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.

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.

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.

Last fall, as the economic crisis intensified, a behind-the-scenes struggle opened up in the Democratic Party between fiscal hawks, who considered the Bush administration’s $700 billion financial-bailout package a major limitation on what the next president could propose, and others, like Schumer, who saw the crisis as license to abandon normal fiscal constraints. By Thanksgiving, most Democrats were lining up with Schumer. The question now is not whether to spend generously but how much to spend and on what.

When Bill Clinton took office, 16 years ago, he found himself facing a growing federal deficit and abandoned his middle-class tax cut to focus on balancing the budget. Even though the deficit is much larger today, Obama won’t have to confront this dilemma. Instead, the imperative throughout Washington is to spend (and spend, and spend!) the country’s way out of recession. On this, Obama doesn’t just have a mandate; he has something more like a directive.

A few weeks ago, while everyone was focused on the stimulus package, Schumer walked me through what he thinks the first year of the Obama administration might look like and why it will appeal to his idea of the middle class.

“First, you’ve got to get the economy moving again,” he said. “You do that with a big stimulus and get money into people’s hands.” One likely component is a middle-class tax cut. To broaden support for the large stimulus he favors, Schumer was also pushing provisions to increase middle-class savings and eventually tame the deficit: government-funded “baby bonds” of $500 for every new child, matching federal funds to 401(k)s, and automatic IRA accounts for workers whose employers don’t offer a 401(k). A well-designed stimulus, he said, would quickly rebuild confidence in government.

Schumer listed five things that should follow simultaneously, indicating that each enjoys at least a rough Democratic consensus. Reforming the financial industry would further increase confidence and allay middle-class worries about mortgages and retirement accounts. An energy plan that takes steps to reduce dependence on foreign oil and to promote green alternatives would convince a middle class spooked by $4-a-gallon gasoline that, even if the government cannot control market volatility and prices in the short term, it is taking concrete steps toward solving the problem. On education, Obama has proposed more federal dollars for grades K–12 to attract better teachers and improve schools without raising property taxes, and a tax credit to make college more affordable. An immigration bill similar to what Ted Kennedy and John McCain proposed might upset interest groups on the left and right, but it would appeal to small businesses (i.e., middle-class entrepreneurs) and convince everyone else that government finally had a handle on the problem.

The last issue is withdrawal from Iraq. “I think we’re going to do Iraq early,” Schumer said. “What the right wing didn’t get was that even if the surge succeeded, it was beside the point. People said to themselves, ‘There’s $100 billion a year going over there, when I’m hurting? For what, stability in Iraq?’ I ask people, ‘How many’s first goal is stability in Iraq?’ No one raises their hand. Well, why are we spending more money on that than on all of federal education?”

All of this could be accomplished within the first three months of the Obama administration, he suggested. Were that to happen, the middle class would have the activist government Schumer says it wants, behaving exactly the way Schumer wants it to. “Every one of those things either helps the middle class immediately, or gives them hope in the future that the pie is going to keep growing,” he said. That would open the door to bigger things later in the year, like universal health care and ambitious climate-change legislation.

Schumer says that middle-class problems have expanded to the point that they’ve begun to overlap with the problems of the poor and working poor—and middle-class families lack recourse to the government programs that help the poor. “Twenty years ago, most middle-class people didn’t worry about health care,” he told me. “Today, the person making $70,000 thinks about health care as much as the person making $35,000.” Far from being adversaries, both groups favor things like better schools and reasonable gas prices. “What will happen if we do it right,” he said, “is that there’ll be an alliance between the middle class and the poor, as opposed to the alliance between the middle class and the rich [that held for the past 28 years]. Everything we’re talking about is the work of an active, strong government, and if it works, it will wed the middle class to the Democrats for a generation.”

People think big at the outset of any new administration. Eight years ago, Karl Rove was plotting to bring about a generation-long Republican majority with a set of ideas that sounded pretty convincing. That didn’t work out so well. And Rove was operating at a time of relative peace and prosperity. Some unforeseen crisis or error by Obama—or a crisis in plain sight, like a long, grinding recession—could hamper Democrats and render Schumer no more of a visionary than Rove.

What sank Rove’s grand plan was Bush’s inability to get any of its component parts through Congress. But that problem is unlikely to befall Obama. He has already filled many of the top administration jobs with seasoned congressional veterans, notably his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Before leaving Congress to join the administration, Emanuel was the Democrat who most shared Schumer’s obsessive focus on aspirational middle-class programs.

Obama also seems to want to govern by enunciating broad themes and relying on Congress to fill in many of the specifics. After two terms of a Republican president who showed little regard for the legislative branch, Congress is eager to oblige. As a member of the Democratic leadership, Schumer will be central to the process, and he has logged enough phone time with senior Obama officials to become convinced that the new president shares his worldview.

So Obama not only has money to spend but looks certain, at least initially, to enjoy better relations with Congress than any president in decades. That ought to provide a good head start toward enacting an ambitious agenda—as good as any president has had since Lyndon Johnson.

The last time I saw Schumer, he had just announced his decision to forgo a third term as DSCC chairman. The time had come to test his ideas in the legislative arena. Having at last gained control of government, Schumer and his party must now show that they know how to keep it.