Democrats Remain Progressive After Electing Hoyer

by Paul Hogarth on November 17, 2006

House Democrats bucked Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement by selecting Steny Hoyer of Maryland as their new Majority Leader over ex-Marine Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania by a vote of 149-86. While the mainstream media argues that this is a “blow” to progressive Democrats and Pelosi, Murtha’s defeat was not for ideological reasons. Key progressives like Barney Frank backed Hoyer, and newly-elected Democrats in Congress are not conservative. In fact, the 110th Congress is probably one of the most politically progressive we have seen in a very long time. Pelosi will now continue working with Hoyer (her long-time rival) to lead the opposition, and both will hopefully pursue the progressive policies favored by the voters on November 7th.

The vote was by secret ballot – so we will never know for sure who were the 149 House Democrats that voted for Hoyer, and the 86 who voted for Murtha. But roughly half the members publicly made their endorsement known, and so it’s possible to see any “trends” in the vote break down – especially if they are along ideological lines. While Murtha had the support of many hard-line progressives like Dennis Kucinich, Jim McGovern and Jim McDermott, Hoyer’s support was far from just the conservative Democrats in Congress. Many of the new liberal committee chairs like Barney Frank, Henry Waxman and Bennie Thompson endorsed Hoyer – and even some reform-minded progressives like Jesse Jackson Jr. and Keith Ellison (a Paul Wellstone protégé and the first Muslim ever elected to Congress) were in his camp as well.

Hoyer also has a more progressive voting record than Murtha. In 2000, the ACLU gave Hoyer an 86% rating, whereas Murtha got a 57%. ADA (Americans for Democratic Action), whose ratings are the most authoritative guide for who are the “liberal” members of Congress, gave Hoyer an 80% rating and Murtha a 55%. The League of Conservation Voters gave Hoyer a 79% and Murtha a pitiful 36%. Only AFSCME — the labor union for government employees — gave Murtha a perfect score and Hoyer an 85%. But as I wrote before, the test for Congressional leadership is not ideological purity – it’s whether they can unify the Democrats and stand up strong against the White House. And the critical difference between Hoyer and Murtha (and why it would have been preferable for Murtha to win) is the War in Iraq – Hoyer continues to mouth weak criticisms of the Bush Administration, whereas Murtha says forcefully that we should pull out our troops.

No matter how many times it gets claimed otherwise, very few of the Democrats who were elected to Congress this November are “conservative” – and Steny Hoyer’s election should not validate this lie. As Markos Moulitsas pointed out on Daily Kos, only five of the 41 freshmen Democrats can honestly be called conservative: Nick Lampson of Texas, the three Democrats from Indiana, and Heath Shuler of North Carolina. But Shuler has gotten so much press coverage as the “new face” of Democrats that you would think that he was the only Democrat in the country who got elected to Congress this year. And although Shuler is anti-choice and opposes gun control, he is a strong economic populist who supports Nancy Pelosi’s First Hundred Days agenda.

As I mentioned last week, most of the Democrats who were elected to Congress defeated Republican incumbents from blue states or blue districts, and are more progressive than the national party. Some like Jerry McNerney of California and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire defeated moderate Democrats in the primary who the national party had promoted as being more “electable.” Others like former rock star John Hall (of the Seventies band “Orleans”) ran in districts that the Democratic Party had abandoned, but won with an anti-war, pro-environment platform. Stuart Rothenberg, a highly respected analyst of Congressional elections, wrote in the November 16th edition of Roll Call: “virtually all of the Democrats I interviewed were pro-choice, favored rolling back President Bush’s tax cuts and sounded traditional Democratic themes on education, the environment and foreign policy.”

Beyond Murtha’s call for bringing our troops home, many have speculated that Nancy Pelosi supported his election out of sheer loyalty. In 2001, Murtha managed Pelosi’s successful campaign to get elected House Minority Whip when she beat Hoyer, and their close relationship was probably a strong factor behind her support. Pelosi can be loyal to a fault – even when it hurts her badly. Back in 2001, she endorsed Gary Condit for re-election after the Chandra Levy scandal broke out, probably because he had promised to vote for her. This incredibly stupid move hurt Pelosi more than it helped Condit – who ended up losing in disgrace.

In yesterday’s article, I said that it wouldn’t matter much in the long-term if Murtha or Hoyer get the Majority Leader post – because the other one would get Majority Whip. But I was wrong. Democrats elected Jim Clyburn of South Carolina as Majority Whip (the highest-ranking black Congressman in history), and Murtha did not get any of the other leadership positions. What this proves is that Democrats – like Republicans — are afraid of Murtha because they cannot control him. Especially on the War in Iraq, he speaks his mind and like Howard Dean, he often makes slips of tongue that don’t look good.

Of course, many argue that Murtha lost because of his ethics problems. On November 13th, a good government watchdog group blasted Pelosi for endorsing Murtha – calling him one of the “Twenty Most Corrupt Members of Congress.” Videotapes of the Abscam scandal re-surfaced last week, where undercover FBI Agents approached Murtha in 1980 with a $50,000 bribe. But Murtha was never charged with a crime and the Ethics Committee cleared him.

Murtha might be corrupt, but I have a hard time taking the Abscam scandal seriously when it occurred 26 years ago – and the video was made available last week by the American Spectator, a right-wing publication that lied throughout the Nineties about Bill Clinton with a single-minded focus to bring him down by any means necessary. The problem for Murtha was how he chose to handle these revelations – an out-of-context comment that he made to the House Blue Dog Democrats (leaked to the press by a Hoyer supporter) probably sunk his chances.

It’s unfortunate that Jack Murtha will not be the new House Majority Leader, but it is certainly not a validation of Steny Hoyer’s weak-minded approach to the War in Iraq. The Democrats did not win Congress by being “conservative,” nor should they govern that way. The American people want us out of Iraq – and Congress needs to fulfill this.

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