Majority Maker By Kimberley A. Strassel


Majority Maker
Chuck Schumer: "If we are seen as just blocking the president, it will not serve us well in 2008."

Saturday, November 11, 2006 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Chuck Schumer, the architect of the Democrats' Senate win this week, has only just heard that Virginia has fallen and that his party is officially in control. He's in an irrepressible mood, and a chatty one--neither particularly out of character--and even gets to musing about family life and the benefits of having lots of children. "I wanted four. My wife wanted two. We compromised at two," he says, with a wry smile that suggests this famously stubborn New Yorker does know how to bend--when he's up against a tough enough foe.

As the election post-mortems flood in, most have focused on what the Republicans did wrong, and whether they've learned any lessons. Mr. Schumer is, instead, talking about what Democrats learned from their own previous string of defeats, how they used that knowledge to change course and seize this week's win, and what they now must do to lay the groundwork for further wins in 2008.

Mr. Schumer should know, having spent the past two years heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the firepower behind victories in a half dozen crucial states, which have now given Democrats the Senate reins for the first time since 2002. Mr. Schumer was tapped for his fundraising prowess, and on that score he didn't disappoint. ("I didn't waste a nickel," he quips.) But the New Yorker also brought with him a strategic flexibility.

A party that has for years been captive to its more liberal wing, this time went out recruiting moderate candidates who better appealed to red state voters. They steered away from big, ideologically divisive issues such as taxes, Social Security or health care--anything that would allow Republicans to tar them as big-spending liberals. Most ran on small, economically populist messages about balanced budgets, high tuition costs or the minimum wage. They didn't look like the Scary Party that takes its orders from liberal bloggers, and it appears to have made some headway with voters.

More interesting on the lesson front, Mr. Schumer says he's convinced that, now his party is back in control--"and having the majority is difficult"--it can't afford to simply be seen as obstructing President Bush. That would be a dramatic change from the past six years, and in particular from the last round of Democratic leadership, when Tom Daschle turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard. "There are going to be issues where we want to work together, and issues when we think [President Bush] is wrong and we shouldn't just roll over. It's a combination," he says, lounging on a couch in his homey office in the Senate Hart building. "But I will tell you this: If we are seen as just blocking the president, it will not serve us well in 2008."

This is all news, though the multibillion-dollar question is whether this shift is genuine, or lasting. What isn't in doubt is that the failure of Republicans to live up to their promises in recent years--on spending, earmarking, entitlement reform--created an opportunity that Democrats skillfully used to their advantage. Mr. Schumer is no wide-eyed neophyte, and understands this election was mostly about his opponents. "I'd say 75% of this election was about the people's opinion of the president and 25% was about what Democrats would do." Candid political math.

So how did they win? "The No. 1 reason was people wanted a change, and President Bush did not want to even suggest change. The second is that we recruited really good candidates who fit their states. . . . And the third thing was that we were able to raise enough money that we could play offense and defense." Mr. Schumer admits that part of their win was a large dollop of planning, and a sprinkling of good luck. In 2004, Democrats lost five red states after their incumbents retired, creating open seats that were easy Republican pickings. This time, he and Minority Leader Harry Reid went to all their red-state incumbents and convinced them to stay. As for the luck, many of the White House's favored challengers in these states didn't run or emerge victorious in primaries. As a result, states that should have been difficult for Democrats, weren't: "By the end of the election, you didn't even hear about the Nebraska race, the North Dakota race, or the Florida race, because that [strategy] worked."

As for competitive races, Mr. Schumer returns to recruitment and what he claims is a new belief among Democrats in creating a bigger tent. "The classic example is Pennsylvania. I thought Santorum was the most vulnerable of all the incumbent Republicans because he was out of touch with Pennsylvania. And I called Gov. [Ed] Rendell and I said, 'Who is the best candidate?' . . . And he said, 'Only one person can beat [Santorum] but (a) he doesn't want to run and (b) you wouldn't want him to run if he did.' Well, I said, 'If he's the only one who can beat him, why wouldn't I want him to run?' And he said, 'Because he's pro-life.' " Mr. Schumer pauses here, to make sure the next part is clear. "I said, 'Governor, the days are over when a Democrat has to check 28 boxes before they get our support.' So we actively recruited him, and once he entered the race, he was never behind." The New Yorker, here, looks pleased as punch.

As he should be, since recruitment of similar moderate candidates was what ultimately won Democrats control. In Montana, Democratic Senate candidate (and farmer) Jon Tester ran on gun rights and tax cuts. In Virginia, Senate candidate Jim Webb was a pro-military former Reagan Navy secretary. Tennessee's Harold Ford (though he lost) was highly competitive in a red state because of his conservative stance on partial-birth abortion and gay marriage. The House is a similar picture, where most of the two dozen or so Democratic winners campaigned on somewhat conservative social and fiscal issues. The great unknown is how these more moderate Democrats will fit into the majority. Will they exert a moderating influence on legislative priorities and subpoena inclinations, or be sidelined by the old liberal bulls--some of whom have been waiting a long time to be back in charge?

Mr. Schumer admits there are divisions among his members, but prefers to talk about the issues they have in common. "Democrats, having been in the wilderness so long, are willing to make more compromises for the common good. And we have a group of issues, what we call meat-and-potato issues, that unify the whole party." The senator names three, which will be top priorities in the 110th Congress. "We're going to pass a minimum wage. And that's a real example of unity in the party. [Another is] restoring tuition deductibility, which was a big issue for all our candidates. . . . And then allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies on Part D [prescription drugs] of Medicare. These are the things we'll do the first week."

And the second week? Tuition deductibility may sound good, but it's hardly going to hand Democrats the White House in 2008. If Mr. Schumer is serious about throwing over obstructionism, can he name some issues on which Democrats will do business with the White House?

The first out of his mouth is energy. He's careful, however, to lay down the terms on which his party would seek a "bipartisan" agreement. "There are some of us who are willing to entertain--I think 12 or 13 Democrats were willing to drill in a portion of the East Gulf. I think in exchange there should be an increase in [automotive fuel efficiency] standards. In other words, on energy, the right says increase supply, the left says decrease demand. They aren't mutually exclusive and there is room for a real compromise to do both. There are intrinsic forces on each side to block it, but together you could retain a critical majority to do it."

Next up is the Iraq war. "If the change in Rumsfeld indicates a change in course in Iraq, an idea of changing the strategy, then maybe there's something there." I ask him how Democrats will approach President Bush's new defense secretary nominee, Robert Gates; perhaps to underline his message of cooperation, his answer is mild. "I think the inclination of Democrats is that, when it is an executive appointment, to give the president latitude. And so unless it is something egregious . . ." He leaves the sentence hanging. He also mentions the possibility of a compromise on immigration, though warns that the "hard right"--because of its election politicking on the issue--"has set the possibility of a joint bill back."

On other hot-button economic issues, Mr. Schumer won't take the liberal bait. Raising taxes? "Our strong inclination would be to avoid tax hikes. That's pretty universal. That shows the pragmatism of the Democratic Party. Even the most liberal people said 'No, we shouldn't go for tax hikes.' So we are going to try to avoid it." Instead, he says, they will focus on "tax enforcement" and suggests millionaires had better expect a few more audits. Trade promotion authority for the president? "Yeah, maybe that." Revamping Sarbanes-Oxley? "We need to re-examine the balance [between regulation and competition] in a global context. You can't put your head in the sand."

This will all sound reassuring, but is incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid really going to pursue this course? The Nevadan will be under intense pressure from Senate presidential hopefuls for Democrats to differentiate themselves by pushing the party in an un-Bush-like direction. And for every Democrat who thinks ruefully about Mr. Daschle's failed obstructionist strategy--which cost Democrats the Senate the last time, and later Mr. Daschle his own seat--there are more Democrats who remember Mr. Daschle's mentor, George Mitchell.

After successfully wringing a tax hike out of the first President Bush, Mr. Mitchell spent the ensuing years blocking all legislation and blaming Republicans for the gridlock, thereby teeing up the White House for Bill Clinton. No doubt some--Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Carl Levin and Evan Bayh--still look on this strategy with some fondness. What about them?

On this, Mr. Schumer is less voluble, dismissing it with a wave. "That is the push and pull in our party. But I would say this: At this point in time, our party has more unity, issues-wise, than the Republican side does." Maybe so, though it also seems clear that some of those unifying issues still have the potential to hurt Democrats in the coming years. And for all of Mr. Schumer's impressive new accommodativeness, there are some topics on which he sounds more like the angry Democrats whom Americans have come to eye uncertainly. They are also issues that Republicans have hurt Democrats with in the past.

The prime example is judicial nominations. The mention of it launches Mr. Schumer into one of several commentaries about the partisan nature of the current White House. What will be the response if there is another Supreme Court vacancy? "We would expect the president--and this would be an example, especially now that we are in the majority--to come to us. To do what Bill Clinton did. Bill Clinton would go to Orrin Hatch and say, 'Here are some people I'm considering, what do you think?' and really take that advice beforehand. [The Bush] version of consultation? I would get calls that said: 'Who do you like?' But there was no 'We're thinking this, what do you think of that?' That is going to be a big change."

And if they don't, and the president makes his own choices? "If they don't do that and continue to appoint judges who I would consider at the extreme"--Mr. Schumer voted against both Samuel Alito and John Roberts--"they are going to have difficulty getting them through." He pauses, and says with emphasis: "And the nuclear option is no longer an option." Would they let the seat remain vacant until a potential Democratic president in '08? "It will have to be a compromise," is his only answer.

I ask if this is wise, since Democrats suffered losses in 2002 and 2004--years in which they made judges an issue. Mr. Schumer responds that he doesn't believe the issue has sway with "the average voter"--which may come as a surprise to some red-state Democrats who lost in 2004.

There are other issues where the White House can expect less-than-zero cooperation--such as Social Security. "There is no appetite to deal with privatization," says Mr. Schumer, quickly. "To fix Social Security, so to speak, is probably not at the top of the list, because it is a problem that is less immediate than some of the other problems." Whether this is an attempt to deny Mr. Bush a victory on a key issue, or to push a thorny problem off the table going into the next election, keeping Social Security at arm's length would appear to suit Mr. Schumer just fine.

Free trade, too, may be set to become more of a political football. Mr. Schumer says that he believes "the heart of the Democratic Party is in free trade, but we would be more active than the administration when other countries don't obey free trade." He lists his own bill, authored with Republican Lindsey Graham, which would have imposed tariffs of 27.5% on Chinese goods, as an example. He credits it with moving the Chinese on their currency valuation, which Mr. Schumer views as a form of protectionism. "You'll see an eagerness to use the tools, particularly the WTO and other things, to get other countries to play fairer with us."

So what's the bottom line? Democrats seem to understand, at some level, that building any sort of lasting majority is going to involve a new approach, one that hews more closely to the center-right view that pervades so much of America, than to the lefty-left view of New York and San Francisco. Just how deeply that understanding has settled, and whether they can keep in check the liberal special-interest politics that have dominated the party--which is sustained, financially and otherwise, by unions, environmentalists and others--is the central Democratic question of the next two years.

Savvy Mr. Schumer realizes the stakes. "I believe there are certain times when the public is up for grabs, and the party that creates a paradigm that wins them over will have them for a generation: 1932 was one, when the Democrats did it; 1980 was one, when the Republicans did it. And 2008 is going to be another one. So what we can do between then and now to show the public what we believe in and what we want to do . . . will make a big difference."

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, based in Washington.