LESTER HOLT, MSNBC HOST: Perhaps nobody is more of a symbol of this year's election divide than Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the former Marine catapulted to the national stage with a call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. It made him a hero to anti-war advocates and a villain to those who believe his public stance has hurt U.S. morale.
He's now asking Pennsylvania voters to send him back to Capitol Hill for a 17th term. Congressman Murtha joins us now from Capitol Hill.
And, Congressman, good morning to you. Thanks for being with us.
REP. JOHN MURTHA (D) PENNSYLVANIA: Good morning, Lester. Nice to be here.
HOLT: You made that statement back in November of last year suggesting -- and it shocked a lot of people -- suggesting that we should bring the troops home from Iraq. Since them, you've been catapulted to superstar status in some corners of the Democratic Party. You've been to many states now campaigning, raising money for Democrats.
Have you -- in that statement, did you give license to other Democrats to come out and say the same thing: that it's time to pull out of Iraq?
MURTHA: What I said was it's a failed policy wrapped in illusion. They kept saying how well it was going and they were mischaracterizing, misrepresenting what was going on in Iraq. We needed realistic appraisal of what was going on. We need to change the direction.
And I think it give some credibility because of the fact that I've been on the Defense Subcommittee, and I've supported President Reagan, I supported President Bush I. And we need a change in direction. We need a fresh start is what we need, Lester.
This has been going on and open-ended, and it's gotten worse. We have 130,000 troops who've been deployed to Iraq. And incidents have increased in the time I spoke out from 400 a week to 800 a week.
HOLT: But is it overstating the case to say this is the issue that will give Democrats a shot at controlling the House; this is the overriding issue?
MURTHA: Well, I think in the polls, it's always jobs and the economy. It is always local issues that have the predominance. But this is such an overriding -- I see an intensity I haven't seen since 1974.
When I came to Congress in '74, Lester, it was during the Watergate crisis. Now, Nixon had just won by 520 electoral votes to 17. And I won by 122 votes. I was the first of the Watergate special election.
In the fall, I won by 24,000 because public opinion had changed so much against what was going on in the White House. They felt like there was dishonesty and so forth.
Now it's the same intensity I see now. We won 36 out of 43 incumbent seats that were running that year. We won 13 out of 13 open seats. So I see -- we won five out of six special elections that year. We even won Gerald Ford's seat. So sometimes there's an overriding issue that makes the difference.
Now, some of those seats won't be held forever.
HOLT: Let me ask you: Your opponent, Diana Irey, says that you have emboldened the enemy with your stance. And you have -- and I know that you're somewhat of a superstar in the party, but some Democrats have distanced themselves from you. You have created anger among groups not only over your stance in Iraq but what you had said about the Marines in Haditha.
And while your opposition claims it'll be an uphill battle, you have received a fair amount of negative talk about your stance here. Has that surprised you?
MURTHA: Lester, I look at it this way. This is not a personal thing; this is a policy thing. I disagree with the policy of this administration.
Listen, the Democrats are united behind the war on terrorism. Democrats are united about a strong military. The Democrats are united about a strong America. It's the way we get to it that counts.
We've had 130,000 troops over there; incidents are increasing. Oil production and energy production and electricity below prewar level. Unemployment, 60 percent. I mean, it's not going right. It's time to change direction.
HOLT: Congressman, would you like a leadership position, and will you campaign for a leadership position if the Democrats retake the House?
MURTHA: I will. I think it's necessary because the war is costing us $8 billion a month. We can't solve Medicare. We can't solve much of the sewage and water problems, much of the housing problems -- many of the things that we normally have money for we don't have for because of the $11 million we're spending an hour.
HOLT: Is that a judgment on Nancy Pelosi's leadership up till now?
MURTHA: No, no. I think -- I'm a great admirer of Nancy. As a matter of fact, Nancy's the best political mind I've ever seen. She comes from Baltimore originally, and let me tell you, her dad was a mayor and a member of Congress, and I've never seen a person who was so focused and has so much vision.
And the reason the Democrats are so united is because of Nancy Pelosi. I think I can help her change the direction in this country.
HOLT: You have also been among the Democratic leaders who have signed a leader suggesting that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld be ousted or pulled out or resign here. Is that a backward way of getting the president to acknowledge mistakes in the war in Iraq?
MURTHA: Well, I think there's been so many mistakes that have been made, Lester. And it's really frustrating.
First of all, they sent troops in with inadequate force. We sent troops in that had inadequate intelligence where it didn't really threaten our national security: no Al Qaida connection, no weapons of mass destruction. Then, in the end, we have no exit strategy.
And when the military asked for more people in Afghanistan, where we should have gone in, the secretary vetoed that. When he asked for more troops to go into Iraq, they vetoed that.
You know, in a war, you make sure you have enough troops. I remember criticizing the administration for not going faster in Iraq in '91 in getting them out of Kuwait. And President Bush said, "Look, we're not going in until we have enough troops -- whatever the military wants." Well, the military wanted 350,000; we sent them in with a lot less.
HOLT: But, Congressman...
MURTHA: Lester, I was the one that found less body armor. Unarmored Humvees weren't (sic) there. I'm the one that found those things when I went over to see the troops. So we sent inadequate forces and inadequate equipment.
HOLT: Republicans aren't laying down, from the president on down. They're defending this war. They're defending it as central in the war on terror. And while they will not make that link that it was Iraqis who were behind 9/11, for better or worse, it has become a battleground against terror right now.
So what's the consequences of pulling out troops here? And does your statement not play into the Republican stand that they're stronger, ultimately, in the end, on national security?
MURTHA: Let me tell you something. The British were in India for almost 90 years and they were finally forced out. And when they were forced out, they had a civil war.
Now, we can't settle this for the Iraqis. I have come to the conclusion we cannot win this militarily.
The military knows it. When you make those kinds of statements about our troops and you say the troops are discouraged, the troops know what's going on. If there's anybody that knows what raises the morale of the troops is not being rotated four or five times, having the proper equipment.
We have many, many of our units in the United States -- almost every unit could not be deployed because of lack of equipment. All the Guard and Reserve units can't be deployed for lack of equipment. That's what destroys the morale of the troops.
And we need, really, a unified country. We have few people making this sacrifice.
I go to see these young folks in the hospital all the time, and it breaks my heart to see these folks and what they've gone through. And the families -- they used to say -- used to be that the troops who say to me, "I want to go back." And now I'm getting medals from people who are saying to me, "I'm ashamed to wear my medal."
HOLT: And, Congressman, we should note that you've spoken out in support of the draft.
We've got to end the conversation right there, but I want to thank you for taking time, being with us this morning. We do appreciate it.
MURTHA: Nice talking to you, Lester.