Schumer to Obama: Keep Going

Barack Obama’s address to Congress on Feb. 24 included only one clearly partisan shot at the rowdy Republicans in the chamber, but it was that line, a reference to “the deficits we inherited,” that prompted Senator Chuck Schumer to leap out of his seat like a contestant on The Price Is Right and laugh and point at his colleagues across the aisle.

In contrast to a White House that likes to try and depict itself as post- or bipartisan, Mr. Schumer is an unrepentant partisan warrior, the conquering political hero who led the Democrats to a majority in the Senate in 2006 and then expanded it in 2008. Despite his evident delight in the president’s jab at the other guys, Mr. Schumer thinks that Mr. Obama’s stylistic moderation is the perfect accompaniment to Washington’s “tectonic” leftward shift.

“I think the two are not conflicting,” said Mr. Schumer in a phone interview on March 8, as he took a bite of Irish soda bread in the front seat of a car headed to an early St. Patrick’s Day parade in Huntington. “You can be strong about the need for change and the prescription for change and at the same time, in tone, you can be bipartisan. The tone can be non-hostile.”

Mr. Schumer said that Mr. Obama, armed with an unwaveringly high favorability rating and what he called a “father figure” manner, is perfectly suited to extract some Republican defections. If needed.

“His view will be that if he keeps at it and keeps talking to Republicans, he’ll eventually succeed in bringing them along. I don’t know if that’s true,” said Mr. Schumer. “But frankly, if you get Al Franken seated in the Senate, you don’t need to bring that many along to bring about significant change.”

Mr. Schumer predicted that the Republicans would only be pushed further to the margins as they try to muster resistance to the Obama program.

“The theory is that if the Republicans continue to be obstructive, they are going to lose more ground and some of them will realize that and break from the party’s base, which is basically now mired in 1980,” said Mr. Schumer.

“People don’t want obstruction,” he said. “People don’t want people just saying no. And I think the Republican votes in the Senate are making it easy to pick up seats. They are just being so negative without putting anything in its place. Even John McCain—he talks about generational theft when it comes to the stimulus, but never talked about it when it came to the Iraq war, which costs more. Earmarks are now the bête noire of the Republicans.”

(The office of Mr. McCain, who has two sons in active duty, one of whom has served in Iraq, declined to respond.)

Mr. Schumer recently finished two stints as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and his success there bestowed upon him a political-guru status that he happily accepts, regularly dispensing advice to his colleagues and expressing unsolicited approval (and, occasionally, reservations) for Mr. Obama’s proposals.

On Feb. 18, Mr. Schumer said the comprehensive foreclosure-mitigation plan announced that day by Mr. Obama was “bigger and bolder than most everyone thought, which is a refreshing change from the failed attempts of the last administration.”

On Feb. 26, after Mr. Obama announced that his draw-down plan for troops in Iraq would include 50,000 remaining in theater, Mr. Schumer tsked: “Fifty thousand is more than I would have thought, and we await the justification.”

On March 3, after newspaper reports that Mr. Obama had made an offer to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to abandon plans to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe in exchange for Russia’s cooperation in getting Iran to give up its nuclear program, Mr. Schumer’s office sent out a press release noting that Mr. Schumer “urged exactly such a gambit in a White House meeting with President Bush and Vice President Cheney in early 2008, but was rebuffed,” and even attached a Wall Street Journal editorial Mr. Schumer wrote in 2008 suggesting as much.

“This is the kind of smart, targeted diplomacy our dangerous world needs,” Mr.  Schumer said at the time.

And on the afternoon of March 10, Mr. Schumer took credit for successfully blocking one of the president’s appointees: Ambassador Charles Freeman, who had been up for the post of chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Mr. Schumer had considered him to be anti-Israel.

“Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement released shortly after the news broke of Mr. Freeman’s withdrawal from consideration. “His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing.”

Mr. Schumer is clearly enjoying his increased importance and relevance in the Democratic leadership, though it has made him that much more of a political lightning rod.

Mr. Schumer took some heat for an address on the Senate floor on Feb. 10, when, in front of a board showing “The Two Biggest Amendments Added to the Senate Recovery Package,” totaling more than $100 billion, he said, “And let me say this to all of the chattering class that so much focuses on those little, tiny—yes—porky amendments: The American people really don’t care.” 

The video of his statement was promptly Drudged. Conservatives got angry. 

Not that Mr. Schumer is shying away from the point (though he makes sure to avoid using the word “porky.”) 

In the interview, Mr. Schumer agreed with the suggestion that American voters did not respond to Mr. McCain’s indignation about earmarks during the presidential campaign, and he argued that they wouldn’t now. He suggested that the railing against earmarks amounted to “the old tricks of the Republican base of simply finding a scapegoat” and he thought Americans in a financial crisis would be even less interested in such a cause.

“You know, [Republicans] lived in an era when people fundamentally wanted less government, so attacking government worked,” he said. “Now people want government to be a positive force to make their lives better. Attacking government doesn’t, and they don’t get it yet. I think the president is of the view that the electorate will force them to get it, and I share it.”

Mr. Schumer likened the Republicans to liberals at the end of the Jimmy Carter era.

“One of the big questions is where the Republican Party goes,” he said. “I saw this in 1980 with the Democrats, because they had done one thing so successfully for so long. It’s very hard for them to break the old patterns. But Democrats took 10 years to learn that, and with Bill Clinton, they did. We’ll see if it takes Republicans that long.”

He extended the analogy.

“I think [Mr. Obama] is going to get to a serious level of change, but it is going to be more the Reagan type,” said Mr. Schumer. “Remember, Reagan, like Obama, [didn’t] have complete control of the Congress. And while he came along at a time when people were redefining their relationships to government and wanted change, the country wasn’t in as bad shape as it was in 1932.”

Asked how Mr. Obama could best help the Democrats strengthen their hold on Congress, Mr. Schumer said, “The way to build the larger majority is to keep doing what he is doing.”

Schumer to Obama: Keep Going