Chuck Schumer and the Evolution of a Talking Point

How hard is it for politicians to talk about the financial crisis?

Consider Chuck Schumer, the most visible Democratic senator talking about the meltdown, who sits on the Senate Banking Committee and who has, under normal circumstances, a well-earned reputation as a master of the sound bite.

When the government rescued A.I.G. on Sept. 16, Mr. Schumer issued a statement that said, “The administration is approaching an unprecedented step, but unfortunately we are living in unprecedented times. Hearing of these plans, you have to stop to catch your breath. But upon reflection, the alternatives are much worse.”

In other words: This is big, we need time to think about it, but we’ve thought about it a little, and it seems like this isn’t as bad as other things they could be doing, such as nothing.

Mr. Schumer has soldiered on, however, evolving his talking points into something more digestible and partisan.

Presenting an alternative plan for the economy on Sept. 18 on the Senate floor, Mr. Schumer said, “Proposals like Senator McCain’s may help Wall Street, but they will do nothing for Main Street.”

After meeting with U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke the following day, Mr. Schumer reported, “We expect Secretary Paulson to send us a plan as soon as possible and we will look it over and make suggestions. I want to make sure that Main Street is taken care of as well as Wall Street.”

Then, during a Sept. 21 interview on Fox, something new: a sort-of acronym.

“I would call changes necessary, as I said, in three areas,” Mr. Schumer told host Chris Wallace. “I call them THO. Taxpayers. They have to come first. Homeowners. We have to do something about the mortgage crisis, not just foreclosures but the price of housing, which is affecting everyone on Main Street. And oversight. We need some accountability here.”

Mr. Schumer described the economy as “a patient whose arteries are clogged.”

At a press conference in his midtown office on Sept. 22, Mr. Schumer revisited the medical analogy. “The best way I’ve heard to describe it is, our economy’s arteries are clogged by a lot of junk and debt, and the patient risks a heart attack unless we act. So we do have to act.”

He called the plan Mr. Paulson released over the weekend a “foundation for unclogging the arteries.”

Then he returned to THO.

“I call the three things that the plan is missing and we must put in, THO.

“T is for taxpayers …”

In his opening statement to a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Sept. 23, Mr. Schumer escalated the level of panic. (Apparently, the phrase “serious as a heart attack” means little to him.)

“We face both a Scylla and a Charybdis—dangers on both sides,” he said, according to a transcript from his office. “Chairman Bernanke told us that our American economy’s arteries—our financial system—were clogged, and if we don’t act, the patient would surely suffer a heart attack.

“While Wall Street caused the problems we face, unfortunately, if we do nothing, Main Street will also pay a severe price.

“I want to assure the markets—and I think I speak for all of us—that we will not be dilatory. We will not ‘Christmas tree’ this bill with extraneous amendments.”

And then: a new letter.

“Secretary Paulson has proposed his plan, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, to Congress. And while I certainly recognize the need for action, I think that some changes are necessary. To Secretary Paulson’s TARP program, I believe we need to add THOR.

“T for taxpayer protections. H for housing. O, oversight. And down the road, R for regulation. I can talk about each of these at some length, but we don’t have time, Mr. Chairman.”

Chuck Schumer and the Evolution of a Talking Point