I’m worried about Chuck Schumer. Not for him personally — I think he’s thriving. But I’m worried about his leadership of the Senate Democratic caucus, which I think has been unsound in a way that is pretty unexpected from one of the shrewdest operators in American politics.
And it’s not that I worry he’s lost his touch. I worry that he’s deploying his prodigious shrewdness to prop up his own personal political standing rather than on behalf of the caucus — guarding his left flank against a hypothetical primary challenge, and making sure that he does not personally get blamed by progressive groups for the inevitable disappointments of governing.
That’s smart on some level. He’s been remarkably successful at keeping those groups happy with him, even as they become increasingly agitated about the state of the world. But that’s a dysfunctional dynamic. The majority leader is supposed to carry weight on behalf of the caucus, not shift the blame to other people.
Personally, I really like Schumer and have been reluctant to write about this. One of my formative political memories was back in the late 90s when my dad, who was very left-wing all my life, told me he was backing Schumer in a primary over two more liberal rivals because he thought it was important to pick the most electable candidate to beat Al D’Amato and win the Senate seat. It was a very Slow Boring moment and encompasses a lot of the values that I believe in. A few years later, I worked as an intern in Schumer’s office, reporting to his then-communications director Bradley Tusk. I learned a lot from them, and a lot of my current ideas about politics are based on the wisdom Schumer tried to instill in his team.
But I think an obsession with heading off an AOC primary challenge has led him to abandon those insights. And the country really needs him to give the Baileys a call.
Schumer has successfully shifted the weight
Back on July 28, Joe Manchin outlined a series of red lines for Build Back Better in a memo that he signed. Schumer himself co-signed the letter, acknowledging to Manchin that he understood where the pivotal senator stood.
The letter is ambiguous on certain points, but includes a few missives that are very clear and seemingly relevant:
$1.5 trillion in new spending, with revenue above that dedicated to deficit reduction
Inclusion of a Manchin-authored opioid bill called the LifeBOAT Act
But having signed the letter, Schumer then kept it secret until Burgess Everett revealed its existence on September 30.
How hard would it be for Democrats to write a bill that conforms to all of Manchin’s stated red lines in that letter while also advancing critical progressive goals? I think not that hard. Here are the numbers we’ve run previously on a deficit-reducing version of BBB, essentially mashing up Kyrsten Sinema’s revenue-side red lines with Manchin’s spending-side red lines.
What does this get you? A lot. For $1.74 trillion you can:
Meet the Biden administration’s greenhouse gas emissions objectives.
Cut child poverty by about 20%.
Deliver two very popular items by capping insulin prices and helping the elderly with expanded Medicare coverage.
Safeguard the country against future pandemics.
Increase access to both preschool and Medicaid.
That would be a really good list of Joe Biden's achievements. So what’s the problem?
A bill like that would disappoint advocates who wanted a major investment in subsidized child care. It would disappoint advocates who wanted a paid leave act. And even though it would reduce child poverty, it would disappoint Child Tax Credit advocates because it shrinks the CTC to fit Manchin’s specifications.
In failing to put a bill like this on the table, Schumer did not actually achieve paid leave or a larger CTC or a big child care subsidy. But he also did not personally disappoint the advocates for those programs. Instead, he tossed the hot potato to the House of Representatives. Then the House wrote a bill that instead of cutting down to $1.5 trillion in spending by picking programs, used a lot of phase-out gimmicks to toss the hot potato to the Senate. Then Schumer tried to get the Senate to pass the House bill, even though it violated the terms of the memo that he himself had agreed to with Manchin.
If Schumer did what I think he should have done, then some progressive advocacy groups would be mad at Schumer. Schumer instead chose a course of action that got all the relevant advocacy groups mad at Manchin instead. And when this led to deadlock, instead of hammering something out with Manchin, he pivoted to a doomed voting rights push, which again had the effect of making people mad at Joe Manchin rather than Chuck Schumer.
An extraordinary squeeze play
Normally one of the perks of controlling a legislative body is that you get to set the agenda. In a normal legislature, that means you only bring bills to the floor for a vote when you have the votes and know that you will win. Due to the supermajority rule in the Senate, that’s not always the case. But still, there are basically two cases when it makes sense for the majority to bring an idea to the floor:
They want the bill to pass and they have the votes to pass it.
They want to focus media attention on a subject that unites their party while dividing and embarrassing the opposition party.
Schumer’s voting rights pivot achieved the opposite, driving media attention to an embarrassing intra-party division while placing zero pressure on any Republicans. Let me quote Friday’s Punchbowl newsletter on how extraordinary this was:
The New York Democrat, however, deliberately exposed Manchin and Sinema to a tidal wave of public recrimination over the filibuster vote. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen a party leader do that to their own colleagues. Democratic senators now are openly discussing primarying the two of them in 2024. Schumer isn’t tamping down that talk publicly. In fact, Schumer seemed to encourage it when he declined to weigh in on an intraparty challenge earlier this week. Schumer needs their votes the rest of this year. So how will that work out?
So what was the upside of this? To Democrats, nothing.
It hurt the party, and I think it (not surprisingly) angered Manchin, who is now saying his earlier offer is no longer necessarily on the table.
That’s a huge setback for poor children. It’s a huge setback for future generations who’d benefit from green energy and preschool. It’s a huge setback for all kinds of progressive causes. But, again, it has absolved Schumer of the personal culpability for picking and choosing among different programs and selling his choices to the caucus and to the party.
And make no mistake, the selling part would be tough. I think Patty Murray and Kirsten Gillibrand would be very upset if Schumer made a deal with Manchin that spent $1.5 trillion on new programs but $0 on paid leave or child care. I think Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow would be very upset if Schumer made a deal with Manchin that eliminated specific union-friendly proposals related to electric vehicles from the House bill.
But this is legislative leadership as it’s been traditionally defined. You, the leader, work something out that is acceptable to the people whose votes you most need. And then you squeeze the rank-and-file members with the (correct!) argument that from the Murray/Gillibrand/Peters/Stabenow perspective, this is much better than the status quo. And then Murray and Gillibrand and Peters and Stabenow tell their interest group allies that Schumer is an asshole who sold out their issues, but what can you do? The leader carries the weight. He absorbs the caucus majority’s anger rather than forcing the marginal members to absorb it. And then when that’s done, he absorbs the advocacy groups’ anger rather than forcing the caucus to absorb it. And then legislation passes and things get done.
Schumer has instead played a masterful game of evasion, where between a White House ask of $3.4 trillion in new spending and Manchin’s willingness to embrace $1.5 trillion in new spending, we are now looking at potentially compromising on $0 in new spending — and no voting rights bill, by the way — but with Manchin absorbing all the anger. What’s odd is that Schumer himself has long been one of the leading advocates of the (correct!) idea that Democrats self-sabotage by letting the hot-house atmosphere of the professional progressive movement and edgy urban leftists dictate party strategy.
Call the Baileys
In his 2007 book “Positively American,” published after he successfully spearheaded Democrats’ 2006 Senate campaign efforts, Schumer explained that he likes to run ideas about political tactics and strategies past his imaginary friends Joe and Eileen Bailey. They were a 45-year-old married couple living in Massapequa on Long Island earning $75,000 a year with three kids in the local public school system.
Progressives spent years bitterly mocking the idea, and certainly the “ask the Baileys” gut-check is both a bit cringe in concept and somewhat flawed in execution. But it also served the fundamentally valuable purpose of trying to get staffers to pull their heads out of the climate of progressive groupthink and recall some basic truths about the world. And Schumer, whatever else you might think of him, is historically really good at winning elections. In 2004, he ran 13 percentage points ahead of John Kerry’s margin in New York State. Six years later during the disastrous 2010 midterms, he still managed to run a bit ahead of the margin Barack Obama posted during his 2008 landslide. And in 2016, he ran 11 points ahead of Hillary Clinton.
And the Baileys weren’t just a conceit in the book. As Eric Schultz, Schumer’s former spokesman, recalled to the Washington Post back when he worked in Schumerland, “he was always asking ‘what would the O’Reillys think.’” And, indeed, Schumer is so attentive to the demands of marketing that when he took over the DSCC, the O’Reillys became the Baileys to clarify that he wasn’t talking about a niche ethnic audience.
I think the right way to think about the Baileys exercise is in the same spirit as my Post-It note proposal (and again, the similarity is not a coincidence — my only job in practical politics was working for Schumer).
I’ll just quote myself:
So much in politics is uncertain or difficult that I think even professionals tend to underrate the upside to doing things that are obvious and easy.
Back in 1992, James Carville supposedly hung a sign in Clinton campaign headquarters that said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” By the same token, Democrats today could improve their performance enormously if every staffer’s computer monitor had a Post-It stuck to it that said “the median voter is a 50-something white person who didn’t go to college and lives in an unfashionable suburb.”
The Baileys were 45 in the book, but that was 2007. They’d be 59 or 60 today. And in 2020 dollars they’d be earning about $100k rather than $75k.
So it’s roughly the same idea. The only technical flaw in the construction of the Baileys is that Schumer wants them to be swing voters (he says they voted for Clinton twice, then Bush twice) but he also wants them to be New Yorkers, so they live in Massapequa, and that actually makes them to the right of the typical resident of Nassau County. For national political purposes, they should really live in the suburbs of a smaller midwestern city like Grand Rapids or Madison.
What would the Baileys think?
For various reasons, I like the implementation details of my Post-It proposal better than Schumer’s “what would the Baileys think.” But they both provide a valuable function, which is to try to get Democratic staffers out of their highly localized pocket of conventional wisdom.
In demographic terms, Democratic staffers are all younger-than-average college-educated residents of big cities who mostly socialize with other younger-than-average college-educated residents of big cities. In those particular social circles, it’s taken for granted that transforming the United States into a European-style welfare state would be desirable, and the big question about the Democratic Party is whether it’s too full of lame sellouts. And Schumer’s point is that out in Massapequa, there’s actually a great deal of status quo bias, and the big question about the Democratic Party is whether it’s going to raise your taxes or be excessively indulgent of counter-cultural radicals.
The Baileys, critically, are unfashionable and uncool. Even though they’re only 30 minutes from Manhattan, “they don’t go into town very often.” They’re also deeply conventional people. Joe’s hobby is golf. Eileen likes to shop. They are unironically patriotic and get mad about flag burning. What’s more, while they are not bad people (Schumer says they donated money to Hurricane Katrina victims), they’re also kind of selfish — or as he puts it, “not driven by communal goals over self-interest. To them, there is nothing wrong with seeking what is good for yourself and your family.”
So what would the Baileys think about Build Back Better?
I think they’d think it’s … fine.
The revenue comes from rich people, which is good.
It does something about climate change but doesn’t seem like it would make the Baileys change their lives in any particular way, which is good.
They’re glad their one friend with diabetes might get some help with his insulin, and while they’re not on Medicare yet and don’t need hearing aids, the Baileys are realists and see some upside for them here.
All this other stuff doesn’t help them because their kids are too old by now, but maybe there’ll be grandkids soon and I guess preschool sounds like a good idea.
That said, the Baileys aren’t marching in the streets for this. And where the Baileys come from, one trillion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and the idea that Democrats are saying it’s maybe not enough money sounds odd. If the package got smaller, that would be perfectly reasonable. And they’re not super excited about any of these elements, so you could really ditch anything and they’d be fine.
The Baileys also think this Jim Crow 2.0 stuff is awfully weird.
Is curtailing early voting access really the same as Jim Crow? Is same-day registration really necessary to preserve American democracy? For most of their lives New York hasn’t had this, and it seems fine. Democrats seem to be saying that what the Republicans want to do will be bad for Black people. And while the Baileys would not vote for a guy wearing a white hood and burning a cross, they are also not Black — they want to vote for politicians who seem fired-up about helping middle-class white suburbanites.
Mostly, the Baileys are glad that Trump is gone, frustrated that Biden did not succeed in crushing the virus, and feel like they got a bit bait-and-switched. They heard a lot during the primary about how progressives didn’t like Joe Biden and thought he wasn’t going to be ambitious enough, but now Democrats actually seem very ambitious — I guess that’s how politics is. They figure they’ll probably vote Republican in November to bring some balance to things.
Why did Schumer change his mind?
Back in April, Ezra Klein interviewed Schumer, and in their discussion about the Baileys, Schumer laid the groundwork for his current conduct as Majority Leader.
He makes two key arguments — one is a kind of economic anxiety explanation of Trump voters. He says Joe and Eileen voted for Trump in 2016, while in 2020 Joe voted for him again but Eileen voted for Biden.1 And Schumer doesn’t say they did it because they agreed with Trump about immigration or because they thought Democrats’ post-Ferguson embrace of police reform was risky.
It’s all about economics:
And that is why they were willing to try a Donald Trump. They had thought that government had failed them and not done — now what has changed? Well, in 2000 they were much less worried about their kids future, paying for college, what kind of job they’d have, what kind of profession they would go into. In 2000, they were much less worried about their parents who weren’t that old and how they were going to take care of them.
In 2000, they were less worried about their own job security. The world is changing so fast that they’ve seen lots of their friends laid off, medical office closed, insurance company not doing that well, or there’s a new line of insurance. The sunny American optimism, which the average person has had for centuries in America, was fading. And that is the reason.
I mean, I asked myself the question, it was a seminal moment for me, why did the Baileys vote for Donald Trump in 2016? Why did so many Americans vote for Donald Trump in 2016 and even still in 2020? And my answer was sort of simple. And that was that they lost faith that the path that had always been laid forward was there any more.
Schumer makes his second argument when he explains how he felt when he realized that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock had won:
And it hit me hard, how the deep responsibility is on the shoulders of our Democratic majority, however slim. And we had three imperatives, one was substantive, dealing with income, dealing with climate, dealing with college, dealing with jobs, dealing with the future, and make it OK. The second was a political imperative, so many people said, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference who I vote for.
We had the opportunity to show people that when they voted for us it would make a difference, that we would do the things we promised, most notably checks, vaccines in the arm, opening up schools, opening up businesses. But the third was almost moral, and I felt that, if we didn’t produce the kind of bold progressive change that would turn that pessimism we talked about, that sourness in the land, back to some hope — no one expected us to snap our fingers and make it all better at once, but they expected a real path — that we could either re-elect Donald Trump in 2024 or someone worse, a dictator, somebody who would just manipulate people because they didn’t have some hope for the future.
This, I think, is exactly the line of thinking that the Baileys are supposed to block.
Schumer is describing an agenda to impress his daughter’s friends from college — people who probably voted for Warren in the primary and think her dad is a boring old hack. But did the Baileys really turn to Trump because of a lack of bold progressive change?
Schumer, writing about the Baileys in 2007 before Colin Kaepernick’s famous protests, specifically called out Joe’s reverence for the national anthem ritual as a distinguishing characteristic and discussed their reverence for authority:
Socially, the Baileys are not anti-authority; in fact, they respect authority. They attend church regularly, though not every week. They accept the structure brought to their lives by religion, work, and governmental institutions. They want these structures to be successful and strong, and are leery of those who seem to always criticize them.
To me, these sound like people who voted for Trump because of his law-and-order politics, then flipped in 2020 because the chaos and incompetence was too much, and they thought Biden would be a steady hand. They’re not necessarily against the progressive change in Biden’s platform, but their doubt about Biden is that he might empower the kind of people who spent the summer of 2020 doing apologetics for rioters, not that he won’t deliver big structural change. In the short term, they care a lot about inflation and would like to see Biden bring it down. They’re not idiots and they realize there may not be that much that he can do here, but if he were to impress them by doing something, that would be the thing for him to do.
Schumer’s new problem
The basic arguments Schumer made to Klein don’t align with a political science understanding of who Obama-Trump voters or Trump-Biden voters are or what motivates them. It also doesn’t align with his own prior portrayal of the Baileys, what they care about, and what leads them to vacillate between the parties. In fact, his portrait of the Baileys is an extremely prescient portrayal of the kind of person who Trump could win over.
And I frankly don’t believe that Schumer would have such a weak grasp of politics as to genuinely believe that the key to Democratic victory in 2024 is to deliver on a progressive interest group wishlist. Schumer is too good at politics for that. When you see a brilliant political thinker saying stuff that doesn’t make sense, you’ve got to figure that something else is going on.
Here are some headlines:
“Does Chuck Schumer Have an AOC Problem?” [Atlantic, 1/18/2020]
“Schumer quietly nails down the left amid AOC primary chatter” [Politico, 2/1/2021]
“Chuck Schumer Appears to Be Scared of a Primary Challenge From the Left (Good!)” [Jezebel, 2/8/21]
For a long time, I discounted the idea that Schumer could be genuinely worried about this. We saw Andrew Cuomo (pre-scandals) easily beat back a progressive primary challenger in 2018 and Eric Adams prevail in a primary in New York City this past fall. In what possible universe is Schumer losing a primary to AOC? A lot of people on Capitol Hill and in the Schumerland Extended Universe say he has this primary worry, but it just didn’t make much sense.
That being said, as unlikely as it is that he could lose a primary by angering the left, it seems even more unlikely that he would lose to a Republican. So arguably, the correct thing for a really astute political mastermind to do is ignore his own insights about how to appeal to the median voter and focus his energy on shoring up his left flank. It’s just a bad choice for America.
As a longtime Schumer admirer, I don’t want to believe that this is what’s going on. But I do think it fits the facts, and I don’t like it.
I hope I’m wrong, though, and instead Schumer really was just taken over by a fit of progressive enthusiasm after the dramatic events of January 2021. But if that’s right, then the best thing for him, for his caucus, for the Biden administration, and for the country would be to get back in touch with the Baileys — and spread the gospel of Baileyism among all the staffers on Capitol Hill — and try to bring things back down to Earth. Joe Manchin is not going to make all progressives’ dreams come true. But he might make some dreams come true. To get there, though, we’d need a caucus leader who’s willing to make the deal and be the half-a-loaf guy who people get mad at.
Harry Reid, representing a reddish state, had much tougher home state politics than Schumer’s worst nightmares. But he always did a good job of managing those issues on his own time and making the right choices for the caucus. Schumer, it seems to me, is not really doing the job in a responsible way.
Note that this is atypical, and while white men are more Republican than white women, the swing toward Biden in 2020 was heavily concentrated among white men.