The news that Senator Reid's retirement announcement sets up Charles Schumer to be the Democratic leader in the Senate set off a twinge of Brooklyn pride. I knew Schumer back when he was just an ambitious member of the House of Representatives.
But whatever "hometown boy makes good" affectionate feelings I have about Schumer—with whom I share the Jewish faith, a Harvard degree, and years of residence in Brooklyn—are followed quickly, and almost entirely swamped, by my knowledge of the senator's limits. If the Democratic Party is looking for real leadership, as opposed to mere fundraising prowess, it will have to look elsewhere.
What passes for an idea in Schumer-land is what he signaled in a statement after Reid's announcement. He said he looked forward to "continuing to fight for the middle class."
It's a threadbare slogan—which should be a warning to Republicans such as Jeb Bush who are trying to mimic it on the advice of "reform" conservatives. What's it supposed to signal? Callous disregard for the plight of the poor? Fierce enmity toward the wealthy? Whatever happened to politicians representing all Americans, rather than dividing us up into classes and favoring those in the middle?
In Schumer's case, the self-styled fighter for the middle class and critic of the "wealthy" happens to have a family income of more than $400,000 a year and a $2 million apartment. Perhaps that will qualify him as a worthy successor to Senator Reid, who lives in a luxury condominium at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington.
Aside from real estate investing acumen, Schumer's private sector experience is scant verging on nonexistent, as is his sense of the boundary between what should be the private sector's domain and what should be subject to government control. The man has been a professional politician since he was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974, more than 40 years ago, and just months after he graduated from Harvard Law School.
Schumer gets credit in some quarters as a national security hawk relative to the rest of his party. He voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq in the George W. Bush administration, and he has shadowed President Obama slightly—but only slightly—to the right on the Iran nuclear deal. For longtime Schumer watchers such as myself, however, it's hard to escape the impression that Schumer's national security outlook was forged by the Vietnam War period in which he came of age. The most memorable display of this was his 1991 vote as a congressman, during George H.W. Bush's administration, against the Persian Gulf War.
He gets credit in other quarters for being more reasonable, when it comes to regulating or taxing Wall Street, than other members of his party, like, say, Senator Elizabeth Warren, or the independent socialist who represents that global financial powerhouse known as the state of Vermont, Bernie Sanders. (Senators Sanders and Schumer both graduated James Madison High School in Brooklyn.)
But that isn't saying much. And without questioning Schumer's motives, any deference he shows to Wall Street probably has less to do with any free-market principles, and more to do with his fundraising modus operandi. As The New York Times memorably summarized it:
Donors describe the Schumer pitch as unusually aggressive: He calls repeatedly to suggest breakfast or dinner, coffee or cocktails. He enlists intermediaries to invite prospects to events and recruits several senators to tag along. And he presses for the maximum contribution—"I need you to max out," he is known to say—then follows up by asking that a donor's spouse and four or five friends write checks, too.
Schumer will intervene for and fundraise from just about any New York industry with a Washington interest. There was the case of the Hickey Freeman suit company and a government "wool trust fund." And the case of a cut-rate government loan to a phone company. And the case of JetBlue airlines and Schumer's campaign against airlines that charge fees for carry-on bags.
There's a certain lovable quality to Schumer that is hard to avoid even when he is on the other end of the phone yelling at you and threatening never to speak to anyone who works for your newspaper ever again. He works hard and he relishes what he does and I think he is a genuinely patriotic American.
But that makes it all the more tragic that this politician—who Bloomberg is now likening to Lyndon Johnson, writing that he has "been the highest-profile political player for the last decade in the major media centers of New York and Washington"—stands for so little.