CAN CHUCK SCHUMER CHECK DONALD TRUMP?
On a morning not long after Michael Flynn, having lied about conversations with the Russian Ambassador, was forced to step down as national-security adviser, but before Jeff Sessions, having lied about conversations with the Russian Ambassador, was forced to recuse himself from any Justice Department investigation involving the Trump campaign, Chuck Schumer rose from his desk on the floor of the United States Senate to reflect on the state of the union.
“We are in a moment of profound unease about the stability of the executive branch of our government,” he began. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
“I’ve been in Congress a long time and I have never, ever seen anything like this,” he went on. “At this juncture, we would all do well to remember that democracy, the most benevolent, desirable, effective, and just form of government devised by man, is also one of the most fragile systems of government devised by man. It requires constant vigilance.”
Schumer was wearing a dark suit that sagged under the weight of the mike pinned to his lapel. His tie was askew. (New York once described Schumer, the state’s senior senator, as a “zhlub, and in a good way.”) He kept glancing down at his notes through a pair of half-glasses, so that the view from the press gallery, and also on C-SPAN, was mostly of his scalp.
Schumer continued, addressing no one in particular, since the chamber was, as usual, nearly empty. “One of the things that the framers of the Constitution most worried about was the threat of foreign intervention in our government, what they called ‘foreign intrigue,’ ” he said. “The reported contact between operatives in the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials is exactly the kind of intrigue that our founders sought to prohibit. I mention all of this because I believe the stakes to be very high.”
When the 115th Congress convened, on January 3rd, Schumer became the Senate’s Minority Leader. (He ascended to the post upon the retirement of Senator Harry Reid, of Nevada.) Two and a half weeks later, on Inauguration Day, Schumer became the country’s highest-ranking Democrat. Neither position was what he had had in mind.
Throughout the campaign, Schumer had assumed that Hillary Clinton would be President. He further imagined that Democrats would pick up enough seats in the Senate to make him the Majority Leader. He would then help shape and enact the President’s legislative agenda. He and Clinton were already considering what their priorities should be for the first months of her Administration.
The election results put an end to this happy dream. The power of the Senate minority is purely negative: it can’t pass legislation; it can only block it. But even exercising negative power requires a great deal of discipline—potentially more than the Democrats can muster.
Next year, ten Democratic senators will be up for reëlection in states that Trump carried. The President has been wooing these senators, and even considered naming two of them, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, to his Cabinet. Meanwhile, Democratic activists—generally in blue states—are calling for round-the-clock resistance. Protesters have gathered in front of Schumer’s apartment, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, for rallies organized under the tagline “What the F*ck, Chuck?” (At least one demonstrator brought a model of a skeleton, to illustrate the importance of a spine.)
Can Schumer negotiate these currents? Can anyone? It seems no exaggeration to say that on these questions the future world depends. As Schumer himself put it the other morning, to the almost vacant Senate chamber, “This is not a drill.”
Schumer, who’s sixty-six, is an optimist, a trait that he says he inherited from his father, Abe. Abe, for his part, inherited an exterminating business from his father, Jack, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine. The family lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Schumer, growing up, would sometimes lend a hand killing roaches.
One summer, instead of working for his dad, Schumer got a job with a neighbor, Stanley Kaplan, who, at that point, was still laying the foundations of his test-prep empire. Schumer mimeographed thousands of practice S.A.T.s, an experience he credits with boosting his own scores, which were just shy of sixteen hundred. He went off to Harvard. There he tried out for the basketball team, but was cut before he had a chance to touch the ball. This was in the fall of 1967, and a week or so later a fellow-student invited him to go to New Hampshire to campaign for Eugene McCarthy. Schumer had never heard of McCarthy, but he was lonely, so he went.
Almost immediately, in his words, he “caught the bug.” He loved the excitement of politics, along with the camaraderie and the sense of being involved in great events. In 1974, the State Assembly seat for the district that included Flatbush came open. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Schumer decided to run for it. His mother, Selma, urged her neighbors not to vote for him. Schumer had an offer from the prestigious law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Selma didn’t want him wasting his time when he could be making good money.
Schumer ended up spending six years in Albany. People who knew him in those days mostly remember his ambitiousness. In the New York State Capitol in the nineteen-seventies, county bosses called the shots, and initiative was not encouraged.
“There was an order,” Mel Miller, who was elected to the Assembly a few years before Schumer and eventually became its speaker, told me. “You waited your turn. And Chuck was not going to wait his turn. I think that’s the best way to describe it. He was there to assert himself, and he was there to move on.”
Schumer’s reputation for aggressiveness followed him to Congress, where he arrived shortly after his thirtieth birthday. He won a seat on the House Banking Committee and began courting Wall Street; while still a freshman, he managed to amass the House’s third-largest campaign account. (When, in 1982, Brooklyn lost a congressional seat to reapportionment, Schumer’s enormous war chest insured that it was not his.) Even in the nation’s fund-raising capital, the intensity of Schumer’s efforts stood out. The Hill once reported that, having secured a contribution from a Republican lobbyist, Schumer insisted that the check be delivered by courier.
Just as assiduously as he pursued donors, Schumer wooed the press. Recognizing that it was hard to fill the Monday papers, he took to holding regular Sunday news conferences. He’d rail against college-tuition hikes or present a study documenting what he said were unfair disparities in health-care costs. He was so skillful at generating coverage that his colleagues in the New York delegation invented a new term: to be upstaged on an issue was to be “Schumed.”
In Washington, Schumer roomed with Leon Panetta, then a representative from California, and two other congressmen in a town house near Capitol Hill. To save money, Schumer slept in the living room, on a foldout couch. The place, which inspired a short-lived Amazon series called “Alpha House,” was famously grungy, and Schumer was famously messy. He didn’t worry about niceties like cleaning or even eating; often he dined on cold cereal. (“My favorite food,” he told me.) Panetta, who went on to serve as the director of the C.I.A. and then as the Secretary of Defense, remembers him constantly rushing back to his district.
“He was one of the few people I knew who would go to grammar-school graduations, for God’s sake,” Panetta said.
“I don’t think anyone can outwork Chuck Schumer,” another “Alpha House” resident, Marty Russo, a former representative from Illinois, told me.
If Schumer has a political philosophy, he owes it to a Long Island couple named Joe and Eileen Bailey. The Baileys live in Massapequa, a town on the South Shore, across the bay from Jones Beach. Joe works for an insurance company; Eileen is an administrative assistant in a physician’s office. The couple have three children, two of whom are grown. Economically, the Baileys are doing O.K., but they worry about rising property taxes and what the future holds for their kids. They’re not strong partisans. They feel that politicians of both parties sometimes condescend to them, something they hate. The Baileys voted for Bill Clinton twice, then, in 2000, after much agonizing, pulled the lever for George W. Bush.
This past November, the Baileys split their votes. Joe went with Trump, Eileen with Hillary. As for their kids, one was not yet eighteen, one voted for Clinton, and the third sat out the election. A few weeks ago, Schumer informed me that Eileen was feeling more confident about her vote, “not that she ever liked Hillary that much.” Joe, meanwhile, was having second thoughts.
“He’s getting a little queasiness in his stomach,” Schumer said. “It just seems like amateur hour, and Joe’s not an amateur. He’s very good at what he does. He was angry at the liberal way, but he didn’t think Trump would be like this.”
To Schumer, the Baileys represent the sort of voters that the Democratic Party too often neglects, and that it needs to reach in order to survive. They are his reality check, which would be less noteworthy were they real.
Schumer dreamed up the Baileys during his first campaign for the Senate, in 1998. In the spring of that year, he was polling third in a three-way primary race, behind Geraldine Ferraro, the onetime Vice-Presidential nominee, and Mark Green, the former New York City public advocate. Things were looking so bad that it was rumored Schumer was going to drop out. He called together his top aides to come up with a plan. There seemed little to be gained from criticizing his rivals’ views on issues like abortion and civil rights, since Schumer mostly shared their views. What he needed to do, he decided, was to reach those voters who cared more about unpaid bills and college tuition. These were the types of people he’d grown up with in Flatbush, and whose houses his father sprayed for pests. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that the Baileys were the key to the race, and the more vivid the family became. They acquired parents—Eileen’s father had prostate cancer—and neighbors, some of whom had recently lost their jobs when the work was moved overseas.
Schumer spent the next few months hammering away at issues—big-impact or small-bore, depending on your perspective—like the high cost of flying out of the Albany and Rochester airports. With the Baileys by his proverbial side, he won the primary and the chance to face the incumbent, a three-term senator, Alfonse D’Amato. The general-election campaign was the most expensive in the nation for that election cycle—Schumer spent something like three million dollars a month, D’Amato twice that amount—and, once again, Schumer’s poll numbers were demoralizing. But a last-minute gaffe by D’Amato—in a private meeting he called Schumer a “putzhead,” then denied it, then said that he stood by the characterization “one hundred per cent”—helped Schumer win that race, too.
After Schumer was reëlected in 2004, with more than seventy per cent of the vote—a record margin at the time—he wrote a book in which he tried to impart the lessons of his campaigns to Democrats nationwide. In “Positively American,” he offered policy proposals that included a tax deduction for college tuition, a crackdown on the use of questionable corporate tax shelters, and better enforcement of laws against hiring illegal immigrants. Schumer devoted a lot of space to the Baileys, who, he wrote, felt that they were being ignored by a government too focussed on “the very poor or the very rich.” The Baileys, he maintained, could just as easily have been called the Ramirezes or the Kims or the Salims, but it was clear that the proposals in “Positively American” were aimed at middle-class white voters. These are the same voters, of course, who elected Trump, so even though Schumer was shocked by Clinton’s defeat, in a certain sense he saw it coming.
“The good news is, when Newt Gingrich read my book, he said on TV, if Democrats followed Schumer’s advice they’d be the dominant party for a generation,” Schumer told me. “The bad news is, no one did read it. I still have plenty of free copies, if you want one.”
Most senators have offices a quarter of a mile or more from the Capitol and shuttle back and forth, using Congress’s miniature subway system. Among the perks of being Minority Leader is an office just steps away from the Senate chamber. It’s a magnificent place, with eighteen-foot-high ceilings and a working fireplace. On a recent afternoon when I visited Schumer there, several logs were burning away merrily.
“I never had a fireplace before,” he said. “But they have these starter logs, so even I can do it.” He threw one on, to demonstrate.
Schumer began by asking me questions: Where did I grow up and what did my father do for a living? The conversation then turned to his father, who is ninety-three. Schumer had recently taken his parents—his mother is eighty-eight—to one of their favorite restaurants, Stella’s, in the town of Floral Park, on Long Island.
“It’s a nice restaurant,” he said. “And it’s a good place to take the temperature.” The restaurant’s patrons tend to be “very middle class, Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic. And they were very positive. They said, ‘Keep up the fight’—that sort of thing. I was pleased.” Schumer told me that his wife, Iris Weinshall, who served as New York City’s transportation commissioner under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, had packed the leftovers from the dinner in Tupperware, and he had brought them with him to Washington.
Schumer and Trump are frequently likened to each other, and for good reason. Both men spent their formative years in the outer boroughs (Trump in Jamaica Estates, Queens). Both crave attention. And both claim a native-New Yorker’s nose for bullshit. But the differences are just as striking. There’s no such thing as gold-plated Tupperware. When Schumer uses the word “fancy,” it’s spoken in a tone that implies “fancy-schmancy.”
In the weeks following the election, Trump and Schumer engaged in a political dance that played out half in private, half in public. Comparing Schumer with his predecessor, Harry Reid, Trump tweeted, “I have always had a good relationship with Chuck Schumer. He is far smarter than Harry R and has the ability to get things done. Good news!” The President-elect phoned the Senator several times just, it seemed, to schmooze.
“Sometimes he’d call me—I wouldn’t know why,” Schumer told me. “He’d just chat.” In one of these chats, the New York Post reported, Trump told Schumer that he had warmer feelings toward him than he had toward his fellow-Republicans Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. As President, Trump opened his first official meeting with congressional leaders by reciting the names of friends he and Schumer had in common. Later, he reminisced about a fund-raiser he’d held at Schumer’s request. Trump boasted that the gathering, at his Mar-a-Lago estate, in Palm Beach, had raised two million dollars for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Schumer corrected him: it was a little more than two hundred and sixty thousand. (Over the years, Trump and his family have donated roughly sixteen thousand dollars to Schumer’s own Senate committee.)
“I enjoyed the President and Senator Schumer talking about all the people they knew in New York,” McConnell observed dryly when the meeting was over.
Schumer, for his part, indicated that he and Trump might find common ground. “Changing our trade laws dramatically, a large infrastructure bill, cleaning up the swamp in Washington—these are things that Democrats have always stood for and, frankly, Republicans have always been against,” he said on “Meet the Press,” in November. “So we’re going to challenge President Trump to work with us on those issues.”
For even entertaining the possibility of collaborating with Trump, he got a lot of grief. “Schumer has historically been really good at reaching out across the aisle, which in let’s call them ‘normal times’ is a great strategy to get things done,” Elizabeth Zeldin, one of the organizers of the What the F*ck Chuck rallies, told me. “But I think everyone’s feeling was, these are not normal times, this is not the time to make bipartisan motions.”
In addition to the protesters who appeared in front of his apartment, chanting slogans like “You have a mission, lead the opposition,” demonstrators in Washington heckled him on the steps of the Supreme Court. (Schumer and other prominent Democrats were also there to protest, against the President’s travel ban.)
“Do your jobs!” the demonstrators yelled.
Since then, Schumer has taken an increasingly hard line. The day after the demonstration at the Supreme Court, he voted no on the nomination of Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. The vote was seen as particularly significant, because Chao is McConnell’s wife. (In 1989, Elizabeth Dole, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, was nominated to be Secretary of Labor. As the Washington Post noted, the idea of Minority Leader George Mitchell voting against her “would have been unimaginable. But the Senate, it is a changin’.”) Schumer has voted no on all but two of the Cabinet nominees to come up for confirmation since Chao. These include Jeff Sessions, now the Attorney General; Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary; Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary; and Ben Carson, the Housing Secretary.
“This Cabinet is the most extreme, as well as the least vetted, as well as the most conflict-of-interest-laden Cabinet, I think, in the history of America,” Schumer said to me the afternoon I visited him in his office. “It means there are almost no areas where we can compromise with Trump—or ‘work together’ is a better word. Don’t use ‘compromise.’ ”
Later, he told me he thought that people like Vice-President Mike Pence and the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, had directed the President’s Cabinet picks, and that Trump might not even have been aware of his own nominees’ views.
“On many of them, it was how they looked, how they felt, and he got captured by the hard right, but he goes along with it because that’s not what he cares about,” Schumer said. “And that’s a really sad, to use his word, a very sad commentary on the President, to not care about the issues you’re governing about.”
Until the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures, or, in many cases, not chosen, since legislatures frequently deadlocked and left the seats vacant. The Senate is still guided today by rules that evoke another era, the most important of which is Rule 22, known as the cloture rule, which sets the conditions for ending debate. To invoke cloture, sixty votes are needed, although significant exceptions to this requirement have been carved out. In 2013, Harry Reid, then the Majority Leader, grew so frustrated by what he termed “unbelievable, unprecedented obstruction” by the Senate minority that he invoked the so-called “nuclear option.” Using a set of arcane parliamentary maneuvers, he changed the interpretation, but not the actual text, of Rule 22, so that, in the case of Presidential nominations, cutting off debate would require only fifty-one votes. A further exemption to this exemption was made for nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schumer worked behind the scenes to forestall the nuclear option, then voted in favor of the maneuvers when Reid proposed them on the Senate floor. He now regards the whole episode as regrettable. “I will say it was a mistake,” he told me.
The new arrangement left Senate Democrats no leverage over Trump’s Cabinet appointments. All they could do was drag out the proceedings. This they did, in part by staging all-night speaking marathons; then they watched as Republicans confirmed one “extreme” Cabinet member after another.
Many of the Trump Administration’s most consequential moves—including the original travel ban and its replacement—have been made via executive order. Others have been taken by federal agencies using their regulatory authority. The E.P.A. and the Transportation Department, for instance, have signalled their intention to roll back fuel-economy standards designed to reduce carbon emissions from cars and light trucks. (The rules are central to the U.S.’s commitments under the Paris climate accord.) Still others have involved the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows legislators to overturn recently finalized regulations with a simple majority vote in the Senate. One regulation reversed in this way was aimed at preventing mentally impaired people from buying guns.
“It’s not outrage of the day,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told me. “It’s outrage of the hour.”
Ryan and McConnell are hoping to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act using yet another vehicle for avoiding cloture—what’s known as a budget-reconciliation bill. The American Health Care Act, which was recently unveiled by House Republicans (and immediately dubbed “Trumpcare” by Democrats), could be approved in this way, though it’s not clear that it has enough G.O.P. backers. (Last week’s report from the Congressional Budget Office, which forecast that, in the course of the next decade, the measure would increase the number of uninsured Americans by twenty-four million, has further eroded Republican support.)
Eventually, the G.O.P. will run out of ways to bypass Senate Democrats and Rule 22. Later this spring, the federal government’s spending authority will run out, and, in the Senate, sixty votes will be needed to extend it. Schumer recently warned McConnell against trying to include in the extension bill (or bills) any provisions that Democrats would find unacceptable, such as money to build a wall along the Mexican border. (The battle over the extension is distinct from the battle over the President’s proposed budget, which will play out this summer.) The extension must be approved by April 28th to avoid a government shutdown, and it could be the first real test of Schumer’s caucus. More likely, though, that test will come in the form of Neil Gorsuch.
Schumer has made his objections to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee clear. In an Op-Ed piece in the Times in February, he recounted that, in a “get-to-know-you” session, Gorsuch had refused to answer “even the most rudimentary questions.” At one point during the session, Gorsuch conceded that he was “disheartened” by the President’s attacks on various judges. When Schumer asked him whether he would be willing to state this publicly, he said no.
“The bar is always high to achieve a seat on the Supreme Court, but in these unusual times—when there is unprecedented stress on our system of checks and balances—the bar is even higher,” Schumer wrote.
The debate over Gorsuch could play out in several ways. There are now forty-eight Democratic senators, counting Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Angus King, of Maine, who are technically independents. Five of these senators—Jon Tester, of Montana; Joe Donnelly, of Indiana; Claire McCaskill, of Missouri; and Manchin and Heitkamp—hail from solidly red states, and not infrequently vote with the Republicans. If they and four other Democrats back Gorsuch, he will be confirmed.
If forty Democrats decide to oppose Gorsuch—and many are still furious about McConnell’s refusal even to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the same seat—Republicans will be faced with a choice. They could let Gorsuch go down, or they could go nuclear and reinterpret Rule 22 to exclude Supreme Court nominees. Trump, not surprisingly, has advocated the latter course. McConnell has, so far, been noncommittal.
“If I had to right now, I’d say he won’t get sixty votes,” Schumer told me when I asked about Gorsuch. Other Democratic senators I spoke with echoed this assessment, but just about everyone else I talked to in Washington predicted that Gorsuch would get the sixty votes.
On a recent, unseasonably warm day in the town of Clay, near Syracuse, about twenty people gathered in front of a split-level house on Maryland Lane to wait for Schumer, who was going to hold a press conference in the driveway. One of the Senator’s aides had set up a lectern on the blacktop, and a few reporters were stationed in front of it, but most of those assembled lived on the block, in similar-looking houses. When Schumer arrived, he glanced around and announced cheerfully, “This is like the neighborhood I grew up in—middle class, solid, hardworking people.”
“We’re not sure if we’re middle class,” an elderly woman called out.
“That’s what a lot of people worry about,” Schumer said, nodding. “It’s harder to stay in the middle class than it ever was.”
The subject of the press conference was taxes. As part of a broader federal-tax overhaul, various Republicans have proposed capping the deduction for mortgage-interest payments and eliminating state and local taxes. Schumer portrayed the deductions as crucial to “middle-class homeowners.” He promised to fight “tooth and nail” to keep them in place.
“In fact, we have a little battle cry: ‘No reductions on your deductions,’ ” he said. “I didn’t think that up. Good staff work.” He asked for questions. A stout woman in a red jacket quickly changed the topic. She wanted to talk about the loss of manufacturing jobs in central New York. It was clear the question was a hostile one, but Schumer tried a conciliatory tone.
“That’s a very excellent point, with which I agree,” he said. “Jobs are key.” He listed several manufacturing plants in the area he had worked to save and noted his opposition to free-trade deals. (As a congressman, Schumer voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement, in 1993.)
“One of the reasons all these jobs left is trade treats us unfairly,” he said. “We have to change our trade laws.” The woman wasn’t satisfied. She thought the problem was New York’s minimum wage, which, under a new state law, will climb to fifteen dollars an hour. Schumer supported the increase. They went back and forth for a while.
“Thank you for coming,” Schumer finally said. “I know you probably don’t agree with me.”
“I don’t agree with you,” the woman said. “Absolutely not.”
Schumer is a big believer in the power of showing up. Since he was elected to the Senate, he has visited each of New York’s sixty-two counties at least once a year.
“People said, ‘With your new position, will you tour the sixty-two counties again?’ ” he told the group on the driveway. “Absolutely.”
“Even now, people say, ‘Chuck is around; Kirsten is not,’ ” one prominent New York Democrat told me. (Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, occupies the seat formerly held by Hillary Clinton.)
“People want to be talked to,” Schumer told me a few hours after the stop in Clay. “These days more than ever.” He had just finished another press conference, at the police station in Utica, and was eating lunch at an Italian restaurant in the town of New Hartford. He brought up the woman in the red jacket: “Like that lady today—she wanted to express her opinion, God bless her.”
Schumer is often described as a “pragmatist.” Sometimes this is meant as a tribute, sometimes not. Even as he travels around the state, championing the middle class, in Washington Schumer devotes much of his time to the concerns of the super-wealthy. New York’s economy is heavily dependent on finance, so its representatives tend to be banker-friendly; Schumer has been called “the senator from Wall Street.” In the years leading up to the financial crisis, he worked to limit oversight of credit-rating agencies and sponsored legislation to cut fees on financial transactions. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, written with Mayor Bloomberg in late 2006, he complained that too many regulatory agencies were overseeing the financial industry, and were competing “to be the toughest cop on the street.” Following the crisis, Schumer changed his tune and supported greater oversight and tougher regulation. Still, he remains a top recipient of Wall Street contributions. During the last election cycle, he raised more than five million dollars from the financial sector, according to a report by Americans for Financial Reform, a liberal nonprofit. That figure put him behind just two other senators, Marco Rubio, of Florida, and Ted Cruz, of Texas, both of whom were running for the Republican Presidential nomination.
“He isn’t just one thing,” Barbara Roper, the director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said. “In between crises, he may be a friend to Wall Street and advance an agenda that we, frankly, think of as harmful. But, if you’re talking about what he did during the financial crisis, he was an advocate for strong reform. And then there are a whole host of issues that have to do with more bread-and-butter consumer issues where he’s been a strong and reliable supporter.”
Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman and one of the chief authors of the financial-reform bill that became known as Dodd-Frank, sat next to Schumer in House committees for eighteen years.
Politicians “are often either good inside players or good outside players,” Frank told me. “Chuck is unusually good at both. He understands that in a legislative body, sharing power with so many people, you need to compromise. Another thing that you need to do, which he does, but which other people do not do, is eschew an attitude of moral superiority.” Through a spokesman, Hillary Clinton called Schumer “a strong progressive and great legislative strategist,” who “knows how and when to give ’em hell.”
Over the years, Schumer’s talents as a “legislative strategist” have put him at the center of some of Congress’s most contentious negotiations. He was a primary author of the Brady Bill, which required federal background checks for gun buyers, and one of the key authors of the 1994 crime bill, which put close to a hundred thousand police on the streets, offered incentives to states to lengthen prison sentences, and banned the manufacture of assault weapons for civilian use. (This last provision has since lapsed.) More recently, in 2013, Schumer was part of the so-called Gang of Eight, a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators who crafted a sweeping package of immigration reforms. The reforms would have created a path to citizenship for millions of people now living in the U.S. illegally and, at the same time, would have made it more difficult for employers to hire undocumented workers. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
“On any issue involving New York, I have always felt, if I can get it through the House, Chuck will definitely get it through the Senate,” Representative Peter King, a Republican from Long Island, told me. “You just know that whether he’s in the majority or in the minority he’s going to get it through.” Schumer was instrumental in securing twenty billion dollars for New York after the September 11th attacks, and fifty-one billion dollars for the region after Hurricane Sandy.
At the Italian restaurant, I asked Schumer about his approach to negotiations. He had polished off a plate of gluten-free pasta and was working his way through the cream filling from a cannoli. There was still a lot of food on the table, because the restaurant, where he’s a regular, had sent out heaping platters. Schumer asked the waitress to box up the leftovers and urged me to take them home.
“Here’s the formula I’ve used,” he said. “Walk in the other guy’s shoes. Try to figure out not what you think he should want but what he really wants. Don’t look down, and you can get things done.”
In December, 2014, shortly after the midterm election, Schumer gave a speech at the National Press Club, in Washington. Democrats had just lost control of the Senate, which they’d held for the previous eight years. In the speech, Schumer described American politics as a long-running battle “between pro-government and anti-government forces.”
From the nineteen-thirties through the nineteen-seventies, according to Schumer, pro-government forces, which is to say Democrats, were victorious. This was largely due to F.D.R. and the New Deal, which “demonstrated that government could indeed improve the standard of living for average Americans.” With the election of Ronald Reagan, in 1980, anti-government forces, which is to say Republicans, gained ascendance. By Schumer’s account, G.O.P. dominance lasted until around the year 2000, at which point stagnating middle-class incomes prompted many Americans, once again, to switch sides. In 2008, Obama was elected President, and Democrats won majorities in both houses of Congress.
“Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity,” Schumer told the press club. “We put all our focus on the wrong problem—health-care reform.” Health care was a huge problem for the millions of Americans who lacked insurance, but this was a minority compared with the hundreds of millions of people insured either by the government, through Medicaid and Medicare, or by their employers. Among that minority, only a fraction would turn out to vote. Democrats would have been much better off, Schumer argued, had they focussed first on issues affecting a broader swath of the American electorate—the swath that includes families like the Baileys.
“Had we started more broadly, the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them,” Schumer said. “They would have held a more pro-government view. Then Democrats would have been in a better position to tackle our nation’s health-care crisis.” What the Democrats needed to do, heading into a Presidential race, was come up with an agenda to “win back those core white working-class voters who turn out most.” The speech prompted outrage from the Obama Administration; one former speechwriter for the President said that it represented “the worst instincts of the Democratic Party in action.” Others observed that Schumer, at that time the chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, had helped put together the Party’s message for 2014 and was in no position to point a finger.
Schumer’s assessment of 2016 is similar to his analysis of 2014, but with an added dollop of self-criticism. “When you lose an election like this, you don’t blink,” he told me when the conversation turned to November. “You look it in the eye and say, ‘What did we do wrong?’ And I include myself in this; I don’t just point at Hillary or anybody else.
“When you lose to a candidate who is so unpopular—yes, you could say if Comey wasn’t there we would have won,” he went on, referring to James Comey, the F.B.I. director. “But we should have won anyway, with Comey and with the hacking. And we did not have a sharp, strong, populist enough economic message. If you ask average voters, ‘What did we stand for?,’ they say we weren’t Trump. It wasn’t good enough.”
Schumer told me that he and his staff were working to craft such an economic message in preparation for 2018. “It’s going to be based on two things—putting more money in the average person’s pocket and reducing the expenses they pay out of their pocket,” he said. “I was going to call it the paycheck agenda, but my staff reminded me that people under forty-five don’t know what a paycheck is.”
He assured me that the agenda was “going to be really good.” In a challenge to Trump, Senate Democrats have proposed their own infrastructure plan, totalling a trillion dollars. But when I asked Schumer if he could share any other parts of the agenda with me, he said no.
Schumer is one of the only members of the U.S. Senate to still use a flip phone, which sometimes seems attached to his ear. He calls the other forty-seven members of his caucus so frequently that he has memorized all their numbers.
“He reaches out constantly,” Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, told me.
“He knows what everyone’s working on,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, said. “He knows what people are interested in and what they are worried about.”
“Chuck is like a giant shop vac with nine nozzles to suck up information,” Senator Whitehouse said.
Schumer has enlarged the Senate’s Democratic leadership team, so that now more than a fifth of his caucus members have some kind of title. Among those elevated were Sanders, one of the caucus’s most liberal members, and Manchin, easily its most conservative.
“Chuck expanded his leadership team and I’m part of it, and I’m thankful for that, because on a lot of things I don’t agree with the national Democratic Party,” Manchin told me. He said he was particularly pleased that Schumer had decided to hold a recent caucus retreat in his home state of West Virginia.
“We brought in a panel of six or seven lifelong Democrats that had all voted Republican,” Manchin related. “What they said is, ‘We grew up with the Democrats always being for the working people, and now we believe’—this is what they said—‘that the Democratic Party is the party that’s preventing men and women from working.’ ”
In a local sense, all the tumult of the past two months has made Schumer’s life easier. The divisions in his caucus—between blue-state and red-state Democrats, between the “progressive” and the “pragmatic” wings of the Party, between everyone and Joe Manchin—look a lot less stark when viewed against the backdrop of the Trump White House.
“If Trump had come out with a significant infrastructure investment right off the bat, it would probably have splintered the Democrats,” Brian Fallon, who served as Schumer’s spokesman and then as Hillary Clinton’s, observed. “They would have been hard-pressed, especially those from red states, to be on the opposing side of a jobs bill. Instead, he’s largely united them.”
But, in a bigger-picture sense, it’s tough to overstate the obstacles that Democrats in the Senate—and just about everywhere else—are facing. Next year, elections will be held for thirty-four Senate seats. Democrats currently hold twenty-five of these, and the Party will have to hold on to all twenty-five just to stay even. Were Democrats to pick up two seats—a feat most analysts regard as nearly impossible, no matter how much havoc Trump wreaks—they would still, for all practical purposes, be in the minority, as the Senate would be split fifty-fifty, and a Republican, Vice-President Pence, would cast the tie-breaking vote. Meanwhile, Republicans now control thirty-three state legislatures, just one shy of the number needed to circumvent Congress and call a constitutional convention.
Despite all this—and despite the revelations about Russia, and the hastily written executive orders, and the unvetted Cabinet secretaries, and the regulatory reversals, and the leaks and the tweets and the counter-tweets—Schumer, ever the optimist, told me he was upbeat.
“I have surprised myself,” he said at one point. “Even though this is a total change for me in so many ways, I enjoy waking up in the morning and being ready for the fight.”
At another point, he said, “Deep, deep down, I believe in the American people—their solidness, their decency, even at times when they’re angry and frustrated, their pulling back and trying to do the right thing. And I’ve believed in it my whole life and this is the most challenging time for it, but I still believe in it. And, if I’m wrong, God help America.” ♦