Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proud son of Brooklyn, liberal Democrat, and canny veteran of Congress for a quarter century, is sitting on top of the world.
Signifying his new clout, Senate Democrats chose Schumer as the third highest ranking member this week, with the title of Vice-Chair of the Democratic Conference.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Schumer was in charge of finding and funding his party’s Senate candidates this year.
It was Schumer and his DSCC operatives who engineered the defeat of six Republican incumbents last Tuesday, thus giving his party control of the Senate.
But, with a true New Yorker’s brashness and ambition, Schumer is thinking in even bigger, more epochal, history-making terms: his blueprint is to replace the Bush Era with a Schumer Era - or at least with a designed-by-Schumer Era - in American politics.
Washington lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, a former top aide to House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and deputy campaign manager for John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, said Schumer has earned the right to help shape strategy.
'In an extremely strong position' “Obviously he’s in an extremely strong position. His colleagues are going to be incredibly grateful to him — as they should be,” said Elmendorf.
“He designed and executed a successful strategy to win the Senate, which at the beginning of the (2006) cycle nobody believed was possible,” he added. “Outside events have some impact on why you win, but I think he had a tremendous impact in terms of putting the whole thing together, so I think his strategic guidance is going to be critical.”
What makes Schumer’s achievement more impressive was that at the start of 2006 nobody expected the Democrats to be able to win the Senate, Elmendorf said. “Everybody thought we’d pick up seats, but nobody thought we were going to win the Senate, so I think that gives an added boost to Schumer’s stature and credibility.”
“The voters rejected the Bush agenda and they said ‘let’s give the Democrats a chance. But they haven’t totally embraced us. Far from it,” Schumer told reporters at a strategy briefing in his office Tuesday. “The door is open… My goal, our goal, and my role, is to help make sure that in 2008 they say, ‘We really like the Democrats.’”
Defining what Democrats stand for
Schumer said voters are not sure what the Democratic Party stands for.
“We have to create a vision, a platform, a program, that aims at the average person and the average family and shows them that we can do some good to help make their lives better. If we’re successful, in 2008 we’ll help close the deal.”
The New Yorker evoked the memory of another New York Democrat in explaining the significance of the next presidential election.
“I believe that 2008 is going to be a seminal election which we have once every 30 or 40 years. 1932 was a seminal election, the public chose (Franklin) Roosevelt. He did the job and they were wedded to the Democratic Party for close to 40 years. 1980 was seminal election; they chose Ronald Reagan and there was a period of Republican dominance for 24 years. In 2008, the public is up for grabs once again.”
If Schumer succeeds in his plan, he believes the American people will follow and “they’ll be Democrats for a generation.”
Schumer hasn’t talked about who he'd support for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Many Democrats consider his junior colleague from New York, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to be a front-runner for the nomination.
But some of those around Schumer speak very highly of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is weighing a run for the nomination and has been received with wild acclaim by Democrats on the campaign trial in the past few months.
Schumer said “we’ll have to work with the presidential candidates” in shaping strategy and message for 2008.
Schumer did not make it clear if, in the new Schumer-designed era, his party would stand for the things that he himself has worked on throughout his career in Congress:
- Abortion rights (Schumer was the chief sponsor of the 1994 Freedom of Access to Abortion Clinics Act)
- Opposition to conservatives on the federal bench (Schumer voted against both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, and voiced regret Tuesday that he did not block Alito with a filibuster as he did with Bush appeal court nominee Miguel Estrada in 2002)
- Tax increases (Schumer voted for major tax increases in 1987 and 1993 and voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001)
- Imposing limits on gun purchasers and gun owners (Schumer led the effort to ban certain types of semiautomatic weapons in 1994 and has been an ardent enemy of the National Rifle Association.)
Why should Bush not veto?
Schumer, reminded that after the GOP took control of Congress in 1995, President Clinton vetoed thirty-seven bills and was only overridden twice, was asked, "Will Bush, now faced with a Democratic Congress, not do what his predecessor did when he was faced with Republican Congress and is there any reason to think that the next two years won’t turn out to be just like the era of Clinton vetoes?"
“Yes,” Schumer replied. “There a lot of Republicans who were shocked by the election. You have three groups of Republicans in the Senate: about five or six who are true moderate Republicans. You have 20-25 who are hard right…. Then you have about 20 who are mainstream conservatives; they are not liberals: (Richard) Lugar, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Lamar Alexander. And in the past, they’ve given the hard right a total carte blanche. The hard Right has set the agenda because that’s what George Bush wanted to do and they went along.”
(Schumer didn’t say and wasn't asked whether, among his Senate Democrats, there was a “hard left” contingent – in mirror image of what he called the “hard right” among Republicans.)
In Schumer’s analysis, the mainstream conservatives, after the shock therapy of last week’s GOP losses, may see the wisdom of voting with Schumer and the Democrats on some bills and presidential nominations that come up for votes next year issues.
Getting GOP senators to vote with Democrats
The New York Democrat seems to hope to instill a fear in the mainstream conservatives that, if they don’t go along with the Democrats, Schumer and the DSCC will make sure they’re booted out by the voters.
The mainstream conservatives, Schumer says, are “going to have a real big decision to make…. If on certain issues they break with the president, if the president hews to the hard right, and if they break with the 25 Republican senators who are over there (on the right), we could end up negotiating and doing some very good things. I think a lot of them right now are scratching their heads and saying, ‘obeisance to the hard right didn’t help us very much.’ (Defeated Ohio Republican Sen. Mike) DeWine would be in that camp, (defeated Missouri Republican Sen. Jim) Talent would be in that camp.”
In his continuing role as DSCC chairman, Schumer has these types of conservatives in his sights for the 2008 elections.
Two such incumbents up for re-election in 2008, as Schumer himself acknowledged Tuesday, are Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire.
There are lessons for Coleman and Sununu in last Tuesday’s results: in Minnesota, Democratic Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar routed Republican Mark Kennedy, winning nearly 60 percent of the vote. And in New Hampshire, both GOP House members were swept out of office by Democrats.