Schumer embraces the G.O.P.'s Tea Party embrace, and eclipses Durbin, again

Senator Charles Schumer. (Via the Senator's flickr stream.)
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Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin—Harry Reid’s two top Senate lieutenants—each represented their party on national news shows on Sunday.

The discussion, during both Schumer’s appearance on ABC’s “This Week” and Durbin’s on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” focused on the budget standoff and the prospects of a government shutdown. Neither man had difficulty conveying the Democrats’ basic message (the Republicans are going too far!), but watching them both in action was something of a clarifying experience: This is why Reid chose Schumer.

It was just after last November’s election when Reid—who had defied ghastly personal poll numbers to win reelection to his own seat—shook up the Democratic caucus by anointing Schumer the Democrats’ go-to guy on message and policy. Durbin kept his post as whip (which he’s held since after the 2004 elections), but it was clear that he’d been leapfrogged by Schumer, who’d only been added to the leadership after the 2006 elections. Now Reid was essentially placing the New Yorker in charge of developing a war plan for Senate Democrats for the next two years. Durbin was left to answer questions about what, exactly, was left for him to do.

On Sunday, the wisdom of Reid’s decision was plain to see. Durbin was perfectly competent in fielding David Gregory’s budget questions, and certainly did his party no harm. Attacking proposals from conservative House Republicans, he warned against going “so far in our spending cuts at this moment as to jeopardize this recovery.”

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“The House Republican budget would eliminate up to 700,000 jobs in America instead of 200,000 on the plus side, as we showed this month,” he said. “We would be moving backwards, and we don't want to. We want to move out of this recession by creating jobs.”

There was nothing wrong with his performance. But compare Durbin’s framing of the debate with Schumer’s: “I have a lot of sympathy for Speaker (John) Boehner, because he does want to come to an agreement. He knows how devastating a shutdown would be. The one group that is standing in the way here is the Tea Party.”

Schumer went on in this vein at some length, portraying the House speaker as a reasonable man being forced into unreasonable posturing by the Tea Party extremists who hold sway within the G.O.P. conference. His message on Sunday was essentially identical to the message that he was caught on an open mic last week instructing his Senate Democratic colleagues to embrace: “I always use the word ‘extreme.’ That's what the caucus instructed me to do the other week. Extreme cuts and all these riders, and Boehner's in a box. But if he supports the Tea Party, there's going to inevitably be a shutdown.”

As messaging goes, Schumer’s approach is far more sophisticated than Durbin’s. It is conceived to achieve multiple objectives—some near-term, some long-term—simultaneously.

Just consider his treatment of Boehner. By painting the House speaker as a reasonable man, Schumer himself comes across as reasonable: Look, he’s willing to work with and say nice things about the other party’s leader! At the same time, of course, he makes it much tougher for Boehner actually to strike a deal and sell it to his conference, where Tea Party conservatives are already on guard against their leadership selling them out. When Schumer and other Democrats talk about the speaker’s willingness to compromise with them, it increases the chances of an intraparty revolt on the G.O.P. side, or of Boehner walking away from the table and forcing a shutdown simply to save face with his party’s rank-and-file.

And the timing of the Tea Party angle, from a marketing perspective, is perfect. Even though all of the available political science indicates that “Tea Party” is essentially a synonym for “Republican Party base,” non-Tea Party voters seemed unsure of what to make of the term through last year. They did know that its members were frustrated and angry with President Obama and his party, and with Democrats running all of Washington and the economy in the pits, most non-Tea Party members shared this basic sentiment. Thus, public opinion of the Tea Party was vaguely positive.

But that has changed since last November, decisively. With Republicans now running the House and pushing a Tea Party-friendly agenda, and with newly elected Republican governors and legislatures doing the same at the state level, voters have come to see movement more for what it is: deeply ideological, not just an amorphous collection of average Americans frustrated with their government. Just as Schumer was having his open-mic moment last week, a new poll was released that showed voters turning sharply against the Tea Party movement. The term now means something very specific to most voters, and it is increasingly an albatross for Republicans. Now Schumer is simply reinforcing this.

In terms of Schumer and Durbin, it’s getting easier and easier to see how this ends. A year ago at this time, they were on a collision course. Reid seemed to be doomed in Nevada (just two incumbent senators in the last 30 years had faced poll numbers as dismal as his and still won reelection—Jesse Helms in 1984 and Al D’Amato in 1992), meaning that the Democrats’ top Senate slot would be open. Quietly and indirectly, Schumer and Durbin jockeyed to line up votes. It would be a race for the ages, at least as internal congressional leadership contests go. But then Reid caught the break of a lifetime, drawing a Republican opponent who was simply too frightening to get elected. The Schumer-Durbin race would have to wait for another day.

The more time that passes, the more it feels like that day will never come. Reid’s decision to promote Schumer, and to snub Durbin, has had the effect of making the New Yorker the clear No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, a role that Durbin had previously played. Perception counts for a lot in politics, and it sure looked like Durbin had been castrated—just as Schumer, with his expansive responsibilities, now looks like the 71-year-old Reid’s heir apparent. If nothing else, he’s been given a chance to audition for that role. And, as he showed Sunday, it’s been a good fit so far.

No wonder rumor of a preemptive compromise is now spreading: Schumer gets to succeed Reid when the old man steps down (quite possibly after next year’s elections, when Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate), while Durbin gets to chair the Democratic National Committee. This was Chris Dodd’s consolation prize back after the 1994 elections, when he fell one vote short against Tom Daschle in the race for Senate Democratic leader. Durbin, for what it’s worth, was asked about it on “Meet the Press” and avoided the question.

Steve Kornacki is the political editor for Salon.