By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 06/22/06 12:00 AM EDT
The weekend that Vice President Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter in February, it was reported that the Bush administration had approved a $6.8 billion deal to let Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates-based company, manage six U.S. ports.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), famous for holding weekend press conferences, was the only lawmaker quoted in a wire story at the time. Five days later, the Bush administration found itself under political assault from both parties.
“It took nonpolitical events to open the door” to expose the Bush administration’s incompetence, Schumer told reporters in April, citing Hurricane Katrina and the ports issue. “The public thought that President Bush was an honest, likable chap, but [those events caused] the average American to scratch their head, and they became a symbol” that the administration doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Throughout his 32-year political career, Schumer has taken on potent political forces, ranging from the National Rifle Association to former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), and succeeded through an ability to weave a narrative that resonates with middle-class voters and through sheer hustle.
“He has spent his entire life as a public official. It’s not as if he started in a law firm,” said former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro (D), whom Schumer defeated in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary.
Ferraro noted that Schumer is part of the post-Watergate generation of young people who “came out of law school and said, ‘This is what I do.’ I do know that he has never been shy about letting people know about his accomplishments.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), Schumer’s home-state colleague, has not overshadowed him. A poll released Tuesday showed twice as many New Yorkers considered him more effective than Clinton.
In 1998, Schumer drew on his storytelling skills, his pragmatic approach to campaigning and his stamina to win the primary against Ferraro and consumer advocate Mark Green. In a costly and bruising general election, he trounced D’Amato.
Now, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), those same skills are on display as he tries to guide Democrats back to the majority in November’s midterm elections. He is a relentless fundraiser and has frustrated Senate Republicans by outraising them this year.
“I am trying in 2006 to aim our message in this direction and to school our candidates in this way of thinking,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s how I think. A narrative is much better than just an abstract. I always try to do stories and anecdotes and things like that.”
When the Dubai ports deal leaked, Schumer pressed Democratic challengers to find ways to highlight the issue.
“Narrative is important,” said Senate candidate Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “He understood how the Dubai ports scandal connected to a family in Ashtabula, Ohio.”
Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), seeking to succeed Majority Leader Bill First (R-Tenn.) in the Senate, thrilled Schumer when he raced to the Baltimore port to film an advertisement, Ford said.
Meanwhile, Schumer was everywhere talking about the ports deal. He spoke out against it at a press conference with Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) and made himself available for numerous TV interviews.
Looking past November’s elections, Schumer has a broader worldview that he plans to write about in a book scheduled to be published in 2007.
Schumer’s story goes like this: Technology has changed the labor market. It has also helped terrorists. Democrats have realized the New Deal coalition that had sustained them since 1932 no longer exists, and they have been working to adapt.
But Schumer also believes that President Reagan’s philosophy that government is the problem is dead because technological advances require a much more active government.
When Schumer thinks about the type of voter caught in this new paradigm, he says, he imagines a family with two children in Massapequa, N.Y. They’re middle-class Catholics. He sells insurance, and she works in the public schools. Their children attend public schools. Since 1992, they voted twice each for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The family is comfortable, but they worry that they cannot handle rapid changes in technology on their own. They want some help without being told that things are awful or for politicians to talk down to them.
In Schumer’s view, the party that comes up with the values, philosophy and platform to address this political equation will become the dominant party. But it is more than just coming up with a plan; it’s how the plan is communicated to voters.
“Everything I do I see through the eyes of these voters,” Schumer said. “On larger issues, I do not try to talk through the editorial boards of the The Washington Post or The New York Times.”
Not only does Schumer see himself as a storyteller, he considers himself as more pragmatic than ideological. When he interviewed former aide Jim Kessler for a job in 1993, Schumer asked Kessler to rank himself, Schumer and Bill Clinton on a conservative-to-liberal scale of 1-10.
Kessler said he ranked Clinton and Schumer 8s and gave himself a 7.
“Schumer said, ‘You’re wrong,’” Kessler recalled. “‘You’re right about Clinton. I’m a 7, and I don’t know what you are.’”
Schumer’s pragmatism was on display earlier this year when he backed Democrat Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and President Reagan’s former Navy Secretary Jim Webb in Virginia. The moves have angered some in the party’s liberal base because Casey opposes abortion rights.
Schumer says he is confident that Democrats, down 55-45 in the Senate, will do well this November. He has stopped short of saying they will win control of the chamber but recently indicated Democrats would pick up five seats.