One of my least favorite traits about Democrats is that we tend to get dissatisfied with our leaders pretty quickly. In the year following Obama’s inaugural, major news outlets were already writing articles saying Obama was disappointing them, despite the fact that he hadn’t even served a full term in office yet and he had just passed the Affordable Care Act. The same goes with Nancy Pelosi, who despite her effectiveness as a leader, is told she should step down by Democrats as well as Republicans. And Hillary Clinton…well, you don’t need me to tell you what they tell her. All of our leaders deserve a chance to succeed and be judged on their merits.
When Chuck Schumer became Senate Minority Leader, I offered him that chance even though I had never liked him. He always seemed to me like a caricature of the stereotypical “crooked politician”: all bluster, no action, and little respect for his constituents. As the 115thCongress comes to a close, I realize my first impression was correct. Even though he helped in 2017’s battle to save the ACA, and got his colleagues in line to oppose Trump’s wall during the DACA showdown this year, Schumer has failed as a leader and as a spokesperson for the Democratic Party and we must find a replacement who can stand up to Mitch McConnell.
Time and again, Schumer has bent before McConnell, particularly over the judiciary. He should have known before launching his filibuster against the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch that his rival would have invoked the nuclear option and gotten him confirmed by a simple majority vote. This revealed the discrepancy between how Schumer and McConnell wield power: McConnell may be cynical, but Schumer is not cynical enough, nor well-versed enough in the law, to counter his tactics.
McConnell knows he can use Schumer to his advantage, and did so in two disgraceful episodes this past year involving the appointment of federal judges. Last August, he agreed to fast-track a number of Trump appointees to the bench so Democrats could go on vacation. If that wasn’t bad enough, Schumer did the exact same thing this month, cutting the same deal so that Democrats could campaign in their home states. These judges who have been appointed are all Federalist Society-endorsed right-wingers who have argued against clean air laws, defended the 1%, and said that minimum wage is unconstitutional.
Schumer did not have to give in to McConnell on this one. As Politico wrote:
“Under Senate rules, even if Democrats fought the nominees tooth and nail and forced the Senate to burn 30 hours of debate between each one, McConnell would have gotten them all confirmed by Nov. 1. Democrats could have conceivably left a skeleton crew of senators in Washington to force the GOP to take roll call votes on the judges over the next few weeks, although that tactic is not typically employed by the minority.”
Even if this tactic is rarely employed by the minority, when did this stop Mitch McConnell from weaponizing the filibuster, as he did as Minority Leader? In the same profile, Schumer is quoted as saying his rival “knows how to fight and he knows how to cooperate.” Yes, Chuck – the man who said his primary goal was denying President Obama a second term knows how to cooperate.
Schumer also failed to unify Democrats when it came to opposing Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. If he knew after his filibuster failed that Gorsuch’s nomination was all but assured, he should have done more to keep Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Manchin from voting for him. Allowing his colleagues to break ranks sent a terrible message to Democrats who wanted unity in the face of the opposition. It didn’t help matters when he allowed Manchin to break ranks again and vote for Brett Kavanaugh.
It’s easy to say that Schumer was dealt a bad hand in getting this job under Trump and McConnell’s leadership, but he was also succeeding Harry Reid, the most effective Democratic Senate Leader since Lyndon Johnson. Under him, Democrats passed the ACA, enacted environmental legislation, and even threw the Senate into a rare closed session to speed up a 2005 inquiry into the Iraq War. Reid made mistakes – he recommended Bush nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, for example – but he made up for it by holding his coalition together when it counted the most, something Schumer cannot do.
What’s more, Schumer’s responses to the increasing violence of the Republican Party have been weak tea for frayed Democrats. This last month, two acts of terrorism occurred in his home state of New York: the street fight caused by the Proud Boys gang, and the attempted bombing of Democratic donor George Soros’s home. As expected, Republicans failed to properly condemn these incidents. Sadly, so has Schumer, who wrote in a tweet yesterday:
Make no mistake: Despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum—not just by one side. Regardless of who is responsible, these acts are wrong and must be condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Period. pic.twitter.com/gopVUDO5dc
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) October 23, 2018
For one thing, this statement creates a false equivalency, since there’s no evidence (as of yet) that the left was responsible for vandalizing Kevin McCarthy’s office. More appallingly, by pushing a “both sides” narrative violence to say we should all get along, Schumer has committed a reverse Charlottesville. The problem is only on one side, and it’s the side we should all be fighting against. Schumer is so obsessed with preserving decorum that he cannot take the gloves off. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, he’s not a wartime consigliere.
The good news is that because of the vacuum his leadership has left, many Senate Democrats have stepped up to the plate and shown tremendous strength and courage in fighting the opposition: Amy Klobuchar, Mazie Hirono, Chris Murphy, Dick Durbin, Brian Schatz, Kamala Harris, Jeff Merkley, and Richard Blumenthal, to name but a few. All of them have bright futures in the party and should be considered as possible replacements for Schumer regardless of whether or not we retake the Senate next month. Even if there is a blue wave, we are still looking at two more years of Trump, and though they will likely be intolerable, we will all feel more confident if we have a better leader guiding us through than Chuck Schumer.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.