Bombing Iran, says Chuck Schumer, would be a big political loser for Republican candidates in 2008.
“It would change the landscape against them, big time,” Mr. Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said about a scenario in which the Bush administration launches a military attack on Iran before leaving office. “I don’t think they are likely to do it, because they are so weak—not because they are chastened—but I also think it is very likely to be a negative political for them.”
Despite all the Bush administration’s saber rattling, the 56-year-old Brooklyn native believes the president’s political footing is too weak to build the case for another war, especially when the public is “far more skeptical of that the second time around.”
In an interview in his Third Avenue offices on Oct. 29, the top Democratic political tactician in Congress expressed unwavering optimism in his party’s chances to increase its majority in the Senate, even in the case of a traumatic event like war with Iran. He evinced similar confidence about the prospect of having the ostensibly polarizing Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket, and about his Senate candidates having to campaign against the supposedly moderate Rudy Giuliani.
“The wind is at our backs as Democrats,” he said.
Mr. Schumer said that his internal polling showed that the country now preferred Democratic to Republican candidates by a “double-digit” margin, and that the low approval rating received by the Democratic-controlled Congress was really a reflection of the country’s frustration with the inability of senators to stop George Bush. (He said that the single most potent line he had against Republican incumbents was “that they have voted 96 percent of the time with George Bush.”)
“It’s wider than it’s ever been,” said Mr. Schumer, about the lead of his prospective candidates in their respective races. The support for Democrats, he added, was “higher than ’06.”
Although Mr. Schumer was careful to say that there’s no real way of accounting for the impact of unforeseen events on an election that’s a year away, his optimism is not unreasonable.
In the course of his pitch, Mr. Schumer pointed out that there are 12 Democrats facing reelection in 2008 compared to 22 Republicans. And he said that states with Republican incumbents—Oregon, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine, Virginia and New Mexico—were leaning a little or a lot Democratic.
He figures his party’s prospects are especially promising in New Hampshire and Virginia, the latter of which Mr. Schumer said would be “pretty hard to lose” because of its strong candidate, Mark Warner, who Schumer helped convince to seek a Virginia Senate seat. (Mr. Warner was reported to be considering a run for governor or a vice presidential nomination.)
He expects the gains to come despite setbacks in his attempts to recruit second-tier presidential candidate Bill Richardson to run in New Mexico and New School president Bob Kerrey to run in Nebraska.
“Nebraska is one of the five or ten toughest,” Mr. Schumer said, referring to Democratic prospects of winning that seat, which is currently held by Republican Chuck Hagel. “With Bob Kerrey it became a much better race. I think he made the wrong choice, and I think he is going to regret his choice, but you have to respect it.”
Just as Mr. Schumer dismissed the potential political cost to Democrats of a Republican-initiated war, he made light of another rumored worst-case scenario: the nomination of Hillary Clinton for president.
“I think Hillary Clinton will help,” said Mr. Schumer, who added that he thought she was in the “process of gaining” respect around the country.
The idea of a Clinton-led ticket posing a threat to Democrats in conservative and swing states has been raised by at least one of her presidential opponents. (At an event in Chicago this summer, John Edwards suggested in a speech to donors that he would be more helpful as a nominee to candidates in places like “Montana and Georgia and Missouri” than either Mrs. Clinton or Barack Obama.)
Mr. Schumer, however, said that although he had discussed Mrs. Clinton’s impact at the top of the ticket with his potential recruits and Senate candidates, they were more interested in the particulars of their own races.
About the impact of House Ways and Means chair Charlie Rangel’s recent declaration of intent to enact a $1 trillion “mother of all tax reforms,” Mr. Schumer seemed slightly less sanguine.
“I’m not going to comment,” said Mr. Schumer, explaining that he was yet to read the legislation that has been savaged by Republicans as the sort of tax hikes Democratic candidates would inflict on Americans.
Mr. Schumer, who wrote a book detailing what he believed the be the bread-and-butter issues on which middle-class swing voters actually vote, believes firmly that the election will be decided at the margins on core domestic issues like taxes, health care, education and energy costs. On the question of Iraq, he said that it provided a stark choice that many voters had already made.
“Most people will assume that the Democratic nominee will get us out of Iraq,” he said. “The Republican won’t.”
(Mr. Schumer’s own position is that the best option remaining for Iraq is to break into three autonomous regions and that the American troop presence should be reduced by more than half, leaving a force whose mission is limited to counterterrorism and intervening to prevent mass murders.)
And what of his fellow New Yorker, Rudolph Giuliani, whose Republican primary strategy is based on the notion that he’d be the party’s best performer in a general election?
Mr. Schumer thinks he’s simply too frightening.
“The idea of a campaign that just scares people, ‘We’re going to be attacked and I am the only one that can save you,’ is a very unappealing campaign,” said Mr. Schumer.
He added, “When Rudy Giuliani says that he is going to pick [Supreme Court] justices like [John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito, I think it is very scary and it’s going to be politically harmful to him.”
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