The Good Soldier

When last we encountered Nita Lowey, at least in these pages, the Westchester congresswoman was abandoning her Senate dreams as she read the handwriting (H-I-L-L-A-R-Y) on the Democratic wall. It was a gracious, if inevitable, conclusion. One by-product of her decision to stay put was that Dick Gephardt importuned her to take the helm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sounds like an honor and in some respects actually is – she’s the first woman and, astonishingly, the first New Yorker in its 100-odd-year history to head the group – but mostly involves taking several hours out of already frantic work weeks to call contributors and beg.

The job also entails willingly making of oneself a lightning rod for the other side, which Lowey, who has not been known as a partisan firebreather, recently managed with aplomb. In an editorial-board interview at USA Today, she sketched out the lineaments of Democratic strategy for the 2002 midterm elections, labeling the current downturn “George Bush’s recession” – for reasons that strike me as antique in the post-Ken Starr era, those are considered fighting words in Washington – and calling the House Republicans’ stimulus package “unpatriotic.”

The Gannett people found this meaty enough to plop it on their front page. Denny Hastert and Ari Fleischer fired back in how-dare-she mode. Bob Novak chimed in, and so did Fox, where Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke called her one of the week’s losers (they report, you decide). In New York, of course, the fracas barely registered – the Times buried it, the Post took an editorial swipe but didn’t give it news coverage, and the News ignored it altogether. I’d like to think this is because New York newspaper editors found her language unremarkable, but I know better. The papers haven’t covered the congressional delegation, or New York’s relationship to Washington, for years now. It’s one of several ways in which New York’s political culture is, for all the racial Sturm und Drang, really quite undeveloped. If we all lived in Chicago, where civic life is far more robust (sorry, it’s true), Lowey’s remarks would have been front-page news in the Tribune.

It’s a meaningful point, because here we have a genuinely significant national effort being led by New Yorkers, for the first time, really, in decades – since Roosevelt, or at least since Adam Clayton Powell chaired the committee that passed much of the Great Society legislation. They don’t come much more New York than Lowey – born in the Bronx, moved to Queens (down the street from a family called the Cuomos), then to Westchester; charming in that way that New Yorkers universally consider endearing but that people elsewhere can find aggressive. And to run the DCCC she tapped Howard Wolfson, the well-regarded communications director from Hillary’s campaign (and Yonkers native, and Yankees lunatic). The assignment: Win six seats. Take back the House.

History suggests it should happen. Excepting FDR’s Democrats in 1934, no sitting president’s party has picked up seats in a first midterm election since the Civil War; losses average a dozen seats. Ah, but the war, you say. Turns out that war, if anything, makes matters worse for the incumbent party – eleven months after Pearl Harbor, the Democrats lost 50 seats. Redistricting was supposed to benefit Republicans, but for a variety of reasons, it seems that redistricting, nationwide, is now a wash. So far, twelve Republicans are retiring from the House, and only six Democrats. But you can’t rely on history; you need an idea. Well, Nita Lowey, what is it?

“At a time of economic recession, a time when people are making sacrifices, it’s wrong and inappropriate to give corporations a tax repeal retroactive to 1986,” she says. This was, Lowey says, the heart of the House GOP stimulus package, under which corporations would receive an immediate refund of $25 billion. And incidentally, which Texas-based energy company, whose chairman donated $250,000 to the GOP in the last cycle, would get about $250 million under the plan? If you said anything other than Enron, there’s a ballpark in Houston whose naming rights I’d like to sell you.

This is Lowey’s idea. but you might as well call it the Krugman Campaign. Few political columnists in my memory have so quickly and firmly established an identity for themselves as has Paul Krugman, the Times economic writer. Krugman has lacerated both the Bush tax cut and, more emphatically, the House stimulus bill; he has, almost single-handedly among the high pundits, kept up a substantive fusillade that has affected the national debate. And it now appears that his ideas are moving from commentary to strategy.

This week, Lowey’s DCCC is rolling out ads in three congressional districts held by vulnerable Republican incumbents – in southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and West Virginia. The text is anti-stimulus-bill populist, and the timing is designed to prick the ears of working-class parents scrimping to buy Harry Potter toys.

Lowey’s success will depend on two factors. First, the Democratic effort will have to get voters to focus on the economy and not the war. “In the handling of the war,” Lowey insists, “there is no difference between the parties” (the Democrats hope they can inoculate themselves against charges of dovism). Second, the economy will have to stay flat.

About either of those, who knows how things will go? But war or no war, there’s no reason that Democrats shouldn’t be able to attack Republicans’ domestic policies. “I think what she’s doing is not only appropriate but required,” says Barney Frank. “Nonpartisanship and partisanship are equally important aspects of democracy. What we ‘partisan bicker’ about are some of the most important questions a society can debate.” Lowey was probably wrong, if only tactically, to sling the U-word. Tom DeLay threw it back at the Democrats last week, and an argument on those terms is good for the GOP. Democrats can’t persuade voters that Republicans are unpatriotic, but they can persuade them that they’re greedy.

Lowey has always been popular. “With the possible exception of that Koch ad,” says consultant Philip Friedman, “no ad in the Hillary campaign was more significant than the ad Lowey made, especially in shifting the votes of women in suburban counties.”

If she can pull this off, she’ll be more than popular. “It was smart of her to bring in Wolfson,” says Hank Sheinkopf, “and if they do this, it brings back to New York the clout the state desperately needs and hasn’t had in years.” Charlie Rangel will chair Ways and Means, and Lowey herself will head an appropriations subcommittee (more important than most full committees). Who needs a Senate seat?


The Good Soldier