New York’s political petri dish has spawned and released Donald Trump and his Archie Bunker-style politics on the rest of the country. It’s also grown the perfect meal to fuel his rise: feckless U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer.
It’s a point of pride for many New Yorkers that the most powerful Democrat in the federal government is one of their own. But if resisting and removing Trump from power is progressive New Yorkers’ top priority, they’re going to have to set that aside and support a very different kind of leader.
A leader, perhaps, who isn’t sticking to a political playbook from 1998, always trying to please an imaginary upper-middle-class family in Long Island. A leader who doesn’t help Trump score a bipartisan win by weakening regulation on banks and further endangering the economy.
Quick to cave and reluctant to enforce party discipline, Schumer is particularly ill-suited to fight back against the GOP’s plutocratic economic agenda. Schumer has raised more than $1 million from banks, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, and has often represented the industry’s interests on Capitol Hill.
Schumer’s first instinct in the early days of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was to give free rein to red state Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota who might be tempted to vote for the nominee.
Here’s how our current master of the Senate resignedly describes his methods for whipping red state Democratic senators: “I can’t get them to do anything.” And, “I am not in charge of them.”
Schumer appears to operate on the assumption that Trump is popular among rural voters, and Democrats are unpopular among rural voters – and, therefore, Schumer cannot enforce party discipline for fear that red state voters might find out that red state Democrats are Democrats.
This is not a long-term strategy for growing the party. It’s not even a short-term strategy for winning the midterm elections.
Democrats need a leader who plants a flag in rural America and says, “This is what we stand for,” because Democrats actually stand for the things rural Americans care about.
A new survey from Rural Organizing, a progressive grass-roots group that aims to rebuild rural America (disclosure: I sit on the board), finds that while more than 52 percent of rural voters approve of Trump’s job performance, and two-thirds of rural residents consider themselves to be conservative or moderate, they strongly lean to the left on economic policies championed by progressives.
Two-thirds of rural voters want Medicare to cover all Americans. Over half back increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Over 90 percent of rural Americans think we should invest in small, local businesses and protect rural schools from closing. And a clear majority (77 percent) of rural residents think Congress is giving tax breaks to the wealthy instead of investing in rural areas.
So how did it play in rural America in 2015 when the favorite senator of K Street and Wall Street reached out to Republicans to get lower taxes for multinational corporations? He reinforced the belief of a majority of rural Americans who don’t think Democrats are fighting for their community.
Schumer is a poster child for what Thomas Piketty, author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” calls the multiple-elite party system, which explains “rising inequality and the lack of democratic response to it, as well as the rise of ‘populism.’” It’s a model in which the parties are separated on issues like abortion rights, LGBTQ rights and gun control, on which Schumer is reliably liberal and outspoken, but they are closer together on taxes, spending and the regulation of industries that are powerful in Democratic states, like finance.
Democrats can decide to tap into rising anti-Wall Street populism in the red states and channel it toward progressive policy solutions. Or they can lose, Schumer-style, by throwing up their hands and assuming rural Americans will never back a truly progressive agenda.
So who would be a good replacement for Schumer, someone who would take a strong stand against Trump and his congressional allies while bringing a populist progressive economic message to rural areas? One Senate Democrat who spends a lot of time talking to rural voters is Jeff Merkley from Oregon. Merkley has noted that “most of my colleagues, they come from elite backgrounds. They’re surrounded by the powerful and are heavily influenced by them. But I come from a background of knowing what we’re not doing well as a nation. The successful don’t need me to help make them more successful. That’s not going to make the world a better place.”
Unlike Schumer’s famous eagerness to get on camera, Merkley describes himself as an introvert who quietly builds institutions and gets the fundamentals right. As the Democratic leader in the Oregon House of Representatives, he oversaw the party winning the majority in 2006 and was subsequently elevated to speaker.
Merkley is an old-fashioned “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-type who fixes his own lawn mower. And he has been front and center in leading the resistance against Trump – whether by being one of the first Democratic lawmakers to call for Kavanaugh to withdraw his nomination, exposing that the Trump administration diverted money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention program, or by bringing attention to the secretive child detention centers in the first place.
No doubt it would hurt the Empire State to give up its position in the Democratic leadership. But stopping Trump’s agenda will benefit New York, one of the states most harmed by it, even more than having one of its own as Senate minority leader.