06/12/2006 03:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dem Leadership Fight: Divisive or Decisive?

Some might see Jack Murtha's announcement that he will run for majority leader if Democrats regain control of the House as the epitome of putting the cart before the horse. Of counting one's chickens before they're hatched. A classic case of premature electulation.

After all, Dems need to gain 15 seats in order to take over, hardly a done deal.

But I see Murtha's decision, and the debate it has begun to spark, as the perfect chance for the party to find its voice and clearly define itself -- particularly when it comes to Iraq, the paramount issue in American politics.

Murtha's main competition for the position would be Steny Hoyer, the current House minority whip, who has also said he would seek the job. The two have taken very different stances on the war. Both men initially supported it. Murtha changed his mind; Hoyer has not.

Back in December 2005 after Murtha first presented his proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as possible, Hoyer, along with Democratic Congressional Campaign Chair Rahm Emanuel, urged Nancy Pelosi not to publicly support Murtha's plan because it could undermine Democratic chances in 2006.

According to The Hill, at a meeting of the House Democratic caucus in December, Murtha gave "an impassioned speech... castigating Democrats who disparaged other Democrats' proposals and asserting that his plan was about 'saving lives' not politics." The Hill quoted a House Democratic aide who attended the meeting as saying Murtha "was nearly screaming" during his speech and "was looking right at Hoyer" as he made his point.

Murtha and Hoyer also found themselves at odds earlier this year during the campaign for the vice chairmanship of the House Democratic caucus. Murtha backed John Larson, a longtime opponent of the war who had voted against the resolution giving Bush the authority to use military force. Hoyer's camp supported Joe Crowley who had voted for the resolution. Larson -- and Murtha, the co-chairman of his campaign -- prevailed.

Murtha and Hoyer clearly don't see eye to eye on Iraq, which makes their potential showdown about who should lead the Party incredibly useful in clarifying for voters where Democrats stand on the most significant issue of our time.

At the moment, the Democrats' equivocating position on Iraq is a major reason why they are failing to fully capitalize on voters' widespread desire for change - or, as the latest Democracy Corps poll puts it, "underperforming." Indeed, according to the poll [pdf], "there has been no improvement in feelings about Democrats in this change environment; in fact positive views of the party have actually declined over the past few months."

The rapidly coalescing conventional wisdom is that a leadership race among House Democrats is the last thing the party needs heading into November, and plays right into the GOP's hands. This CW was summed up by a senior Democratic aide who told The New Republic: "We're really focused on taking back the House and should not be distracted with a leadership race. It's going to be a huge diversion."

In fact, it's just the opposite.

By making it clear that the party intends to follow Murtha's call for immediate redeployment of our troops rather than Hoyer's Bush-lite approach, Democrats can draw a sharp contrast with the GOP (and isn't that what elections are about?) on the issue that has become the Republicans' greatest vulnerability.

Rather than divisive, the leadership battle could prove decisive -- and mean the difference between winning and losing in November.