What Does Chuck Schumer Think He's Doing?

Ed Kilgore / New York Magazine
What Does Chuck Schumer Think He's Doing? Chuck Schumer rattles a small plastic saber in response to the apparent imminent abolition of abortion rights. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty)

In gesture that has become almost ritualistic in this Congress, today Senate Democrats responded to a major challenge — in this case, the Supreme Court’s apparent intention to strike down Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to an abortion — by taking a doomed vote. And their leader, Chuck Schumer, publicly raised the stakes of his party’s certain loss.

The Wednesday afternoon vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act failed by a vote of 49 to 51, with Democrat Joe Manchin voting with Senate Republicans to keep it from advancing. In its demise the WHPA joins two voting-rights measures, a minimum-wage bill, and the giant Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill (which is not subject to a filibuster, but lacks necessary support from Manchin and Krysten Sinema). All of these relatively popular measures were touted as potentially history-making necessities by Democratic lawmakers, then left for dead after totally predictable failed Senate votes.

Arguably, this situation was set when Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff unexpectedly won Georgia’s Senate runoffs in January 2021, giving Democrats their 49th and 50th seats in the upper chamber. It was clear from the get-go that Republicans would use the Senate filibuster to kill any remotely controversial legislation proposed by Joe Biden and his party. And even on items that could not be filibustered, Democrats’ minimum Senate majority meant anyone in their ranks could amass enormous power by threatening to defect. Manchin and Sinema have exercised this power regularly.

In other words, Senate Democrats’ apparent weakness over the past two years reflects actual weakness, not just stupidity or some avoidable errors. And the majority leader deserves some respect for keeping his troops mostly in line. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “getting close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

So the question remains: Why does Schumer make such a big production out of doing things he knows are very likely to fail, like Wednesday’s big vote on reproductive rights? Here are some possible explanations.

He’s placating the Democratic base.

In the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and among certain constituency groups, the Democratic “Establishment” has a well-earned reputation for letting down the party base. This stems from congressional Democratic leaders’ perceived unwillingness to pass bold policies that might endanger their candidates in highly competitive swing states or districts, coupled with a tendency to take more reliable Democratic politicians and voters for granted. This is perfectly encapsulated by Democratic leaders’ current kowtowing to Joe Manchin, though he’s totally out of step with what most Democrats want.

Schumer keeps beating his head against a West Virginia–shaped wall to show the base that he is at least attempting to do the right thing, though Manchin will not let him. The impetus to try, try again is particularly strong since core Democratic constituencies face dire, immediate threats, including state voting restrictions, punitive polices toward immigrants and refugees, and bans on abortion services. By bringing up doomed progressive legislation, Schumer is trying to send the message that he and his party care.

He’s trying to change the losing political equation.

One of the most strongly held beliefs in Progressive Land is that Democrats often fail to put together winning political coalitions in the electorate because they are not clear and bold enough, or won’t “fight” for potentially popular positions. From this perspective, rather than avoiding controversial issues to aid swing-district candidates, Democrats should welcome opportunities to underscore partisan differences, encouraging potential supporters to regard them as principled, tough, faithful, on your side, etc. By being “authentic” and “honest” about what they want to do, Democrats can strengthen their hand simply by looking strong.

This attitude is more or less the polar opposite to the traditional “median voter theorem” strategy whereby political parties seek to expand their reach by tailoring their messages to the views of presumably centrist swing voters. We are hearing less about centrist swing voters lately for the very good reason that there are fewer swing voters and those that do exist aren’t necessarily all that “centrist.” But the fight, fight, fight messaging is naturally appealing to Schumer, if only because he took over the Senate at a time when he was widely considered vulnerable to a progressive 2022 primary challenge.

He’s holding Republicans accountable for their unpopular views.

On issues where the Democratic position is relatively popular, it may make sense to speak loudly despite certain impeding defeat in order to force Republicans to “own” their unsavory positions. There are few, if any, Republicans who want to run on a platform of violent hostility to a $15 minimum wage, or any of the “working family” benefits that made it into the various drafts of the BBB legislation. Indeed, most GOP candidates prefer to run on a mix of highly salient issues like inflation (despite their own lack of solutions) and on contrived focus-group-tested cultural issues like “defunding the police” or “parental rights in education” that involve largely imaginary but emotionally evocative threats.

There’s something to be said for trying to prevent Republicans from appealing to their own base with extremist positions without paying the price among swing voters.

He’s trying to boost voter turnout.

Perhaps the most persuasive reason that Schumer is heavily advertising Senate votes he is sure to lose is that Democrats are really, really screwed if their voter turnout this November is as anemic as it was during midterms under President Obama. They need turnout patterns more like 2018, when Donald Trump’s presence in the White House made it easy to mobilize young and minority voters while flipping swing voters. Achieving anything like that in 2022 would require some highly emotional issues with high perceived stakes. Given that desideratum, shouting about voting rights and abortion rights being under sustained and devastating attack makes some sense, even on the eve of yet another legislative defeat in the supposedly Democrat-controlled Senate.

Maybe Schumer really is just feckless.

Schumer might have some good reasons for demanding the largest possible audience for every defeat. But there remains the possibility that he’s just winging it and is incompetently adding to the woes of his conference and his party. After all, there is a fine line between mobilizing the Democratic base and demoralizing them by dramatizing Republican victories in the Senate and in the Supreme Court. It’s unclear if marginal voters are more likely to appreciate that the Democratic Party is at least attempting to fight for them, or to stay home in the midterms because giving Democrats a trifecta obviously didn’t do much good when it came to passing legislation.

Whatever Schumer thinks he is trying to do, he and other Democrats (including Joe Biden) need to do a better job of explaining to the public that Republicans are using arcane rules and duplicitous methods to thwart the popular will and obstruct legislative action. If voters don’t know the filibuster from a philharmonic orchestra, you can’t really blame them for wondering why the Democrats who control everything in Washington can’t seem to do much but advertise their spectacular failures.

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