Why Steve Israel Is Doing It

rsz 854666491 Why Steve Israel Is Doing It

You don’t have to like Steve Israel to respect the bold and risky move he’s apparently on the verge of making.

The fifth-term Long Island congressman, to believe reports that are now leaking out all over, will soon declare his candidacy for the 2010 Democratic Senate nomination, a slot that most national and some state Democrats would prefer be reserved for Kirsten Gillibrand.

Mr. Israel’s odds aren’t exactly good. Hardly anyone knows who he is, he’ll almost certainly be at a financial disadvantage, and more candidates may soon enter the race. And he won’t have his House seat to fall back on if he loses. Far better, conventional wisdom would tell him, to hang on to that safe House seat for a few more terms and wait for a better opportunity.

But Mr. Israel has apparently realized that a congressman who patiently waits his turn is doomed to realize somewhere around his 70th birthday, as he passes the time between meaningless procedural votes with all of the other backbenchers in the Speaker’s Lobby of the House, that his moment never quite arrived; that it had always been someone else’s turn, and never his.

This lesson is vividly on display in “Means of Ascent,” the second volume of Robert Caro’s exhaustive biography of Lyndon Johnson, which chronicles the boundlessly ambitious L.B.J.’s 1948 Senate campaign against Coke Stevenson.

In ’48, Stevenson was a virtual god in Texas, a fantastically popular former governor and an authentic cowboy.  L.B.J. was just an anonymous sixth-term congressman (one of 21 in the Texas House delegation) who looked around him every day and saw what a dead end the House was for almost all of its members. So he gave up his seat for what everyone knew would be a suicide mission against Stevenson in the Democratic primary. Except he won (well, sort of won, but that’s a topic for another day).

Mr. Israel may not be quite as ambitious as L.B.J. was (it’s doubtful any human being ever could be), but he’s made it clear that he believes staying in the House indefinitely would be settling for less than his potential. Hence his aggressive push, to absolutely no avail, to win the Senate appointment that went to Ms. Gillibrand back in January.

The safest political advice would have been to let things go at that—to rally behind Ms. Gillibrand with the rest of the Democratic establishment, to campaign and raise some money for her, and to collect some chits for the future. But Mr. Israel recognized a few things.

For one, like the rest of us, he’s only getting older—he’ll be 51 in a few weeks. That’s hardly ancient, but the years can add up quickly, especially in the world of the U.S. Senate and its six-year terms. If he doesn’t challenge Ms. Gillibrand in ’10, there might not be a remotely winnable Senate opportunity for Mr. Israel for decades.

Take Ms. Gillibrand’s seat. She is 42 years old. If she wins the Democratic nomination and the general election next year, she would essentially become primary-proof in 2012, when her seat will again be up (because she is now only filling Hillary Clinton’s unexpired term). And if she wins again in ‘12, then she could be in there, well, for the rest of Mr. Israel’s life.

And Chuck Schumer, who has held the other Senate seat since 1999, isn’t going away anytime soon. At 58, he’s probably not running for any other office, but there’s still plenty of room for him to maneuver within the Senate—something that Mr. Schumer, a political animal who aspires to serve as the majority leader, plainly excels at. If Mr. Schumer were to retire after, say, three more terms (maybe a conservative estimate, since he’d be younger than Arlen Specter now is), it would far be too late for Mr. Israel, who would then be 70.

The time for him to roll the dice is now—especially with Ms. Gillibrand’s poll numbers stubbornly refusing to improve. Twice as many voters still give her a negative job assessment than a positive one, and she is still deadlocked in a hypothetical primary match-up against Long Island’s Carolyn McCarthy (who likely won’t run if Mr. Israel, or anyone else, challenges Ms. Gillibrand).

Make no mistake: Mr. Israel is the underdog. Ms. Gillibrand can raise money, national Democrats hate primaries and will rally around her, and she can still use her incumbency to shore up her standing. Plus, she will apparently have Mr. Schumer throwing his considerable weight around on her behalf.

But Mr. Schumer can probably relate to Mr. Israel’s dilemma. In early 1998, after he’d been running for the Democratic Senate nomination for months, Geraldine Ferrraro suddenly jumped into the race. Polls put her 36 points ahead of Mr. Schumer, who was counseled by many of his colleagues to return to his safe House seat and to wait for another day. If he’d listened to them then, he’d probably still be there now.