Sen. Schumer (photo via @SenSchumer)
New York's Charles Schumer has suddenly become the most important Democratic leader in the country through his selection as Minority Leader in the United States Senate. Schumer’s role over the next few years will be critical in shaping the nation's future.
Leading 46 Democrats, Schumer looks back on a net loss of several Senate seats since 2009 and forward to 2018, when 10 Senate Democrats will be up for re-election in states won by Donald Trump. Schumer is said to get along well with Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but says he will draw the line at being too accommodationist with Trump and the Republicans. "When he is opposed to our values, we're going to go after him tooth and nail," Schumer said of President-elect Trump. "For instance, we're not going to let him repeal Dodd-Frank or the rules we've put in place to limit Wall Street."
Democrats will oppose Trump every time he takes "a dark, divisive turn," Schumer has promised. Already, Schumer has charged that the choice of former Breitbart News chief Stephen Bannon as White House senior counselor and strategist means that "dangerous and bigoted ideas will have a seat at the table."
A New Yorker with flair, drive, and self-confidence
Senator Chuck Schumer has a good deal of New York support, enthusiasm, and momentum behind him. He easily beat his Republican challenger, Wendy Long, in his 2016 re-election campaign, garnering about 70% of the vote (Democratic presidential nominee and former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, by contrast, got about 58% in New York).
Over his 19-year career in the Senate, Schumer has come across as an energetic, hard-charging New Yorker. When he was elected to the Senate in 1998, he made a pledge that he has kept, to visit each of New York's 62 counties at least once a year. The biographical sketch on his Facebook page says "he has built a reputation as a leader in finding common-sense solutions to national issues and a tireless fighter for New York."
Schumer has expressed a vision for rebuilding and re-energizing the national Democratic Party. "We need to have a party that works on behalf of all Americans," he said in his first speech as minority leader. "And a bigger, bolder, sharper-edged economic message that talks about how people in the middle class and those struggling to make it there can do better, but also deals with the unfairness in the American economic system, will unite our caucus and speak to the blue-collar worker in West Virginia and Michigan as well as the people who live along the coasts."
What is Schumer likely to do? Looking back along two historical paths may give us some guidance.
Schumer's revealing 2007 book
Senator Schumer's book “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family at a Time,” published in 2007, offers insights into the senator's thinking and strategies.
Three themes in particular stand out.
1. Republicans are skilled at getting their "message" across to voters. Schumer contended that the Republican Party was mostly dominated by "theocrats" (conservatives who dislike government and want to minimize it) and "economic royalists" (people who want unfettered property rights and minimal or no government regulations or restrictions on business). Neither group represents mainline American values, Schumer says. But Republicans have used three shrewd marketing tactics, driven by the right-wing media: 1) Keep stressing that "What's good for the wealthiest is always, always, good for America."; 2) practice politics of fear and division; and 3) identify issues that connect with their values and then repeatedly return to them.
That worked for Republicans in 2004 and 2006, Schumer said. It sounds like some of his analysis about what happened in 2016.
2. Democrats need to really understand the middle class. Schumer argued that the Democrats had better policy positions than their opponents but did not connect well with the vast majority of voters. To help sharpen their strategies, Schumer invented and inserted in his book a hypothetical middle-class family, headed by Joe and Eileen Bailey, which he placed in Massapequa, Long Island. They should be supporting Democrats, but in recent elections, they tilted toward Republicans.
Schumer presents a detailed, insightful profile:
They have a house, a mortgage, property taxes that never cease to go up, monthly payments for two cars, and three kids in the local public schools. They both work because they want to and because they need to...The Baileys are generally optimists. They do not see impending doom on the horizon, though they sometimes worry that America's place in the world is under threat...But they are increasingly bothered by nagging worries. They're worried about terrorists who are...bent on killing Americans...They also worry about economic forces that are beyond their control...They don't see how they can possibly pay for college for their children. They haven't lost jobs to outsourcing, but some neighbors have...They are bothered by the corporate excesses that they read about in the paper [and the] moral excesses they see all around them...They believe that everyone deserves a fair chance and are sympathetic to those who are less fortunate than they are...
Politically, they are up for grabs...they are part of the new wave of independents...They support government when they feel it supports them, which isn't often...Most of the time, it seems to them that government is focused on someone else -- the very poor or the very rich.
That all sounds familiar. The electorate in 2016 was very divided, characterized by vague feelings that something is amiss in the nation, and mistrustful or cynical about both major parties.
3. Democrats can win by offering concrete, credible policies and solutions that appeal to the middle class. Over half of the book (pp. 117-263) is devoted to advancing and discussing specific policy proposals. Schumer titled his proposals with a clever catchphrase, "The 50% Solution." Here are a few examples (some are dated; but others still have a ring of relevance):
*Increase reading and math scores by 50%
* Increase the number of college graduates by 50%
*Reduce illegal immigration by at least 50% and increase legal migration by up to 50%
*Reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 50%
*Reduce cancer mortality by 50%
*Reduce abortions by 50%
*Reduce tax evasion and avoidance by 50%
*Increase our ability to fight terrorism by 50%
Nine years later, this year, Schumer is again patiently explaining that it is not enough just to oppose what the other party is trying to do. Political leaders have a responsibility to advance specific ideas and credible, concrete proposals in terms that people can understand and appreciate. “Positively American” is a good model, and many of its ideas still seem relevant.
Schumer's legacy from New York's previous eminent U.S. Senators
A second way of discerning Schumer's possible directions and influence is to look back at five of his predecessor U.S. senators from New York. Each had outsized talent, influence, and accomplishments, sometimes leaving legacies that were surpassed only by those of presidents.
*Daniel P. Moynihan (D, 1977-2001) came to the Senate after a long career, including White House advisor, Counselor to the President, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He had served under two Democratic presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, and two Republicans, Nixon and Ford, and was exceptionally skilled in bi-partisan negotiating and finding common ground. He was also a notable scholar, authoring 15 books and studies, including several influential works on important policy issues.
As Senator, Moynihan blended academic erudition, wit, and experience. He fought to get New York's fair share of federal aid. He moderated his strong anti-Soviet views and opposed the Reagan administration's hawkish Cold War policies. Taking on complex issues, he helped shape the Tax Reform Act of 1986. He supported protection of the environment and systematic transportation policy. But he maintained his position as a highly respected, independent-minded statesman by breaking with the liberal positions of his party on several occasions. For instance, as chair of the Senate Finance Committee in the 1990s, he opposed President Bill Clinton's proposal to expand healthcare coverage to all Americans, asserting that the dimensions of the health care crisis in the nation had been exaggerated.
*Herbert H. Lehman (D, 1949-1957), a former governor, was distinguished in the Senate for his defense of civil liberties. He was one of the first and most persistent opponents of Senator Joseph McCarthy's irresponsible crusade against alleged Communist influence in the government. He challenged McCarthy to produce proof, questioned his sources and tactics, and complained about his browbeating of witnesses McCarthy hauled before his investigating committee.
Lehman gave speeches in McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin, denouncing the senator and his followers for inciting fear to advance political ambition. He helped lead the campaign that resulted in McCarthy's censure by the Senate in 1954 for his ruthless, reckless tactics. Lehman voted against the Internal Security Act of 1950, calling it a threat to civil liberties. He was particularly alarmed about a provision giving the President authority to round up and detain people when there was a "reasonable ground" to believe that they will engage in acts of espionage or sabotage.
*Robert F. Wagner (D, 1927-1949) proposed initiatives to help organized labor and combat unemployment as the Great Depression began to grip the nation after 1929, but his efforts were rebuffed by Republicans. He became one of the chief critics of President Herbert Hoover's inaction to combat the Depression, calling for bold, national action. When Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Wagner became one of his key advisors and policy architects. He was so influential that Roosevelt once called him "the co-pilot of the New Deal." Wagner drafted and sponsored several key pieces of legislation, including the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), National Labor Relations Act (the "Wagner Act") (1935), and Social Security (1935).
*Elihu Root (R, 1909-1915) was one of the nation's most influential and respected statesmen for more than a quarter century. He came to the Senate after stints as U.S. Secretary of War and Secretary of State, where he had advised a number of presidents on several issues and helped transform the United States into a world power. He helped persuade business interests and press leaders to support an activist foreign policy and measured economic reform, a tactic he continued to champion as senator.
In 1912, as a result of his work in bringing countries together through cooperation and arbitration, Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That year, he helped sidetrack his old friend Theodore Roosevelt's bid for another term as president by supporting the incumbent, William H. Taft. Root counseled preparedness as the U.S. readied for World War I and, after the war, supported membership in the League of Nations, with reservations. Along the way, he served in other important capacities, including chairing the convention to revise the state constitution in 1915.
*William H. Seward (Whig/Republican, 1849-1861), a former governor, was a leading opponent of slavery expansion in the 1850s. In an 1858 speech, he asserted that the U.S. had two "antagonistic systems...continually coming into closer contact, and collision results...It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become entirely either a slave-holding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation."
Seward vocally opposed the federal Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, and set an example for evading it by occasionally letting fugitive slaves shelter at his house in Auburn. Seward helped establish and shape the Republican Party in the late 1850s and was the leading candidate for the party's presidential nomination in 1860. His strident opposition to slavery undermined his candidacy but, when Abraham Lincoln was nominated, Seward campaigned for him. Lincoln appointed Seward as secretary of state and he became one of Lincoln's most trusted confidantes and advisors on war issues, emancipation of slaves, and political strategy. Seward was perhaps second only to Lincoln himself in importance in key policy-making areas.
Chuck Schumer will make his own Senatorial history
In the days ahead, Chuck Schumer, always independent-minded, will strike his own course according to his conscience.
But he can draw on the legacy of previous U.S. Senators from New York -- Seward, for uncompromising, principled stands on issues with social justice and moral dimensions; Root, for appealing to business interests to support responsible public policies; Wagner, for opposing federal policies of neglect and for formulating crisp policy and effective laws; Lehman, for defending the innocent against public bullies; and Moynihan, for political independence, principled positions (even when unpopular in his own party), and skilled bipartisanship.
Of course, Schumer needs to do all of that while at the same time looking out for New York's interests.
History suggests that Chuck Schumer is up to the challenge.
Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.