The Man in the Middle

Chuck Schumer, the brash New York senator, helped drive the Democrats’ recent rise to power with what he says is a critical insight about the American middle class—that it is more affluent, and wants different things from an activist government, than most policy makers think. If the new administration and Congress can strengthen the bond between government and the middle class as he defines it, Schumer believes, this new Democratic era could last for a generation or longer.
Ken Cedeno/Corbis

Buzzzzzz. The cell phone rings again and Chuck Schumer flips it open. “I figured it out,” he says without preamble. “George Washington. If George Washington got indicted, you wouldn’t pounce on the guy—you’d say he served honorably and now it’s time for Alaskans to move on.” Snap. The phone shuts. It’s 10 days before the election. Schumer, New York’s senior senator and the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is overseeing 35 Senate races. He is explaining—trying to explain—his strategy in a handful of the closest ones. But the phone keeps interrupting. He particularly worries about Alaska, where at this very moment a jury is deciding the fate of the Republican incumbent, Ted Stevens, who was indicted for taking bribes. Buzz. “They’re still deliberating? Keep me posted.” Snap. In most places, a bribery indictment would spell doom. But Alaskans, like Louisianans, seem to regard corruption in their politicians as an endearing rather than a disqualifying trait: the race is tight. Schumer must figure out how to persuade them to retire Stevens, but without being seen as doing so. Should Alaskans decide that meddlesome outsiders are scheming to do in their beloved “Uncle Ted,” spite alone will carry him to victory. That’s where George Washington comes in. An ad treating Stevens with similar reverence—a call for change made more in sorrow than in anger—could do the trick, giving Alaskans “permission,” in the political argot, to vote Democratic. Such an ad would require just the right touch. In fact—Flip. “I want sign-off on the Stevens ad.” Snap—it could decide the race, if the jury doesn’t first.

More than any other Democrat in Congress, Schumer is responsible for his party’s gains over the past four years. From his perch atop the DSCC, he has focused his frenetic energy on rebuilding the caucus, and has tossed aside the committee chairman’s customary deference to the state parties in order to pick the candidates he sizes up as winners—an unpleasant business that has entailed relentlessly pursuing his sometimes-reluctant targets and bullying everyone else to the sidelines. Then he drills his charges on every facet of the campaign, from raising money to capturing media attention, a formula so scrupulously replicated that he has dubbed it the Schumer Method. Finally, he infuses them with a set of policy proposals, ranging from middle-class tax cuts to college-tuition tax deductions, that reflect his staunchly held political philosophy, best summed up as a rigorous fealty to the interests of the middle class. “When Chuck gets up in the morning, he’s thinking about the middle class,” Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat elected to the Senate in 2006, told me. “When he goes to bed, he’s thinking about it. When he writes books, he writes books about it. Maybe coincidentally, maybe not, his issues are issues that people in Montana find important. He focuses on values that everyone in the caucus can support.” During his first two-year cycle as DSCC chairman, in 2004–2006, by what looked like sheer dint of effort, Schumer took the caucus from a perilously small 44 seats to a narrow majority, and then reenlisted for another cycle. By last fall, it was clear he would deliver again. It was also clear, as Democrats gained momentum and the economic crisis cast his ideas about the middle class into sudden stark relief, that his influence was growing.

I had come to his office intending to solicit his thoughts on how these ideas might shape the Democratic agenda. But, Washington being Washington, our discussion didn’t get past the election—which was fine, because why talk about next season on the eve of the Super Bowl? Had I tried, his cell phone—an active participant in any conversation with Schumer—would have forbidden it. Its steady intrusion kept us riveted on the horse race, the minute-by-minute updates and Schumer’s responses to them providing a glimpse of the man in action. Even as we spoke, he was fine-tuning the strategies of half a dozen races, summoning up a new ad, tweaking a line of attack, or absorbing the tiniest shifts in the electorate from his array of pollsters. There was a kind of majesty in the spectacle, the experience being a bit like watching some renowned master perform on one of those enormous medieval pipe organs, fingers racing up and down multiple keyboards as he reaches the crescendo.

On Election Night, Schumer made his way to the Capitol Hyatt, where several hundred Democratic staffers had gathered in the ballroom. He and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, had adjoining suites. All day the signs had hinted at victory, and by early evening Senate wins were rolling in: Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina. At 10o’clock, the Democratic congressional leaders grabbed their moment and took the stage, to wild applause. Then CNN called the election for Barack Obama, and the whole place erupted. Schumer was already back in his suite, peering through a pair of half glasses at the election results on his laptop. When the dust settled, Stevens had gone down and the Democrats (hoping that Al Franken would emerge the victor in Minnesota) held 58 seats in the Senate.

Throughout his career, Schumer has courted the media so aggressively in all that he does that the impulse defines him. Bob Dole may have ensured this with his famous line that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a camera. Every profile thus portrays the familiar caricature, describing, with varying degrees of fondness or disdain, a hyperambitious Brooklyn Jew forever in thrall to the spotlight, even as he is forced to exist in Hillary Clinton’s shadow—a purely political creature, sometimes a figure of fun, but hardly consequential. This view of Schumer has started to fade as his colleagues (never averse to the caricature) have begun a cautious reappraisal, aware that their newly elevated status owes a lot to the clear appeal of his ideas.

Schumer’s emphasis on the middle class echoes Bill Clinton’s in the 1990s, but its disposition and focus are different. Clinton operated at a time when many Democratic policies were under attack, and much of what he accomplished—on welfare reform, crime, streamlining government, and even school uniforms—can be thought of as defensive retooling of government, cleaning out the most controversial vestiges of liberal programs to bring them into line with middle-class values. By contrast, Schumer’s agenda is primarily offensive, a series of mainly tax policies designed to support and encourage middle-class aspirations. The underlying rationale is to create a government that is more active on behalf of the middle class.

Schumer’s political acuity is increasingly guiding Senate Democrats. The new president—until recently, one of them—seems to be listening, too. This is significant because Schumer is steering toward a slightly different spot from the one Democrats have traditionally aimed for. He attributes his success these past four years to a small but critical insight into the nature of the American middle class: namely, that it is more affluent and doesn’t want the same things from government as does the “middle class” as normally conceived by politicians, policy makers, and academics. Schumer sees this group as the key to the electoral balance of power, and believes he has figured out how to reach it. The composition of the Senate is a strong indicator that he may be on to something.

Whether he can carry his ideas forward in the new Congress and convince others of their merit could go a long way toward determining whether Democrats will flourish under President Obama. Early signs are positive. But Schumer believes that much more than immediate success is at stake. If Democrats can strengthen the bond between government and the middle class as he identifies it—and if he can find the right touch—this new Democratic era will not vanish quickly, as the last one did, but endure for a generation or longer.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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