Chuck Schumer was dealt a weak hand by the 2016 elections. He is the Senate minority leader, not the majority leader, as most thought might happen last fall. And now, he faces several obstacles in a high-stakes game of political pinochle.
After Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democrats were distraught and the media dismissed their prospects. The mood was best captured by a Time magazine headline in February with Schumer on the cover: “Do the Democrats Matter?”
Democrats do matter, but as the opposition party, they must maintain unity. If the incoming president is able to drive a wedge in the opposition party (as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan did in their first terms), Democrats would never establish their footing. It is imperative that Schumer keep his ideologically diverse Democratic conference together.
Also, the ultimate job of a minority leader is to transform the conference into the majority. Yet the electoral table in 2018 looks bleak for Democrats. To reclaim a majority in the Senate, now controlled by 52 Republicans, Democrats need a net gain of three seats. In 2018, Democrats will defend 25 seats and Republicans nine seats. The Democrats’ seats include 10 states Trump carried. Only one Republican incumbent is running in a state Hillary Clinton won.
Schumer must thread the needle: harnessing the resurgent energy from the Democratic base, while not alienating swing voters in Senate races Democrats need to win (Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Montana).
The key is to seize the political high ground, which means the party must be united. When Trump foolishly ignored pushing an infrastructure package, instead driving into a political ditch on the travel ban and pushing an unpopular health care bill, Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi skillfully held Democrats united, while the congressional Republicans splintered.
The Neil Gorsuch nomination to the Supreme Court now becomes a case study for measuring Schumer’s proficiency as minority leader. Pundits bemoan the breakdown of civility in the Senate, with many faulting Schumer for promising a filibuster. That will lead Republicans to change Senate rules to allow court nominees to be confirmed without a filibuster (less than 60 votes), which means Gorsuch will be confirmed.
However, Schumer’s approach achieves three goals.
1. The Democratic base will cheer Senate Democrats for standing up to Trump on Gorsuch.
2. The base’s anger will likely be directed at Senate Republicans for changing the rules, rather than the handful of red-state Democrats voting for Gorsuch.
3. Changing the rules will be on Republican, not Democratic, hands — prescient if Trump becomes a one-termer. In that scenario, a future Democratic president’s nominees to the court will need only 51, not 60, votes to be confirmed.
In the actual game of pinochle, the final bet is made before the cards in the kitty are turned over. Schumer could still win the bet over the long haul.
In February, the question was whether Democrats matter, but in April it is clear Democrats matter in Congress. Schumer, a consummate legislative dealmaker, is under no pressure to come to Trump. Instead, Trump will need Schumer to secure the passage of major legislation, such as on infrastructure and raising the debt limit.
Schumer should expect no applause for gritty achievements. Parades rarely greet a minority leader. To date, Schumer has played a weak hand well, while Republicans have all but frittered away what should have been trump cards.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.