The Skeptics

The Charles Schumer Dilemma

Senator Charles Schumer is the commensurate Washington insider, the guy who has been involved in politics for most of his life.  After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1974  he was elected to the New York State Assembly, and then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at the ripe age of 29 years old.  Since 1999, Schumer has been a member of the U.S. Senate, where he’s risen through the Democratic leadership ranks. Now Democratic caucus has elected the him to succeed Harry Reid as minority leader.

The next two years will likely be the toughest and most delicate of Schumer’s political career.  It’s not that he’s unqualified for the job or doesn’t exhibit the skills and temperament that is required to stand up for Democratic priorities or to hold the line when it comes time to vote.  In fact, for all of the stereotypes of Schumer falling in love with the television camera and basking in the spotlight, he remains as much of a workhorse as a showhorse — someone who can work with Republicans when the priority is important enough.  The latest example of Schumer’s bipartisan bona-fides was this fall, when he partnered with the Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn on a bill that would provide the survivors and victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia for material damages.  That legislation passed the Senate unanimously and easily overrode President Obama’s veto.  

Schumer’s challenge as minority leader isn’t about talent or gravitas, but, rather, political dexterity.  He is the one man who stands in the way of Donald Trump and the Republican Congress getting everything they want between now and the 2018 midterm elections.  And speaking of the midterms, Schumer will be constantly eying the calendar as that date gets closer; Democratic incumbents will be running for re-election in ten states that Donald Trump won this year.

Over the last several days, Schumer has granted interviews to practically every major political outlet in Washington.  Speaking to the New York Times, he sent a message that Senate Democrats “are the barrier” to blocking any initiative that would roll back regulations on Wall Street and the banking system, overturn President Obama’s foreign policy agenda, and dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

The Democratic Party went to bed on November 8 after a nightmare election cycle.  2008 — the year when Barack Obama defeated John McCain in a landslide and swept a lot of congressional Democrats towards Washington with him — seems like a hundred years ago when assessing the situation that members of the party find themselves in today.  If it weren’t for the filibuster on legislation and Supreme Court nominations — a tool that the GOP majority could theoretically change — Democrats would be relegated to the sidelines, unable to do much to stall the collective agenda of Trump, Speaker Paul Ryan, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Schumer is therefore placed in a position that his mentor Harry Reid never really had to deal with as the Democratic leader: buck up the Democratic caucus after vastly underperforming in a presidential election year, work with Trump enough that the American people won’t label Democrats as the obstructionists grinding government to a halt, and juggle the competing priorities of the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren branch of the party with the Joe Manchin-Joe Donnelly-Bill Nelson wing.  

If Schumer can’t find some kind of arrangement that presses for progressive, economic priorities but allows some breathing room for red state Democrats who are up for reelection in 2018, he could very well wake up one morning with multiple camps in the Democratic Party grating under his leadership and questioning his ability. Preventing that intra-party civil war from happening in full view of the American people will require every lesson that Schumer has learned in four decades as a politician.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow for Defense Priorities.