Uncommon Interview: Uncommon: Rep. Patrick Murphy

“I lost 19 men in my unit in Iraq…. So I came back home to [Penn.] and ran against an incumbent.”

By Ankit Jain

Patrick Murphy served from 2006 to 2010 as the representative for Pennsylvania’s eigth Congressional District, just outside of Philadelphia. Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran in Congress, is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Politics. He sat down with The Maroon to discuss ROTC, midterm elections, and how to encourage constructive dialogue and compromise.

Chicago Maroon (CM): What motivated you to join ROTC and the Army?

Patrick Murphy (PM): You know it’s one of those things where my roommate took a military science class, an Army ROTC military science class…. And I fell in love with the military and that form of public service. In my opinion, in both politics and outside of it, it’s probably the most pure form of public service. And it was great to feel like I made a difference in people’s lives. Whether it was deploying to Bosnia, where we stopped a war; or ethnic cleansing of Muslims—worst ethnic cleansing in Europe since World War II—or whether it was serving in Iraq and visiting the orphanages in south central Baghdad. It was a pretty heady experience.

CM: Why should UChicago reinstate ROTC?

PM: This is an elite institution, and other elite institutions like Harvard and Yale have embraced ROTC especially since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has gone into effect. And I was proud that that was the bill that I authored when I was in the U.S. Congress. So I think that it’s a no-brainer to give the opportunity for the thousands of students here who want to get into public service to look at that as a potential avenue to go into.

CM: Some people say that reinstating ROTC would be supporting U.S. military imperialism and the atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. What would you say to that?

PM: I would tell those people to look at my record. I think those who have served in combat are those who are least likely to send our young men and women into harm’s way. Especially unnecessarily. As was the case in Iraq.

CM: So you think it encourages people to understand better what war means?

PM: When you look at the history of the strongest advocates for the limitation of military power—people like President Eisenhower, who talked about the military-industrial complex. Young presidents like John F. Kennedy, who was a World War II combat veteran, who if it wasn’t for him we would have went to war over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those who have seen the horrors of combat and war are those who are most likely to be hesitant and to follow the American tradition of the United States as a reluctant warrior.

CM: After you left the military, what made you interested in running for office?

PM: I lost 19 men in my unit in Iraq and thought it was an unnecessary war. So I came back home to Pennsylvania and ran against an incumbent congressman and won a race that most political prognosticators said I never had a chance. But I became the second Democrat to win in over 100 years in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. And then won re-election and proudly served.

CM: Were you thinking about what effect it would have at all on ROTC on campus when you were pushing that bill? Because a lot of the reasons that colleges were saying they didn’t want ROTC was because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

PM: What campuses across the nation don’t understand is the military executes the laws. And when I was a young college professor at West Point as an Army captain, going to campuses like Columbia and others and have them protest my presence, after 9/11, was pretty disturbing. Especially when I was teaching the next generation of military leaders at West Point how wrong the policy was. So to go and confront some of those protestors and let them know I thought they were absolutely right, that the policy is wrong, but it’s the Congress that was responsible for it, not the military. The military just executes the laws and orders given to them.

CM: So you think some of that focus that people place on the military should rather be placed on political leaders?

PM: It should be solely placed on political leaders in Washington and elsewhere.

CM: Switching subjects a little, Democrats recently got beat down in the midterm elections. There are a lot of reasons for this, but what do you think are some of the main reasons?

PM: Leadership is inspiring others to do things that they wouldn’t necessarily do. And if you’re running for office as a Democrat, you have to convince people that you’re fighting for the little guy. That’s the foundation and the bedrock of the Democratic party. And we’re not willing to stand up to fight against tens of trillions of dollars, I should say trillions of dollars in student-loan debt, burdens our generation of students. Or being wanting to do what’s necessary to bring jobs back, good paying jobs and family-sustainable jobs here in America. You can’t cater to special interests solely. And I think the Democrat Party lost its way a little bit, and it showed in the election results.

CM: Are you saying that the Democrats didn’t have a strong enough backbone?

PM: Well, I think the evidence that not one person went to jail for one of the worst financial crises in American history—that cost the taxpayer $900 billion to bail them out, and not one person went to jail—is a pretty sad indictment on our government.

CM: Along these lines, Jon Stewart recently called Democrats “chickenshits.” Stewart made the point that when you have candidates who won’t even say they voted for the president of their party…

PM: I agree with Jon Stewart that too many Democrats are chickenshit. My dad used to tell me if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. So you damn better well stand for something.

CM: Do you agree with the idea that Democrats were too scared to run on the record of what they had accomplished under Obama?

PM: You look at the sheer numbers of the millions of jobs created under President Obama, in his term, and the efforts, both ending the war in Iraq and drawing it down in Afghanistan, or domestic policy where the unemployment rate is now under 6%. Or even for middle class families who rely on the 401K plans for their pensions. The stock market went from 6,500 to 17,000. These are historic gains that will help the middle class. But if you don’t tell the American people what you’ve done for them, then they’re not going to know about it. So you better damn well be proud of what you fought so hard for.

CM: So you don’t regret your votes on health care reform and cap-and-trade?

PM: I don’t regret doing what’s necessary to wean ourselves off of our dependence on foreign oil. Fighting for local initiatives like the fifth-largest solar field in America, is in Bucks County. But when you lose 19 men in Iraq and you know in your heart of hearts that one of the reasons why we’re there is because of our dependence on foreign oil…if you don’t come back and fight for a change, I don’t know what else you should fight for.

CM: This is the second midterm in a row where Democrats have been beaten down pretty hard. So isn’t this proof that voters just support Republican policies more than Democratic policies?

PM: I would say Democrats traditionally vote every four years, to their own detriment. And you have to motivate and inspire people to get off their asses and go to the polls on Election Day across the nation. And it’s not just about why the other guy should be fired, but it should be why you should be hired. And you should be hired because you have a consistent message that proves to the American people that you’re fighting for the little guy. And that’s what the tradition of the Democratic Party is and not fighting for big business or special interests.

CM: How can we end the gridlock currently paralyzing Congress? Is there any way to end it?

PM: Well, the Republicans have no more excuses. They have to now govern. They control the House and the Senate. They can only blame the President so much. So I’m looking forward to seeing some tangible results come out of Washington—some of which won’t be the perfect bill, but things that are necessary to move our country forward and get people working again.

CM: Are you hopeful that we’ll see some agreements between President Obama and the congressional Republicans?

PM: I think we’ll see legislation to make the Affordable Health Care Act even better, whether that’s the medical device tax and other measures. But also things like an infrastructure bill, which is desperately needed. And I’m hopeful that the Republicans look at the map in 2016 and know that to pass immigration reform if they want any shot at winning the White House again.

CM: But do you think they will pass immigration reform?

PM: I’m not that hopeful that Republicans will. I think they’ll cater more to the Ted Cruz wing of their party than what moderate Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce are generally for, which is immigration reform.

CM: There’s been a controversy recently at UChicago about the dichotomy of free speech and making sure you have a diverse and inclusive campus that isn’t one that’s welcoming to hate speech. What are your thoughts on this? Should free speech be restricted to protect people from hate speech and racism?

PM: I think you go back to the first amendment rights. All speech is protected, except FIDO. Fighting words, incitement to riot, defamation of character, or obscenities. And as long as it doesn’t meet the FIDO criteria, it should be welcome on every campus in America.

CM: Racial slurs, for example, would that be in FIDO?

PM: If you have racially insensitive remarks, I think that that would be considered fighting words to a lot of Americans, including myself.

CM: Why should people care about politics and get involved when nothing ever happens and the goal of most politicians seems to be only political point scoring?

PM: Because the great thing about political public service is you can make a major difference in people’s lives. But when I helped raise the minimum wage back in 2007, it was the first raise in 10 years for most Americans—for a lot of Americans. And you have to show people why these policies are so important. And the fact that millions of Americans have health insurance and they now won’t die is something I’m proud of…. But we got to make it better, and we got to make sure that we don’t go into unnecessary wars, whether that’s in Syria, the Ukraine, or Iraq.

CM: But a lot of what you’re talking about was done with Democratic control of the House, Senate, and presidency. And that is something that is very rare.

PM: I disagree with you. We passed the minimum-wage bill when President Bush was in office. And I think if the Republicans find their voice in that, they know that they have to represent all Americans and not just the powerful few on Wall Street, that they’ll see that they have to come back towards the middle. And I’m hopeful as an American that that’s what they’ll see. And they’ll start ignoring the Ted Cruz wing of their own party.

CM: It seems like people aren’t able to disagree without being disagreeable. How can we allow ourselves to have these conversations without getting into these extreme shouting matches where we just refuse to listen?

PM: I think it’s important to remind folks that when we see people who are coming together to move the ball forward, even if bills aren’t perfect, you’re not compromising your principles, and you’re doing your job and your duty to this nation. And I think far too often that people on the far left and the far right want to highlight those most extreme amongst us. And it’s to the detriment of our nation.

CM: So how can we stop this from happening?

PM: I think you start in your daily life. So if someone comments in a class with, could be a political viewpoint that contrasts directly with your point of view, that you don’t attack them as a person. That you try to listen and remember that God gave everyone two ears but only one mouth for a reason.

CM: What is your advice to people who are interested in public service?

PM: They should get engaged in every way possible. Whether that’s joining a campaign or running themselves. When I ran for Congress I was 31 years old and I had $322 in my bank account, and I beat Rick Santorum’s protégé by 0.6 percent a year and a half later. Most folks told me not to do it and I had no chance, but I was doing it for the 19 men I served with who never made it home from Iraq. And when I get to Congress we really made a difference in our short time there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.