Chuck Schumer's Cure for Democrats

The New York senator, a longtime ally of the party's Wall Street wing, now says it must return to its "pro-government" roots in 2016.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Harry Reid is still the Senate Democratic leader, but Chuck Schumer is unquestionably the party's chief message man on Capitol Hill.

So it was a significant moment on Tuesday morning when Schumer, New York's senior senator and a likely heir to Reid, called for Democrats to "embrace government" as they try to hold the White House and recapture control of Congress in 2016. "We must convince the middle class that the only way out of their morass is by embracing a strong and effective government, not demeaning or running from it," Schumer said during a lengthy speech at the National Press Club, which at times sounded like an analysis of political trends over the last 100 years. "We’re a pro-government party," he added in summation. "We have been all along. We can’t run from it."

Schumer argued that after a string of whiplash elections in which voters rejected Democrats and Republicans in succession, the Democratic Party must offer a cohesive vision and policy agenda centered on how government can be used to jumpstart stagnant wage growth and otherwise provide direct benefits to the middle class. The rise of income equality before and after the economic crash of 2008, he posited, has sparked a shift in voter attitudes toward government after the Reagan-era belief that government was the problem, not the solution. The "big tectonic plates" of political ideology, Schumer said, "are moving back in a pro-government direction."

"People know in their hearts that when big powerful private sector forces degrade their lifestyle only government can protect them."

This is not a new analysis for the political left. It has become a common refrain within the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party, and it is one that President Obama adopted at times during his reelection campaign. But it is new for Schumer, who has long embodied the Wall Street-friendly Democratic establishment that has shrunk from embracing an activist government since Bill Clinton's famous 1996 declaration that "the era of Big Government is over."

The 2014 election drubbing for Democrats, Schumer said, was not "a repudiation of government" but a rejection of government incompetence. He blamed the disastrous rollout of last year, the scandalous reports out of the Veterans Administration, and the federal government's lackluster initial response to the child-migrant border crisis and the Ebola outbreak for the party's defeat at the polls.

But his more noteworthy critique was of the pursuit of health reform itself: In his harshest assessment of the Obama presidency to date, Schumer argued that the White House and congressional Democrats erred by focusing on the Affordable Care Act throughout most of 2009 and early 2010 rather than following the passage of the economic stimulus with other targeted economic legislation that would directly help more people. He said voters had given the party a mandate in 2008 to stop the financial crisis and reverse the economic damage done to the middle class, and while he supported the substance of Obamacare, it was a political loser because it offered its most tangible benefit—access to coverage for the uninsured—to just 5 percent of the voting public. "Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them," he said. "We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem: healthcare reform." (While top Obama advisers like Rahm Emanuel, his first chief of staff, also opposed the healthcare push at the time, the president and Democratic leaders consistently argue that the benefits of the law accrue to a much larger portion of the electorate.)

Schumer has always targeted his political message toward the middle class: Witness his 2007 book, titled Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family At a Time. But while that book contained many of the same ideas that are priorities for Democrats today—immigration reform, college affordability, etc—it downplayed the decades-long battle over the size and scope of government that he now believes the party should join in full.

Despite this year's election results, Schumer argued that his party is better positioned than Republicans to win back and sustain a majority. He predicted that the GOP, with its opposition to government solutions, would fail over the next two years to enact policies that help the middle class.

But for Democrats to win, the federal government has to perform well, and in that sense Schumer put the pressure for victory in 2016 not on Congress but back on the Obama administration. "When government messes up," he warned, "we can easily lose."