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.

When I returned to see him just after the election, Schumer had the satisfied air of someone who feels thoroughly vindicated. The middle class had delivered a broad Democratic sweep, ratifying his view that the country had reached a pivotal moment. The Republican era that began in 1980 with Ronald Reagan had come to an end. “This almost always happens when people redefine their relationship to government,” he told me. Schumer saw the presidential election as having turned on the simple question of which candidate recognized this new relationship. “You look at just about every policy difference between Obama and McCain,” he said. “Underlying it was a more active government.”

When Democrats hear the phrase more active government, all sorts of well-established programs leap to mind. Schumer is dubious of them, and focuses instead on his idea of a redefined relationship. The last time voters redefined their relationship to government, in 1980, they wanted less of it: fed up with an onerous, spendthrift bureaucracy, the middle class chose Reagan, who promised to “get government off your back.” Schumer believes that the reason Republicans dominated for the past 28 years is that the standard Democratic agenda, though intended to serve the broad middle class, has too often missed the mark. To satisfy an electorate now eager for government to do more and not less, Schumer believes that his party must recognize how it erred over the past three decades. This entails changing the way Democrats think about the middle class and introducing new policies to serve it.

“A lot of times, what Democrats say are the struggles of the middle class are not really the struggles of the middle class,” says Jim Kessler, a longtime Schumer adviser and a vice president of Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank. “They’re the struggles of people who are actually poor. So when people in the middle class hear you talking about these things and calling them middle-class problems, they actually think you’re talking about someone else’s problems.”

As Schumer explains the problem, the median household income in the United States is $48,000. Most of the programs Democrats vociferously tout aim to help people slightly below this economic stratum: Pell Grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the increased minimum wage. Each is worthy, Schumer says, but the programs don’t reach people in the middle class. The problem lies in the assumption that $48,000 is the right income level at which to find them.

The median-household-income statistic is too blunt an instrument, because it includes households headed by 20-year-olds (i.e., students) as well as 90-year-olds (i.e., retirees). If you earn $48,000 at 20, you’re doing fine and don’t need government help; at 90, you’re on a fixed income and have different needs (and more options) from government than someone younger. According to an analysis by Third Way, the median household income for people ages 25 to 60, the prime working years, is about $68,000; if they’re married, it’s about $78,000. If both spouses earn income at some point during the year, the number rises to $85,000. So the “middle class” most Democratic politicians imagine—that is, typical working-age families—is actually much higher on the income ladder than they realize, somewhere more in the range of $60,000 to $100,000.

This has important policy implications, because most of these households don’t qualify for the government programs Democrats are likeliest to bring up. “People who make $80,000 a year expect to be solidly middle class,” Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor whose studies of the middle class have strongly influenced Schumer, told me. “They’re making more than their parents did, but they also work harder and they’re much less secure—laying out a king’s ransom to buy a house where they feel they need to live for their kids to get a good education. That’s a wholly different set of issues than living on the margin of poverty.” These are the people Schumer says Democrats need to help. “Too often, the focus is on the top 10 percent, who don’t need it, or the bottom 10 percent,” Schumer says. “The broad middle is forgotten.”

Democrats hurt themselves not only by talking past these core constituents but by appearing to talk down to them. Schumer, whose faith in his sense of the authentic is absolute, is every bit as attuned to perceived Democratic elitism as Fox News is. “Democrats make a huge mistake when they condescend to the middle class,” he told me, putting on a look of exaggerated pity: “‘Oh, you poor middle-class people!’” In his 2006 book, Positively American, Schumer notes that Democrats who visit middle-class communities often vow to improve “the crumbling public schools.” This sort of talk exasperates him. In a typical middle-class neighborhood, he points out, “the school is not crumbling; it’s just becoming crushingly okay.” Crumbling schools are in poor neighborhoods. So even well-meaning Democrats unwittingly offend by revealing their ignorance of true middle-class concerns. This is why they lose elections.

Under George W. Bush, of course, things got so bad for the middle class—real and imaginary—that Democrats won control of government practically by default. To hold onto it, Schumer believes, the party will have to avoid the mistake it made the last time it ran Congress and the White House.

In 1993, Bill Clinton took office after campaigning on a middle-class tax cut, and then launched into a fight over gays in the military and quarreled with Congress. “The people who elected him,” Schumer says, “didn’t think they mattered,” and brought Democratic control to a swift end the following year. The shame of it, he adds, is that Clinton realized his mistake and had already begun hitting his stride, with middle-class-friendly programs like the Family and Medical Leave Act and the 1994 crime bill (which Schumer helped shape) that put 100,000 more police officers on the street. Even so, it took Democrats more than a decade to recover their majorities in Congress.

As one of the principal architects of that effort, Schumer would appear well qualified to judge what Democrats should do next. What would a Schumer-worthy agenda look like? For starters, it would be determinedly practical, tightly focused on the needs of the real middle class. It would account for the popular mood, taking care to lean slightly against liberal orthodoxy and the interest groups that enforce it. Emphasis would fall less on providing a safety net and more on helping people get ahead—with a house, a college degree, a comfortable retirement. To maintain solidarity with regular folks, it would feature the occasional, well-chosen populist crusade. And so it would look a lot like Schumer’s own career.

Schumer came to Washington in 1980, at the same time as Reagan. As the congressman from a working-class Brooklyn district, he took up prominent local concerns like crime and welfare reform. He carved out a role shaping laws like the federal assault-weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act, the 1992 Anti-Auto Theft Act, which required manufacturers to put ID numbers on car parts to make them easier to track. But his specialty became the modest, life-enhancing consumer protections whose practical appeal is not always reflected in the number of headlines they garner: limiting ATM and debit-card fees; making cell-phone numbers portable; forcing credit-card companies to disclose more information. The section on your credit-card bill listing the interest rate, annual fee, and finance charges is known as the “Schumer Box,” for a provision he inserted into the 1988 Truth in Lending Act. A classic episode in the mid-1990s was Schumer’s campaign against the high price of breakfast cereals (cold cereal is Schumer’s favorite food). A Federal Trade Commission investigation that he helped launch attributed the sharp rise in cereal prices to “slotting fees,” the price manufacturers pay for prime placement on supermarket shelves; after an uproar in Congress, prices fell.

Hardly content to toil in obscurity, Schumer honed his ability to insert himself front and center into the biggest issues of the day. From his seat on the House Budget Committee, he maneuvered to play a leading role in the drama that surrounded the country’s last great financial crisis, the savings-and-loan scandal of the late 1980s. He chaired the Task Force on Urgent Fiscal Matters, a high-profile investigation of what went wrong that culminated in a blockbuster hearing—the sort of plum assignment that is the congressional equivalent of starring in a big-budget Hollywood action movie. He learned the ins and outs of Wall Street, and showed a flair for theatrics.

In 1998, Schumer moved up to the Senate, knocking off the heavily favored Geraldine Ferraro in the Democratic primary to beat the three-term incumbent, Alfonse D’Amato. His campaign was pure Schumer, focused on things like skyrocketing college tuition and the exorbitant airfares to and from midsize cities like Buffalo and Rochester.

In the Senate, he has pushed programs aimed at overcoming the major obstacles and fulfilling the aspirations of middle-class life: buying a home (a first-time homebuyer’s tax credit), having children (doubling the child tax credit, extending the credit for child-care expenses to families earning up to $75,000), paying for college (making tuition tax-deductible), caring for aging parents (extending the dependent-care tax credit to cover elderly parents living outside the home). A nearly identical agenda featured prominently in the campaigns that Schumer ran from the DSCC, reproduced so faithfully that he was able to introduce the package as a bill, the Middle Class Opportunity Act of 2007, which virtually every freshman Democratic senator co-sponsored. “Even though he’s brash,” Jim Kessler says, “a lot of the things he’s calling for are not really radical.” Schumer’s ultimate fantasy, described in Positively American, is to slay that great middle-class bogeyman, the property tax, by decoupling it from local education funding. This would eliminate the major reason for property-tax increases, allowing middle-class families to buy homes in affordable neighborhoods without worrying about school quality, and it would restructure the public school system in a more egalitarian manner. Schumer’s ability to grasp middle-class concerns made him enormously popular in New York. When he was reelected in 2004, he won by the largest margin in state history.

It is a measure of Schumer’s intuition that he almost never gets caught on the wrong side of an issue. Nor is he above posturing to rile up voters—in fact, he has done so to ruthless effect. He turned his chairmanship of the Joint Economic Committee, normally an obscure backwater, into a platform to agitate against high gasoline prices, though Congress can do little to affect them. To hammer Republicans just before the 2006 midterm elections, he made devastating use of the news that a state-owned Dubai company planned to take control of shipping terminals in six U.S. seaports—even though he, a Wall Street sophisticate, understood that such transactions were not uncommon, if rarely quite so explicit. Indeed, he had actively supported others, recognizing their benefit to his constituents. “As a larger-gauge strategist,” a senior banking official with a high-level Washington background told me, “he has an uncanny sense of how to position himself, and his party, in a way that resonates with voters.”

Throughout all this, Schumer has been known for his relentless drive and aggressiveness, but almost never for what he is driving to pass. The mundane nature of the middle-class initiatives he favors is a built-in disadvantage, holding little interest for the people who think and write about policy for a living—the sort of people who prefer to dwell on crumbling schools. This reinforces the image of Schumer as something of a lightweight. “Lemme tell you,” he said with more than his usual gusto, when I pointed this out, “I had a big argument with the New York Times editorial board when I started pushing college-tuition deductibility. They wrote an editorial saying [middle-class people] don’t need it. Give it all to the poor. I called them up and said, ‘First, you don’t understand that someone making $68,000 and paying $20,000 a year for tuition feels every bit as poor as somebody who’s making $22,000 and doesn’t have to pay any tuition. And second, if [Democrats] listened to you, we’d have 35 seats in the Senate and you’d criticize us for being ineffective.’ From those people in the, quote, liberal elite, there is almost something bad about trying to help the middle class.”

It is this liberal-elite mind-set that Schumer has spent a career trying to overcome, that two cycles’ worth of Democratic Senate candidates schooled in the Schumer Method have successfully avoided, and that Barack Obama—after a worrisome start in which he appeared captive to it—also avoided, by shrewdly making elite liberals part of a much broader movement that swept right through the heart of the middle class. One reason Schumer is sanguine these days is because of his faith that Obama gets it.

Take cereal prices. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘Thanks for doing what you did on cereal prices,’” Schumer told me. “Now, that is hardly the most important thing you can do. But I would resent some editorial writer or professor saying”—and here he put on an expression of snooty disdain—“‘Oh, he’s talking about cereal prices!’ I’ll tell you what. Government helped people on that. The New York Times wouldn’t understand that. Bush would say, ‘It’s up to the free market.’ But if I told that to Barack Obama, he’d understand it like that.” Schumer snapped his fingers.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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