the hell with it."
John Amato -- who also has good links to Kos, Matt Stoller and Howie Klein on the issue -- takes a very different view at Crooks and Liars.
As you all know, I think Jack Murtha changed the narrative about the war in Iraq. When he spoke out, it shocked the nation and the Bush administration in his clarity and sincerity almost a year ago. He stepped up and articulated a clear vision of what we needed to do and admitted that he made a mistake with his vote. He went through the terrible swiftboating from the right for months and yet came out of it still breathing fire on the terrible situation in Iraq.

I know that he's from a very conservative district when it comes to social values, but I was able to talk to him for a few minutes Tuesday and he made it clear that his focus is on Iraq and he'll leave the rest up to Nancy Pelosi. I take him at his word.
Makes sense to me. If we can cut McCain some slack over the Keating Five incident, we should be able to cut Murtha some slack over something that happened nearly three decades ago and for which he was never charged -- as have the voters in his district. His opposition to the Iraq war was courageous and played a vital role, while Hoyer's record on the war was dismal. The war will be the biggest issue in the next session of Congress. Murtha, who supported Pelosi in the past and has earned her loyalty, can play a major role in helping to end it.

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