Maybe the most decisive change that Democrats have made in Washington following their Election Day drubbing is to consolidate their Senate message and policy shops in the outstretched hands of Chuck Schumer. That casts the senator exactly where he likes to be: center stage, as Senate Democrats’ chief legislative and policy strategist for what could be a very challenging 2012 election cycle.
Schumer dismisses the significance of the move, waving off questions about his newfound clout. “I won’t talk about process,” he snaps.
But as Democrats try to recover from their 2010 “shellacking,” Schumer is no doubt central to the process, particularly for the party’s large and uneasy Senate class of 2012: the 21 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them who will face the voters in two years.
For Schumer, who turns 60 on Tuesday, this is another phase in a long, steady climb to power that began when he was elected to the House in 1980, two weeks before he turned 30. The senior senator from New York has long since emerged from the shadows of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the two home-state giants with whom he once served. Overshadowed now by almost no one, Schumer has become the key legislative force in the Democratic Party’s attempts to rehabilitate its image, regain its political footing, and block Republican attempts to dismantle President Obama’s legislative accomplishments.
Schumer officially assumed his marquee role this week when Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that, as chairman of the Democratic Policy Council, he would direct policy, legislative scheduling, and communications for Senate Democrats in the 112th Congress.
And as far as Democrats are concerned, the Senate is where the tension will be for the next two years. Any Republican initiatives that clear the House (and there may be many) must also cross the Senate minefield before they detonate on Obama’s desk. With so many Democrats up for reelection in 2012—many of them in states that moved sharply toward the GOP this year—the Senate will test Obama’s ability to hold the line, define differences, and, where possible, cut deals.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006, Schumer helped elect six Democrats who are now facing reelection. He is fiercely loyal to them and intends to make the Democratic agenda as much about protecting those seats as it is about reelecting Obama. (Key stat: As DSCC chair in 2006 and 2008, Schumer won 14 seats and lost none.)
The early postelection maneuvering between the parties on taxes captures the central role that Schumer could play. A few days after the election, White House senior adviser David Axelrod suggested that Obama might accept Republican demands to extend President Bush’s tax cuts for all income levels (including annual earnings of more than $250,000). Then Axelrod retreated, leaving the White House position opaque.
On November 14, Schumer jumped into the fray on Face the Nation: “I think there is a compromise in the making,” he said. “Democrats had originally called for tax cuts for people below $250,000, Republicans for everybody. What if we moved it up to $1 million? Everyone below $1 million will get a tax cut, but the millionaires and billionaires won’t.”
Schumer didn’t grab that figure out of thin air. It had been the basis of intense debate among Democrats for weeks before the election, with focus-group and polling data suggesting that it was the party’s best middle ground. The Joint Tax Committee had estimated that the government would recover nearly $40 billion annually by allowing the Bush tax cuts to lapse for those earning $250,000 or more; only about $8 billion of those savings, the committee projected, would be lost by extending the reductions for families earning up to $1 million, as Schumer proposed.
The White House and Capitol Hill Democrats debated the concept of a million-dollar cutoff through the fall in a tortured series of conference calls, memos, and e-mails—to no avail. Lacking consensus, they punted the tax issue until after the election.
Whereupon Schumer—not Reid, not outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not the White House—unfurled the $1 million compromise. Whether that number sticks or becomes the basis of a deal is less important than the fact that Schumer made the first move, heralding his emergence as the enforcer, at least within Senate Democratic ranks, of policy, politics, and sound bites. (Communication is too trite a description; winners need sound bites.)
“If we make sure we are focused on the middle-class tax cuts, that’s a winning issue for us,” Schumer told National Journal. “The vast majority of the revenue comes from people who make more than $1 million. They don’t need the tax cut. That’s an example of where we can be proactive.”
And proactivity is a Schumer specialty: “Our problem, our challenge, is for the average middle class to believe we are focusing on them,” he said. “The middle class is worried. They want something done. The average citizen will choose no government over a government they see as helping someone else. But the average citizen will also choose government helping them over no government at all.” At least so hope Chuck Schumer and the 23 Senate Democrats he wants to shepherd through their next encounter with the voters.
This article appears in the November 20, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.