Sen. Chuck Schumer laid out a platform for congressional Democrats Tuesday, offering both proposals to mend the party's image ahead of 2016 and a possible preview of how he would run the Senate if he eventually becomes Democratic leader.
The speech before the National Press Club was designed to begin a healing process for the party after their stark losses in the 2014 election cycle. The Democratic Party must, Schumer argued, put forth legislation that improves the lives of large swaths of the middle class and, perhaps most importantly, can be sold as a clearly knit-together package that will make sense to the average voter.
The No. 3 Democrat in the Senate presented a five-point proposal for how the conference can test and assemble that legislative package ahead of the 2016 elections. The speech, which highlighted failures of Democratic governance during President Obama's tenure, presents a new vision for the conference—and its leadership.
Spokesman Matt House dismissed the idea that the speech was a pitch for the top Senate leadership position, adding that it merely reflected Schumer's long-standing belief in the middle class and execution of his role as the Senate Democratic conference's lead messenger.
But regardless of Schumer's intentions, the speech provides insight into the priorities and style of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's likely successor.
Reid has said that he is not planning to retire in 2016, but the 74-year-old Nevadan is sure to step down in the coming years, particularly if the party is able to regain seats next cycle and return him to the majority leader's office.
Schumer is technically second in line for the job, behind Majority Whip Dick Durbin. But many Democrats and Republicans alike expect that Schumer will leapfrog over the whip and take the top job when Reid steps down. The New Yorker has spent five years at the top of the Senate Rules Committee handing out plum offices to colleagues and has gone to the bat for a number of endangered Democrats, collecting chits for a future leadership bid. Durbin has been much less aggressive in seeking the position.
Although it is too early for Schumer to start measuring the drapes—and given his exceedingly close relationship with Reid, he'll wait on the Nevadan to make a decision on his own—Schumer's speech Tuesday could easily be recycled in the coming years as a pitch for the top job.
"Democrats must embrace government, not run away from it," Schumer intoned, warning members against reacting too strongly to their loses in 2014. The leader said he worries that members will "run away from government, downplay it, or act as if we are embarrassed by its role" in response to those losses, turning the party into a sort of GOP-lite. "Together, Democrats must embrace government. It's what we believe in; it's what unites our party; and, most importantly, it's the only thing that's going to get the middle class going again," he said.
To do that, Schumer recommended a five-step proposition for Democratic policy going forward, a sort of means test for any legislation that goes to the floor. For every bill, he said, members must first prove that it will benefit the middle class "in an immediate and tangible way."
Second, it must "be simple and easily explained," helping Democrats to counter their messaging problem on past legislation.
Third, Schumer said that the party needs to do away with strict messaging bills, proving that each legislative goal must be "achievable" before moving it to the floor—though he clarified in a question-and-answer session with reporters after the speech that he did not necessarily mean that it must pass through a Republican-controlled Congress.
Next, the policy must affect "a broad swath of Americans" if Democrats are ever going to prove to voters that they're passing legislation to improve the lives of average Americans. Schumer pointed to the Affordable Care Act as an example of legislation that affected just a small group of Americans, and even fewer registered voters.
Finally, he said, the party's legislative policies "must fit together to create an effective theme, message, and even symphony, so that people don't see individual Democratic programs as individual pieces, but rather, parts of a whole."
Put together, the plan provides a much tighter vision for leadership of the Democratic conference and a much stronger focus on preparing members to win elections than the party has had over the last several years.
Schumer did not make any reference to Reid or other Senate leaders during his address, either positive or negative. He did, however, argue that Congress should have waited to act on Obama's health care law, rather than pushing it through in 2010.
But inherent in his message for the party is what the conference has done wrong over the last six years. Democrats have not successfully put forward a cohesive policy message, nor have they managed to sell it to voters.
Democrats must "come up with a policy plan that is focused, easily understood, achievable, broad, and fits together to form a larger narrative," Schumer said. "We must have our party—both its moderate and liberal wings—embrace these three stratagems, and we must have our presidential candidate, or candidates, on same page. This is our most important mission during the year of 2015."
Schumer argued that his "blueprint" for the Democratic Party in Congress should unite the moderate and progressive wings of the conference, "Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin," offering an economic message the Left can get behind and a "positive, pro-government message that moderate Democrats can sell even in the deepest red states."
The message is obvious. Democrats lost five seats they previously held in red states in 2014, and although the Senate map in 2016 is largely focused on blue and purple states, Democrats will need to win red states again to win the White House and take back seats in 2018. But there is also an uprising in the caucus that Reid and any future Democratic leader will need to deal with: At least six moderate members of the caucus who voted to oust Reid as leader this month.
"Every Democrat can follow this playbook," Schumer said. "It will work for the traditional parts of our base and help us win back those core, white, working-class voters who turn out in most presidential and midterm elections who decidedly trended against Democrats in this election."
And the stakes are high, Schumer argued, painting a portrait of an apocalyptic America if Republicans continue to hold majorities in Congress and the median income continues to decline. "Different racial, religious, ethnic, and economic groups will turn on each other in a way we haven't seen in almost a century," Schumer warned. "The grand optimism that is America will be extinguished and we will become a sour, angry people as the flickering light of the American dream dwindles and the America we know and love no longer exists."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.