Why Does Chuck Schumer Get the Benefit of the Doubt?
In the eventful but recently concluded saga of Nancy Pelosi's control of the House speakership, the forgotten one has been Chuck Schumer. Schumer remains the Democrats' leader in the Senate without any sort of challenge to his authority, a man firmly in control for the foreseeable future. The earliest possible bump in the road (one would presume) wouldn't be until 2022 when the Democrats have a fighting chance to take back the Senate, assuming that the then-72 year-old chooses to run for re-election when his term is up that year. Sure, there may not be too much of a rush to replace him while he is at majority leader Mitch McConnell's mercy, but the complete silence of the increasingly-progressive party is noticeable especially in contrast to the public and personal fight over Pelosi's position.
Somehow, Schumer has been *less* unpopular than any of his fellow Congressional leaders, boasting only a -10 rating (31% favorable to 41% unfavorable), compared to -15 for Pelosi, -22 for the outgoing Paul Ryan, and -20 for McConnell. He has faced relatively little public scrutiny for his leadership and decisions, from both the media and the public. Even FOX News, a network which has made Pelosi (and other Democratic women like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) a regular target, has been somewhat mum on attacking Schumer specifically. As of this morning (January 4), there are no Schumer-specific stories, and three Pelosi-specific ones on their front page. Pelosi had more than 6% of her party refuse to vote for her as Speaker despite no obvious alternative candidate (seriously, who else is even an option at this moment?) waiting in the wings, while no Democratic Senator has taken a similar stand against Schumer (unless you count then-candidate Kyrsten Sinema, who is barely even a Democrat to begin with).
But he hasn't delivered on, well, anything. And while McConnell has held the upper hand in the majority party, he still needs votes from Schumer to get stuff done. So how is that Schumer manages to slide by unnoticed? After all, surely it's easier to vilify a semi-powerless incompetent leader than a powerless competent one?
Perhaps it's because of the fact that Schumer blends in to the suits on Capitol hill so effortlessly, in the same way that McConnell does (even Paul Ryan, who stuck out in the weird sense that he was relatively young and relatively handsome, was a lightning rod for criticism in a world where McConnell was equally to blame – not that you should shed any tears for Paul Ryan). In contrast, someone like Nancy Pelosi has the whole 'being a woman' thing to deal with. It's hardly a secret that the United States has never had a female elected as President or Vice President, nor had a woman serve as a party leader in the Senate (either majority or minority). Pelosi is the first (and now, second) female Speaker, but that's not a directly elected position – she was elected to be a representative, and then all the Representatives subsequently voted her to be Speaker (if the entire country were to vote on which Rep would be Speaker, it doesn't seem likely that Pelosi would win). Meanwhile, Schumer rides high on the unquestionable qualifications of being a male, and one of fair skin.
Look at the nascent 2020 Democratic field, and the candidates that have already entered or are presumed to do so. Joe Biden is the party establishment favorite and Beto O'Rourke has received fawning press coverage since his Senate loss to Ted Cruz, and those two definitely have something in common. Even Bernie Sanders, who after 2016 was considered too old to run again, has remained untouched after joining the fray, despite accusations of sexual harassment on his campaign (and I doubt that will sink him). Elizabeth Warren hasn't enjoyed that same level of deference from both the left and the right, and it's likely that any other female contender – Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar – will either.
There's an ongoing narrative that Pelosi somehow wouldn't know how to deal with Donald Trump, when Schumer has been the one that has demonstrated true incompetence. And this isn't being nitpicky in the way that the left loves to eat their own – he's been straight-up bad. He let through 15 of Trump's lower-court judicial nominees for absolutely nothing in return, just so some senators would have more time to go home and campaign (in case you're wondering, Heidi Heitkamp, Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelley are no longer Senators). Remember Matt Petersen, a nominee for a district court judgeship who couldn't answer basic questions and had essentially no relevant experience? Any of the nominees could have been just as incompetent, and Schumer gave them all up for free. That's not a mistake, that's a willful, calculated choice. In light of the GOP and McConnell's uncompromising attitude when it comes to filling the courts (see: Merrick Garland), this should be disqualifying by itself, especially when you compound it with how Schumer was unable to whip Joe Manchin to vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.
Following a historic wave election in which Democrats overwhelmingly took the House and managed to lose only two seats on a horrible Senate map, Schumer offered Trump the same $1.6 billion deal for border wall funding that he had offered before the election! He did clarify that it wasn't necessarily for a wall (it could be fencing), but the physical makeup of the wall is not where the argument is. In a presser he parroted the talking point of being all about 'border security' (which has become an obligatory line, similar to how any anti-gun position has to be caveated with 'I support the 2nd Amendment'). It might be because he was actually pro-fence a little over a decade ago, a stance which may have been relevant when he was a regular senator, but one that should have been relegated to the realm of personal politics when he became minority leader.
Remember the two government shutdowns from last year (yes, there were two)? Schumer's opening move was to suggest legislation on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in exchange for border wall funding, later settling for yet another empty promise by Mitch McConnell to eventually take up an immigration bill for debate (failing to even get Paul Ryan's guarantee to do the same in the House). Two shutdowns (and a full year) later, we don't have DACA. Not only is it bad deal-making, it's utter malpractice because that wasn't a fair trade to begin with anyway! The wall is something that Democrats despise, and DACA is something that people from all sides like!
We can all forgive old opinions. Things like voting in favor of the Iraq war, advocating for the use of torture, suggesting a stoppage of refugees, and opposing the Iran Nuclear Deal may not be ideal marks on one's record, but what matters is the attitudes towards such things now. But Schumer has continually demonstrated that he has not changed in his support for opinions from across the aisle. The only time he willingly (and successfully) went against Trump was a few weeks ago, when he got Trump mad enough to take credit for the latest government shutdown (something that obviously didn't end up mattering). Before that, he voted to confirm Mike Pompeo (now the Secretary of State) as CIA director, even though Pompeo is the exact kind of hawk that could help plunge the country into an entirely new war. He supported Trump's heightened military ambitions by agreeing to give the Pentagon its biggest budget in history and commending Trump's costly and ineffective airstrike in Syria. He voted to roll back the Dodd Frank regulation, much to the ire of Elizabeth Warren and the progressive wing. He even found a way to 'both-sides' the dumb civility debate, and even the attempted assassination of the Democratic leadership (i.e. the pipe bomb incident from October) by literally comparing it to the vandalization of an office. And that's without even getting into his attempts to crush Democratic Senators Joe Sestak (after finding him resistant to control) and Mark Warner (over investigating Facebook).
Schumer is plagued by the backwards mentality that doing these little things will endear him to the right and prove that he is more than just a foil to Trump. It may have been inappropriate to call him a centrist even a few years ago, but failing to call him one now ignores the gradual movement of the party further left, a territory that Schumer is far from familiar with. The fact that he's old, male, and white doesn't mean that he is incapable of doing a good job, but it certainly protects him when he ends up doing a bad one.