What makes Adam Schiff tick?

What makes Adam Schiff tick?
© Greg Nash

Sometimes, the people who are least expected to break out of the back benches of Congress end up shattering that assumption. They are, for a brief time, underestimated and overlooked, eclipsed by seniority. So they plod along and head down whatever policy road they enjoy. But then something happens that catapults them into national prominence.

To suggest that Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffPelosi: Trump DOJ seizure of House Democrats' data ' goes even beyond Richard Nixon' Ex-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Nixon's former White House counsel: Trump DOJ was 'Nixon on stilts and steroids' MORE experienced that one breakout moment is a mistake. It does not appreciate the long path he has traveled. I first met Schiff in the fall of 2000, amidst the dizzying swirl of dinners, receptions, briefings, and orientations for new members of Congress. We had both run that year in high profile races. Schiff opposed James Rogan, who was ironically one of the Republican managers of the Clinton impeachment. I ran in the Long Island district previously held by Republican Rick Lazio, who left the House to run against Hilary Clinton for the Senate.

Our early days were indeed humbling. For some reason, we were often mistaken for one another. People would toss a cheery “Hi Adam” at me in the corridors of the Capitol. Schiff. Israel. Los Angeles. New York. You be the judge of the confusion. We would often have dinner at Bullfeathers with our fellow Democratic freshmen colleagues, Mike Ross and Jim Matheson, and commiserate on the challenges of representing tough Republican leaning districts. Schiff and I initially had a casual relationship, the kind that binds two new members trying to navigate Congress.


But September 11th changed all that. Suddenly, a former state senator from California and a former town councilman from New York had been thrust with our colleagues into a complex and volatile global security arena. We were also concerned that Democrats were viewed by many voters as weak on military issues. Along with Representative David Scott, we formed the Democratic Study Group on National Security Policy. We convened intensive tutorials with thought leaders, including former Senator Sam Nunn on nuclear proliferation, journalist Peter Beinart on terrorism, and even former Speaker Newt Gingrich on why Republicans were viewed as more muscular than Democrats on military issues.

That is when I noticed something about Schiff. He was both cerebral and strategic. He plumbed the depths of an issue, but understood that such proficiency only made him a policy wonk. It was matching the proficiency to an operational strategy that made him effective. We sat next to one another on a House Appropriations Subcommittee and traveled together on codels. He visited my district and I visited his. We even joined the House Blue Dogs as two coastal suburban Jewish guys surrounded by mostly rural conservative Democrats with deep southern drawls.

In 2013, House Republicans, who today complain about the overzealous investigations of President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE, launched their umpteenth investigation of the Obama administration with a select committee “to investigate and report on the attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi.” Many House Democrats suggested that we not legitimize the stacked hearings by participating. I argued that if we had to participate in them, then it should be with someone who could hold his own against Republicans.

Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Senate investigation of insurrection falls short Ocasio-Cortez: 'Old way of politics' influences Manchin's thinking MORE found the perfect person to serve under committee ranking member Elijah Cummings. That person was Schiff. In those hearings, he exhibited political muscle and intellect. He was the potent combination of a former federal prosecutor and an intelligence expert. Observing him was like watching a future baseball Hall of Famer in his rookie year, adjusting his stance and understanding how to connect with the ball. Schiff and I had later joked that his reward for opposing Democratic participation in the committee was being put on the committee.

What people do not know about Schiff is that he does not let his stature marbleize. His sense of humor is at times goofy. He flawlessly recites lines from The Big Lebowski. He invited me to perform a comedy act with him at The Improv in Los Angeles. We were not exactly Abbott and Costello. He will sometimes text jokes from social media, including a few where he is the butt of the joke. His humor is often based on his humility.


I learned firsthand of his growing stature about three years ago, when he and his wife visited my now wife Cara and me. We were strolling through a remote village on the east end of Long Island. He ducked into a bookstore. I noticed, across the street, a man staring at me. I was used to Long Islanders, not exactly shy or retiring, stopping me to ask a question or make a point. “Here we go,” I whispered to Cara as the man rushed towards us. “Excuse me,” he said excitedly, “Is that Adam Schiff?”

Early on, while eating those dinners at Bullfeathers, I doubt that any of us would have predicted that Schiff would be recognized a continent away from his district in California. This is important for my Republican friends to understand. He is not an overnight success. He is not the guy who is propelled by headlines but by fine lines. He cares not for talking points but for footnotes. He has prepared for this historic moment studiously. He is serious but does not take himself too seriously. He fully understands how to take a hit and throw one back. It will not be a violent club to the head but an intellectual jab that still leaves his opponents reeling.

Now, President Trump and many Republicans are on offense. The more potent the threat, the sharper the attack. They must discredit, vilify, and tarnish the brand. They want to “Pelosify” him by spending whatever it takes in a relentless blitz of of name calling. No surprise here. If he were a pushover, they would be plastering his bumper stickers on their cars. Political leaders often find their time. Critical times often find political leaders. In the case of Adam Schiff, he took his time, and did so wisely.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Citizens' Climate Lobby - Deal or no deal? Biden, Capito continue infrastructure talks Antisemitism isn't a partisan issue — it's a crisis both parties must fight together Palestinians must make peace with themselves before peace with Israel will be possible MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.