Friday, August 31, 2007

GAIL COLLINS: And on the 4th Day, They Voted


It’s time for the 23rd debate in the Fifth Congressional District Democratic primary campaign! Or perhaps the 22nd. Everyone seems to have lost count, but we can definitely say that if the candidates were puppies, somebody would have been arrested for cruelty.

“We are ready to rock!” says the moderator.

Actually, the candidates look like they’re ready to collapse. This primary — an almost sure ticket to a safe Congressional seat — is going to be held on the day after Labor Day. There is an old saying that the only people who show up for special elections are the kind of compulsive voters who would turn out in a hurricane. For this one, they’re going to be down to the folks who would go to the polls even if God scheduled the Rapture.

The election date is due to timetables the Democrats set up in 2004, when they were looking forward to the triumph of a president-elect from Massachusetts and trying to make sure Mitt Romney would not win the newly opened Senate seat. To summarize: Like most undesirable political developments, this can be blamed on John Kerry.

Nobody here needs to be jealous of the attention voters get in Iowa and New Hampshire. If you were a resident of Lowell or Lawrence and expressed a willingness to show up and vote on the day after Labor Day, you could get any one of five Democrats to volunteer to drive you to the polls, bring you back home, cook your breakfast and tutor your oldest child for the S.A.T.’s.

Massachusetts has only sent three women to Congress since the dawn of time, and the most interesting thing about this race is that the two leading candidates are Eileen Donoghue, the former mayor of Lowell, and Niki Tsongas, the widow of Paul Tsongas, the beloved former congressman, senator and presidential candidate who died of cancer a little over a decade ago.

When Paul Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary in 1992, all the Democratic candidate wives were lawyers. At the time, that seemed to be a significant factoid — a sign that women who married politicians were beginning to carve out their own lives apart from the supportive spouse role. Back in 1985, when she was just starting law school, Niki Tsongas told The Washington Post that the old model of “wives who are very involved” with their husbands’ Congressional activities made her uncomfortable. “I guess I was just too proud. I felt whatever I chose to do I’d have to do it separate from what Paul did,” she added.

Now we seem to have a Third Way — the partner-spouse who is both liberated and completely engaged in her husband’s work. In this campaign, Tsongas calls her husband’s political career “a shared experience.” Once, in a slip of the tongue, she told voters from the district that she had “represented it in Washington for 10 years.”

The debate gets around to the question of Tsongas’s qualifications pretty quickly, since there is not a whit of serious policy disagreement among the major candidates. (Donoghue has a TV commercial pointing out that while Tsongas’s Iraq policy is to end the war and take care of veterans, hers involves ending the war and a specific plan to take care of veterans.)

Inevitably, Donoghue read The Washington Post story.

“That was 25 years ago,” snapped Tsongas.

Either woman would undoubtedly do fine in Congress. (Vote on the day after Labor Day! The stakes are low!) But you can understand Donoghue’s frustration. Paul Tsongas recruited her to run for the Lowell City Council. She has put in nearly 12 years, four as mayor, and Lowell is looking pretty good, its downtown speckled with art galleries and coffee shops that lend the former mill town a fragile panache. Now, she’s running against someone who wants to revert to the old tradition in which the only women who ever got to go to Congress were the widows of former incumbents.

On a recent Sunday morning, right after a Boston television station aired what was possibly the 21st candidate debate, Donoghue was out distributing campaign literature. A man and a woman, she said, came power-walking past her. “Then the woman turned around and came back to me and said: ‘I was on the fence. But after I watched this morning’s debate, I think you’re ready for Congress. And I don’t think she is.’ ”

That cheered Donoghue up immensely. To win an election that arrives on the heels of a three-day weekend, you’re going to need either a large number of relatives or just the kind of people who like to begin their Sunday mornings with the viewing of a debate, followed by a brisk power-walk.

Correction: The Larry Kudlow interview mentioned in Thursday’s column was on CNBC, not MSNBC. Also, when it is 3 p.m. in India, its neighbor Nepal believes it to be 3:15, not 3:45 as I wrote on Aug. 23.

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