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Chuck Schumer May Really Have to Fight for Re-Election This Time.
If Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell successfully replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Schumer could end up on the wrong side of history.
More than five years ago, I wrote a long feature for my old employer, the New York Observer, on the political history of Charles Ellis Schumer. At the moment, Harry Reid had named Schumer his successor as leader of the Senate Democrats and it appeared, in those innocent days of 2015, Schumer could lead a Senate Democratic majority as early as 2017. Like Reid, he could have the privilege of legislating under a Democratic president—Hillary Clinton, many of us assumed. At the time, I attempted to answer a rather simple question: was Schumer, a cautious legislator wary of his party’s left flank, the right man to the lead the Senate?
Long before Donald Trump’s Black Swan victory, there was still concern that Schumer, even under the best of circumstances, would lack Reid’s savvy and ambition, a poor counterweight to the most ruthlessly effective Senate leader in modern history, Mitch McConnell. The forces that would power Trump’s victory were there for all of us to see five years ago, though they were easy enough to ignore as Obama wound down his second term. Radical, negative polarization had seized the electorate. Cooperation between the two political parties was virtually nonexistent. The Republican Party had evolved, under Obama, into a nihilistic and obstructionist vessel, committed solely to obliterating the liberal project. The best communicators in the post-2016 age understood, intuitively, the power of social media and galvanizing millions around a succinct message. There were upsides to the new order: a 28-year-old unknown with a deep commitment to social justice, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, could rise to national fame overnight. She was the first Democrat, arguably, to rival Trump’s dominance of social media and the daily news cycle.
Schumer came from a vanished world, of dial-up internet and Americans dutifully watching the nightly news. There was a time when Schumer, at least when it came to communicating, existed on the vanguard. His parochial Sunday news conferences and ceaseless hunger for television cameras were running jokes, but he won elections that way. At a time when New York newspapers trained their attention, almost equally, on local and national affairs, Schumer was able to dominate coverage of both, filling potholes at home while championing popular issues like gun control. He was the envy of his Democratic colleagues, resented and even revered, a prolific fundraiser who survived through his deep ties to Wall Street. It was never preordained that Schumer, of ordinary vision and limited charisma, would rise so far. Most New York State Assembly members don’t. To his credit, Schumer won competitive races to reach his perch, triumphing in a tough primary and general election in 1998—just before the internet came to dominate everyday life—and outmuscling rivals, behind the scenes, to replace Reid.
Schumer was not made for the existential struggle of politics today. He came of age at a time when the Republican Party was a wobbly coalition of pro-government liberals and racist conservatives, with enough ideological diversity for an eager Democrat to deal-make. Bipartisanship was possible. Fox News did not exist. Ronald Reagan would unwind the New Deal consensus, but in between there was room for the parties to pretend, at least, they were not at war. This was Schumer’s world, as well as Joe Biden’s. Neither man seems to quite comprehend the turn the Republican Party took in the 21st century. Neither man seems to comprehend Mitch McConnell is committed to unwinding every gain liberals have made over the last half century.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death may change Schumer—or it could reinforce his worst instincts. McConnell now has his votes to appoint another Supreme Court justice and veer the court rightward for the next 30 years. Anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-universal healthcare, and corporatist judges may soon be able to make permanent their revanchist stamp on American life. This is a dire time. Procedurally, the Democrats are powerless to halt McConnell. Trump’s defeat or the loss of the Senate won’t matter. It may be a question of when, not if, the GOP votes in lockstep to replace Ginsburg, who should have retired in 2014 when Democrats controlled the Senate, trading in a few more years on the bench for the future of the republic. Her legacy can only mean so much if Amy Coney Barrett becomes the vote that overturns Roe v. Wade.
Into this crucible come the Democrats who are, rationally, calling for the Supreme Court to be expanded, as Franklin Roosevelt attempted to do in the late 1930s when legal rulings were foiling his New Deal. Though the Supreme Court has been lionized for a number of progressive decisions in the 20th century, like Roe and Brown v. Board of Education, it is important to remember it has been a largely conservative, anti-democratic institution for much of its history. The Dred Scott decision helped trigger the Civil War. Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined Jim Crow. Justices like Oliver Wendell Holmes embraced eugenics. Nine justices have existed by statute since 1869, but there is nothing in the Constitution stipulating the number of judges on the court. Congress could pass a bill expanding the court tomorrow and the president can sign it into law. Once Republicans are able to build their 6-3 majority, Democrats—progressives, liberals, and centrists alike—will have no recourse but to seek expansion. If the Supreme Court doesn’t grow, the social, economic, and racial justice achievements of the last century could all be steadily erased. While traditionalists like Biden have resisted supporting expanding the court, it could also have the ameliorative outcome of diminishing the power of individual justices. On a court of 13, 15, or even 21, the failing health of a single judge no longer needs to be a national obsession. Cult worship of these people can end.
If Republicans install Barrett or someone like her, Schumer will need to embrace expanding the court or face the most furious primary challenge of his career. He will be up for re-election in two years. Progressive and moderate Democrats—Biden and Sanders and Warren voters—are increasingly united around the idea of adding more justices, particularly with the right to an abortion under threat. Schumer knows when to evolve, and he signaled his openness to court expansion in his recent press conference with Ocasio-Cortez. It is unlikely she undertakes the primary challenge herself. Her radical reputation belies an ability to coalition-build with establishment Democrats and avoid such risk, particularly on the local level. Other Democrats may be willing to take up the primary, which would be difficult and bloody. Schumer will campaign hard for his political life. He is no Joe Crowley; he makes a show of visiting every county in New York and appearing at as many local events as he can. He will lean on older and suburban voters to be a bulwark against any left challenge. The odds are in his favor.
A well-funded, aggressive primary challenge, even if unsuccessful, could eventually make Schumer the Democratic majority leader Democrats need. Schumer is a weathervane susceptible to public pressure. He will never possess McConnell’s native intelligence or cunning. McConnell aggressively and efficiently stacked the federal judiciary over the last four years, a legacy that will long outlive his political career. Democrats need their own McConnell; Schumer is not that, but perhaps, with enough grassroots anger, he can be made that way. If the doddering Biden is elected president, it may be up to the Democratic Congress to force him to embrace a larger, liberal Supreme Court. Schumer will need to disregard politics as he has known it and embrace what it actually is: a zero-sum struggle for survival. Republicans learned this long ago and acted accordingly. If Schumer is made to campaign in 2022 and battle for his own survival, that lesson may just be learned more quickly.