Jack Murtha for Majority Leader... and "Person of the Year"

Election Day 2006 is over, but there are still a couple of races yet to be decided. And Jack Murtha is a contender in both of them. One is mostly fun: the contest to see who will be chosen as TIME Magazine's "Person of the Year". The other is incredibly significant: the battle to see who House Democrats will choose as their new Majority Leader.

I'm pulling for Jack Murtha in both contests.

When Rick Stengel, TIME's new editor, asked me to take part in a panel in New York this Tuesday to discuss who should be the "Person of the Year", my mind immediately turned to Murtha. Why? Because, contrary to what Karl Rove would like you to believe, this election wasn't about corruption, it wasn't about a few formerly closeted homophobes, and it wasn't about spending. As I've said before, it was about three things: Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq (Click here for backup). And Murtha was a key reason the election was a referendum on Iraq.

As CNN's Bill Schneider put it this week: Murtha is "the guy who stood up first and is still standing up...[he] has the message that won the glorious victory of '06."

The polls may have opened at 6. a.m. on Tuesday, but the process that unfolded on November 7th actually began almost a year earlier, on November 17th, 2005. That's the day when Murtha altered the dynamics of the '06 campaign by giving a speech that began:

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not 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..."

As Murtha noted at the time, 2,079 U.S. soldiers had been killed in the war. Since he gave the speech, 765 more have died. And the "flawed policy" Murtha decried has had catastrophic results, as the situation in Iraq has continued to deteriorate.

Sure, this may be the consensus opinion these days, but it absolutely wasn't when Murtha first spoke out. The very act of speaking out changed the national dialogue on the war. As I wrote in my "Person of the Year" nomination:

"A lifelong hawk, Murtha was willing to see the inevitable and courageously called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq long before it was the politically advantageous thing to do. He led the charge to make the war the central issue of the 2006 campaign -- a bold move that resulted in Democrats taking control of Congress for the first time in a dozen years. He followed his gut, not the polls, and the popular will eventually followed -- and that's what leadership is all about."

In today's toxic political environment, that kind of leadership usually comes with a price. For Murtha that meant being relentlessly Swiftboated and smeared for the next year by Bush, Rove, and the hatchet-men they contract their dirty work to. But he never stopped speaking out... or blogging out (he's been a regular contributor to HuffPost). His stance on the war isn't about politics, it's about principle. He's a man on a mission.

And though Murtha's impassioned and well-reasoned arguments didn't budge the delusional fanatics in the White House and the Pentagon, they were extremely important in prodding his fellow Democrats to begin talking about the war in a different way.

When Murtha first made the case for withdrawal, many Democrats -- including DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel -- balked, believing his position would hurt the Party's midterm chances. "When Representative John P. Murtha," the Times wrote, "called for withdrawal of troops, gaining wide publicity and highlighting divisions among Democrats over the war, Mr. Emanuel was filled with gloom." But as Emanuel told the Times after the election, "Iraq was the driving factor behind everything ... I was wrong, no doubt about it."

On Thursday, the House Democratic Caucus is scheduled to vote on who should be its new Majority Leader. The leading contenders are Murtha and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the current minority whip.

I strongly urge House Dems to remember why they're even picking a Majority Leader in the first place. If it weren't for Jack Murtha, they'd be voting for Minority Leader.

On November 7th, the American people made it clear they want a change in policy in Iraq. One way for Democrats to make it clear to the American public they're heeding this call is to elect Murtha Majority Leader.

And you can play a part. If you live in a district represented by a Democratic congressperson, call him or her and urge them to vote for Murtha. (You can find your representative here: http://www.house.gov/.)

Whether or not TIME picks Jack Murtha as the "Person of the Year", let's hope the House Democratic Caucus listens to the American people and picks him as its Majority leader.