Back when Senator Charles Schumer was a freshman from an embattled minority party, he used to say that if you put his distant predecessor Jacob Javits—the legendary liberal, antiwar, nonconformist Republican—into a centrifuge and spun it around, it would produce a pair of New York isotopes: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an intellectual who churned out sesquipedalian tomes on social policy, and Al D’Amato, a profane tactician who seemed to understand his office in purely parochial terms. Mr. Schumer wanted to reverse the process, reuniting political id and ego in one person.
“Out would come this thinker who did great legislative stuff like Moynihan, but who also did the good constituent work like D’Amato,” said a former aide. “That was his goal.”
Now, as he stands on the verge of a landmark legislative achievement as an instrumental mover behind a grand health care compromise, the question isn’t so much whether he reached that goal, but what the next one might be.
In an interview this week at his office in Manhattan, Mr. Schumer removed himself from the maelstrom for a moment and reflected, without an outward hint of individual ambition, on his ever-increasing influence.
“I love legislating,” he said, not for the first time. “And we had to create a majority so we could legislate.”
MR. SCHUMER IS now the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, occupying an office that was specially created for him by the majority leader, Harry Reid, to entice him to pass up a run for governor in 2006, and some of his recent moves—especially his very public push for a bill that includes a “public option” health care plan, over the more tactical caution of the White House and Mr. Reid—have raised inevitable questions about the ceiling of his ambitions. Mr. Reid, who faces reelection in reddish Nevada next year, is very vulnerable, according to the polls, raising the possibility of a rare opening at the pinnacle of the Senate.
“I’m not trying to gild the lily. I’m happy where I am right now,” Mr. Schumer said. “Harry Reid is my buddy, my foxhole buddy, and I am doing everything I can to help him get reelected. And I strongly believe he will be reelected.”
Still, as Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy asks, reasonably, “How can you not think about it, given Schumer’s rise?”
The story of that rise coincides with the long narrative of the Democrats’ return to dominance in Washington.
“I was in the House for 18 years, and I would have stayed in the House, because I loved it when we were in the majority, but we lost the majority in ’94,” Mr. Schumer said. “And in the House, when you’re in the minority, it’s bad. It’s the first time I’m telling a reporter this, but I’ve been in the Senate majority, Senate minority, House majority, House minority. Only one sucks. I got tired of going to the floor and just beating up on the Republicans without any effect. So I said to myself, ‘It’s up or out.’”
IN THE YEARS immediately after his successful challenge to Mr. D’Amato, in 1998, he was widely regarded within the fusty ranks of the Senate as a simple political animal—a little too vulgar, too much of the House.
“Chuck was a guy in a hurry, and it showed,” said the former leadership aide. “People respected him, and they knew they needed him, and they knew he was good for the caucus and they wanted to win elections, but I think there was some eye-rolling about his demeanor. But I think the Senate is a place that shapes people, for better or for worse, and I think to a certain extent the institution, and his desire to lead it, has wrung the ‘House-ness’ out of him.”
“I think it’s very difficult for senators from the Northeast to develop a broader national constituency,” said Robert Torricelli, the former senator from New Jersey, whose career paralleled Mr. Schumer’s for a time but was ultimately derailed by ethics investigations. “Chuck was viewed with some skepticism when he arrived, because his identity was so intertwined with New York itself. So I think he has overcome some handicaps.”
One of the largest of those handicaps was a sense, based on regional identity as much as anything, that Mr. Schumer was far to the left of mainstream Democrats. In fact, in his 2007 book, Positively American, Mr. Schumer outlined a governing philosophy fixated on middle-class issues, an attempt to shift the underlying justification for liberalism from abnegation to self-interest. One of his contributions to this year’s stimulus bills is typical: a $2,500 college tuition tax credit for families making less than $180,000 a year.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER Barack Obama’s election, when many Democrats were talking about the New Deal and a sea change in the nation’s attitude toward activist government, Mr. Schumer was pushing a list of comparatively modest legislative priorities: reforming immigration, re-regulating the financial industry, a plan to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources. These issues, as he saw it, were capable of winning a broad consensus, and swift political dividends. “Health care is not one of them,” Mr. Schumer said. “That’s why I had recommended that we wait a little bit and not do it early on.”