Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has one charge this year: Winning back the House. The New York Democrat spoke with National Journal about the challenges ahead and why the election is like the fight for Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ You’ve said that being a member of Congress is something you’ve dreamed about your whole life. How
is that turning out?
ISRAEL I’m not satisfied with the current crowd running Congress. The good part about it is, every morning I get to wake up and, instead of whining and complaining about [being] in the minority, I get to do something about it to get us back in the majority.
NJ How can Democrats retake the House?
ISRAEL The landscape starts with 43 [districts] that voted for President Obama but have a Republican incumbent. In the worst of all worlds, we will win a third of those districts. That’s 14 districts in the bank toward the 25 that we need. Then there are 20 districts represented by Republicans that voted for Senator [John] Kerry in 2004. These are Democratic-DNA, rock-solid districts. If the Republicans are going to win two-thirds of the Obama districts, we’ll win two-thirds of the Kerry districts. That gives us 27. That means we can’t afford to lose any of our [vulnerable incumbents]. I’m not saying we’re going to win the majority, but we clearly have a path.
NJ Why do you have so many fewer Blue Dog Democrats now?
ISRAEL An argument can be made that, in 2006 and 2008, we won seats that we had no business winning. An argument can be made that, in 2010, Republicans won seats that they had no business winning. We’re going to reclaim many of those [conservative districts]. I think 2012 will be an inverse image in many of those Blue Dog seats.
NJ What are the key issues?
ISRAEL The economy is going to be the central theme. Within that theme, it’s going to be about who you stand up for, who are you fighting for. We have forced a contrast every step of the way between House Republicans, who are fighting for millionaires, and House Democrats, who are fighting for the middle class.
NJ Part of that contrast concerns the Bush tax cuts. Do you regret voting for the cuts 10 years ago?
ISRAEL No, I don’t regret voting for them at the time. They run out. What I regret is, Republicans then made the decision to not only pass the Bush tax cuts but to run up spending.
I have my own difference with President Obama right now: $250,000 may make you rich in some areas of the country, [but] not in areas of my district. I do think we should repeal the Bush tax cuts for people at the very top end. I don’t think it’s $250,000. I’ve been talking to the White House about a different kind of indexing that would put it at about $400,000. The president leaves skid marks when he sees me coming to the Oval Office to talk about this idea.
ISRAEL Because I’m relentless about it. Relentless.
NJ Have members been contributing to the DCCC? Stories abound that they don’t give enough.
ISRAEL They never do. You always have these stories. We’re using all the tools in our toolbox to encourage our members to pick up the pace.
NJ What tools?
ISRAEL I’m an expert in Jewish guilt.
NJ Six-figure guilt?
ISRAEL Whatever it takes, we’ll do. There’s also a phenomenon this year that we’ve never had before. It’s a perfect storm: You have super PACs, you’ve got redistricting, and you’ve got the ordinary things we do every two years—all compressed into one cycle. So you do have new restraints on members.
NJ Let’s put you on the couch for a second. What’s your biggest fear going toward November?
ISRAEL They don’t let me lie down. [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi said she used to say, “He thinks about this from morning to night.” Last night, she said, “I’m now convinced that he doesn’t even stop thinking at night.” Two things make me lose sleep. One is the Republican super PACs. In 2010, we did not lose the House to Republicans. We lost it to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. This year will be different. The other thing that keeps me up at night are the unknowns.
NJ You’re a Civil War buff. Do you have an analogy for where we are?
ISRAEL I think we’re at Little Round Top at Gettysburg. It seemed almost impossible to defend, surrounded by Confederate enemies with far more firepower than the small Union detachment. The Union won because they had more willpower than firepower. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, out of ammunition, tells the 20th Maine, “Fix bayonets and charge.” They were down to just bayonets. It was suicidal. But that act of bravery completely spooked the Confederate forces. They had them on the run. They win Little Round Top; Little Round Top wins Gettysburg; Gettysburg helps win the Civil War. It is that kind of pivotal moment.
This article appears in the March 31, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.