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Chuck Schumer Is a Man Out of Time

Chuck Schumer knows how to hold a press conference and he knows how to raise money from Wall Street. Those skills got him reelected to Senate leadership today. But when it comes to the take-no-prisoners, polarized politics of the twenty-first century, he’s completely out of his depth.

US Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference in October in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

Chuck Schumer knows how to raise money from rich people. It’s why, in part, he was able to claim a Senate seat in New York, outhustling a generation of rivals who may have possessed more talent, vision, and charisma.

Schumer, in one sense, is admirable in that way. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young Schumers who enter elected office each year, dreaming of prestige and fame. Most get caught in local offices and eventually exit the scene. Ladder-climbing, for most, is a slog, and it’s easy to fall off a rung and never recover.

Since 2015, when Harry Reid named Schumer his successor as leader of the Senate Democrats, it has always seemed like a matter of time before Chuck from Brooklyn joined history. He would be, like the legendary Lyndon B. Johnson, the commander of the United States Senate, invested with extraordinary power to pass legislation, foil enemies, and shepherd the ambitious agenda of a Democratic president into law.

It was coming. If not in 2017, when liberals hoped a Majority Leader Schumer would partner with a President Clinton, then in 2021, when the blue wave would wash Biden into the White House and Schumer, at last, into the majority.

As of now, it will not be. Remarkably, even with Biden’s triumph over Trump, Republicans are most likely poised to hold the Senate. Almost all the star Democratic recruits failed, either struggling to seize votes that went to Biden or succumbing to a Trump surge that rose much higher than the Twitter pundits, sequestered on the coasts, predicted.

Now that Schumer might once again be mired in the impotent minority, it’s time for Senate Democrats to move on. Unlike Mitch McConnell, Schumer is a man out of time, unfit for an era of savage political combat and polarization. Schumer’s understanding of politics is late-twentieth century, built around irrelevant Sunday news conferences and tepid incrementalism. He has no big ideas and no concept of how, if he did have any, he might achieve them.

Like Biden, who thinks Republicans would see the light if only he could sit down with them over a glass of bourbon or play another round of golf with the fellas from the other side, Schumer comes from a vanished world. He would have been a fine, if forgettable, legislative leader somewhere in the 1980s, rallying liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats over some modest gun control bill.

Schumer survived because he was very good at dialing for dollars, and helping his friends collect cash as well. In his House days, his Wall Street ties made it possible for him to withstand rounds of redistricting in New York that ended the political careers of talented peers.

These days, Schumer’s Senate recruits consistently fail, even when they out-raise the opposition. Amy McGrath, the Democrat McConnell easily swatted away in Kentucky, was a pointless venture, a borderline grift. Theresa Greenfield flopped in Iowa. Cal Cunningham could not run ahead of Biden in North Carolina. Sara Gideon, meanwhile, ran far behind Biden in Maine, losing to the much-maligned Susan Collins. MJ Hegar didn’t come close in Texas.

Not all of this can be laid at Schumer’s feet, of course. Democrats faced deep challenges in states Trump carried. Perhaps Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will work miracles in the Georgia runoffs.

The trouble is that even if Schumer were handed power, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. He has no policy vision to offer the nation or even his own party. He has no signature, easily remembered legislative achievement. He is his chamber’s star bureaucrat.

If Democrats are again forced into the minority, why keep Schumer around? He has repeatedly allowed McConnell to repeatedly trample Democrats. Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed without meaningful resistance. The federal judiciary has been stacked for a generation. Beyond meekly railing against Trump, Schumer is devoid of message and strategy.

In peacetime — with Democrats in full control of government, with comfortable majorities in both chambers — Schumer would be a passable steward. In an existential moment like this, with the economy in shambles and climate change ravaging us, he is a profound liability.

Had Democrats managed an outright victory in the Senate on Tuesday, Schumer undoubtedly would have squandered it, failing to marshal support for expanding the Supreme Court or granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington DC. Likely denied the majority, Democrats have no viable alternative but to offer an affirmative vision to advance the interests of the working class and poor. Schumer, an unapologetic shill for the financial industry, will not be the source of that vision.

The next Senate Democratic leader will need to comprehend that fundraising won’t rescue the party. Democrats can outspend Republicans and lose. They can recruit candidates with outstanding rolodexes and lose. They can either decide to become a people’s party again or slip further behind a Republican Party that, even in defeat, holds the country’s future in its hands.