ASELF-DESCRIBED “angry centrist”, Chuck Schumer liked to fight the radical fringe of his party. In a center-left manifesto he published in 2007, titled “Positively American,” the Senate majority leader shuddered as he recalled the left-wing activists he met at Harvard in the 1960s who ” seemed to want to demolish all systems. “He despised even more his party’s reluctance to repudiate them.” In politics you have to either defend or denounce what your friends say, “Mr Schumer wrote.” If you don’t do it. no, people start to wonder what you really believe. “
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The militant group he recalled has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, the best-known member of which is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is generally thought to be reflecting on a main challenge for Mr. Schumer. Yet far from defining himself against his radicalism, he, the lesser known of the veteran Democratic trio leading the government, adopted it. He often appears alongside Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in New York City. And he’s embraced some of his causes, student debt cancellation and the legal pot. For the many conservatives who detect AOCthe socialist hand in everything Democrats do, Mr Schumer is Exhibit A.
Democrats have indeed turned to the left, albeit more modestly than their opponents claim. And since he’s always swam in the mainstream of the party, just like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the other members of the triumvirate, he naturally evolved with him. Yet his benevolence towards the Queens fire thrower isn’t just about protecting his left flank. It reflects Mr. Schumer’s general approach to keeping the Senate majority as slim as possible.
With just 50 votes plus that of Kamala Harris, the vice-president, and no prospect of Republican support on almost any of the major bills Mr Biden wants to pass, Mr Schumer cannot afford to lose a single Democrat. Even with a larger majority and less ambition, his Republican predecessor has shown how difficult it will be. Mitch McConnell passed a tax cut, did not remove Obamacare and stayed there. And the left, a tribe made up of Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders, is more quarrelsome than the right. Mr Schumer’s response has essentially been to encourage his colleagues to push for whatever they prefer in Mr Biden’s loosely defined agenda. And he did so persistently, prompting the group to stick together, in the hope that the more a falling out can be avoided, the less likely it will be.
Where Mr. McConnell and Harry Reid, the former Democrat in his office, maintained an immense aura of power, Mr. Schumer, the first New Yorker and Jew to occupy it, has a more laid-back style. It has tripled the size of Mr. Reid’s kitchen cabinets, making it less of a dreaded coterie of lieutenants than a team-building exercise, which includes Mr. Sanders and Mr. Manchin. With his flip phone always close at hand, he spends much of the day calling around his caucus, congratulating, cuddling or just checking on. The results of his more modest approach are better than many Democrats expected.
A former attention-seeking lawmaker (“the most dangerous place is between him and a camera,” Bob Dole joked) and campaign strategist, Mr Schumer has reportedly lacked the grip of Ms Pelosi, his counterpart at the Bedroom. Yet among Democrats he is now universally praised. “It’s literally impossible to imagine anyone else doing the job,” says Chris Coons of Delaware.
An unannounced success will do this. Mr Schumer has been credited with urging Mr Manchin to comply with the $ 1.9 billion stimulus package Democrats passed in March. He’s also the architect of a hitherto successful fork in infrastructure spending – which some Republicans support – and the backpack of safety nets and climate measures Democrats hope to adopt on a partisan basis. . Even as this “two-way” process enters what promises to be a last phase of heated negotiations (which a customary fall dispute over government funding threatens to make even more difficult), a large majority of Democrats are pushing for it. firmly supports.
No one should confuse this with a good way to rule America. Much like Mr Schumer’s leadership style, Something For Everyone, Democrats’ efforts to incorporate the value of a presidential term in new programs and reforms into a budget bill exemplify their weakness and a failing system. A decade of deadlock suggests that there is no other way forward on climate change, inequality and other big issues. However, their approach is nonetheless fraught with shortcomings.
The old theory that bipartisan bargaining, conducted in good faith, produces better laws still stands. The excesses of the stimulus package over the sleeker infrastructure deal illustrate this truth. And Mr. Schumer’s light leadership looks like the particular enemy of tough choices. If and when Mr Manchin seeks to dramatically reduce the $ 3.5 billion cost of the budget bill, Democrats should abandon some of their more sustainable programs, such as the free community college, in order to preserve the climate and other essentials. Still, a general haircut, which anyone could live with grumbling, may be more in keeping with Mr. Schumer’s approach.
It might not go that far. His efforts to prolong the negotiation could accumulate an even more dramatic and damaging explosion. Besides, even if Democrats adopt some semblance of their plans, it’s not clear voters would reward them for it.
The uncertain reward of virtue
Their baggy monster of a budget bill, to use Henry James’ phrase, seems too sprawling to be reduced to an effective slogan. The Republican attack on it as socialism would be easier to carry out. When working on campaign strategy, Mr. Schumer would have had this flaw in mind. Now absorbed in the unlikely task of passing laws, he seems unable to do so. Whatever he says to his colleagues, his party cannot have it all.■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Chuck’s Modest Leadership”