Chuck Schumer was probably expecting his job as top Democrat in the Senate to be a pretty easy gig. He had a clear path to the position throughout 2016 with Harry Reid’s imminent retirement, and pollsters were increasingly confident that Dems could flip the Senate in November, which would make him Majority Leader. All he’d have to do was grease the wheels of the neoliberal machine for President Hillary, talk about the inevitable Republican obstruction on cable news, and maybe ease back on some pesky banking regulations now that the financial collapse of 2008 was receding into the national rearview mirror. Team Clinton just needed to win a layup election against a senile carnival barking racist game show host (and alleged sex offender!) with zero political experience who was viscerally detested by a majority of the American public, and it would be smooth sailing from there.
Now, whether you want to blame Clinton’s loss on Democratic hubris, James Comey, Russian memes, economic anxiety, deplorable Republicans, or any combination of those factors, things didn’t quite work out the way Schumer and the rest of the Democratic Party planned. So, rather than being Senate point man for a White House which was supposed to belong to the Dems in perpetuity, all of a sudden Chuck was thrust into the unenviable position as the last line of defense between whatever remained of the American postwar liberal order and a new generation of iron-fisted conservative rule over all of the country’s most sacred institutions.
It has…not been great.
The latest 12-D chess move that has enraged progressives in the Democratic party came on Tuesday as Schumer, ever the brilliant strategist, cunningly tricked the Republican Party into allowing a few Democrats to head back to their home states to campaign, giving up a few hundred pages of documents about Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh’s time as a White House Clerk, and maybe, possibly agreeing to rename a building in the Senate after recently deceased Senator John McCain. All at the cost of a measly seven lifetime district court appointments for Federalist Society mutants who will be reshaping American society for decades to come! Checkmate, Drumpf.
It’s frustrating to see this kind of thing play out, but it’s not really surprising anymore, as this kind of lopsided “deal” is emblematic of Schumer’s stint of Senate Democrat leader. At a time when virtually every faction of the Democratic Party base has been crying out for the kind of unified resistance that exemplified the Republican opposition to Barack Obama, he has folded repeatedly and in the most craven ways.
Say what you will about the politics of soulless turtle man Mitch McConnell, but in addition to limiting his court appointments to the lowest levels in decades, he maneuvered Obama into spending the first two years of his administration and all his nearly unprecedented political capital on passing Mitt Romney’s Heritage Foundation healthcare plan, which Republicans then re-framed as a communist plot that they refused en masse to vote for, leading to a Democratic midterm collapse that was the first domino to fall in the lead-up to today’s conservative nightmare world.
In contrast, Schumer’s run in the same position has been a virtually nonstop cavalcade of embarrassing capitulations, as time and time again he has made a halfhearted effort to show he’s opposed to the Trump agenda, but stopped just short of doing anything meaningful to actually stop it.
While in general Trump has been allowed to make court appointments at a record pace, Schumer took a tough stance on Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch but balked at the idea of actually filibustering the nomination when McConnell called his bluff, then failed to sanction any of the Democratic Senators that crossed the aisle to help confirm him. This is already drawing uncomfortable parallels to the current Supreme Court fight over Brett Kavanaugh, where Schumer has again taken a forceful tone while all but admitting that he won’t take any concrete steps to stop Democratic turncoats from voting for him. More conspiratorial-minded observers might even see this as simply providing cover for Dems that want to cross the aisle to rubber stamp an extreme conservative agenda while maintaining plausible deniability, but surely this would be impossible.
The massive, nearly $800 billion defense spending bill that was just passed presented a strong opportunity for Democrats to rail against runaway military spending or perhaps take a stand against the increasing expansion of America’s imperialist death machine. But not only did Schumer fail to object; he basically congratulated the Trump Administration for their bold vision, announcing that “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request.”
When Trump moved ahead with the North Korean summit, one of the few instances where his self-serving need to make splashy headlines might have actually done some good, Senate Democrats led by Schumer actually insisted he wasn’t being tough enough, inexplicably positioning themselves to the right of noted peace activist John Bolton and making an actual detente on the Korean Peninsula less likely.
When the Trump Administration placed the legal status of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients in jeopardy, Schumer actually offered to fund Trump’s infamous border wall in exchange for their legal protection, and when that didn’t work, managed to take a tough enough stance that it resulted in a government shutdown. He then immediately blinked and agreed to reopen the government when the famously trustworthy McConnell suggested that the Senate would take up DACA legislation soon after.
In a shocking development, this has yet to happen, and the Dreamers that Schumer insisted he would not leave out in the cold are still going about their lives in complete uncertainty of what their legal status is, while the Trump Administration is openly questioning whether to start targeting even immigrants who have obtained legal status.
Democrats haven’t had much of an opportunity to go on the offensive, but while Chuck has been tepid on endorsing any of the big ideas advocated by the progressive wing of the party, like Medicare for All or Abolish ICE, he did co-sponsor a bill with Kirsten Gillibrand to make boycotting Israel a felony, a move that’s sure to turn out the midterm voters in droves.
Luckily, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for Democrats. There’s a new generation of rising stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Zephyr Teachout and Andrew Gillum who seem to understand that voters want them to actually fight Republicans, rather than just respect kayfabe. And Democrats still may manage to flip one or even both houses of congress this November. If this does happen and something resembling an actual resistance begins to take shape, this will be in spite of Chuck Schumer, not because of him, and progressive activists will be left wondering just how much of the damage that was inflicted on his watch is irreversible.