WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the Democratic nomination and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is the new leader of the Senate Democrats. But the Vermont senator’s vision and ideas will dominate the Democratic Party’s attempt to recover from Hillary Clinton’s ruinous White House run.
Schumer will be the person who crafts and leads the strategy, but in sitting down to explain it to The Huffington Post on Friday, he revealed how much of it comes from Sanders, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“When you lose an election the way we did, you don’t flinch, you don’t look away. You look it in the eye and say ‘What did we do wrong?’” said Schumer, who also had a significant role in Democrats’ 2016 calculations. “To me, overwhelmingly, we did not have a strong economic message. What we need is a sharper, bolder, stronger, more progressive economic message.”
Schumer explained that includes staples from the Sanders and Warren wing of the party ― debt-free college, at least some of the free college that was so mocked by the Clinton campaign, a higher minimum wage, a “bolder” stance on trade, a tougher stance on the “rigged” system of lobbyists and special interests, and major investments in infrastructure, among other ideas.
Some are initiatives that Schumer has long embraced, but others — and especially the language used to describe them ― are the sorts of things progressives have heard from Sanders and Warren for years.
“On economic issues in particular, a strong, bold economic message wins,” Schumer said. “Bernie and I think alike on these issues and always have,” he said, adding that Warren and Sanders both backed him when he first announced his intent to replace retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Schumer has even embraced Sanders’ choice to head up the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
“Bernie convinced me of this. Bernie asked me to do it, to organize it,” Schumer said, adding that he agrees with Sanders’ idea that the DNC needs to become more of an activist and organizing operation.
“So when we’re pushing for a strong college bill on the floor, there are hundreds of thousands of people on campuses across the country emailing, and tweeting and calling and protesting. And when we do minimum wage, there should be minimum wage workers all over the country pushing for that,” Schumer said. “That’s what Bernie wants to do with the DNC, and I completely agree.”
“Bernie makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways.”
It’s almost as if Schumer thinks Sanders would have been the better candidate against President-elect Donald Trump, but he was not willing to say so.
“I’m not going to point fingers looking back. I think that is divisive,” he said. “But Bernie makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways.”
Schumer is aware that many progressives do not see in him as the type of champion they adore in Sanders and Warren. He is, after all, a senator whose constituents include many of those system-riggers on Wall Street — people who have been Schumer’s top donors for decades. To name a couple, they are people like John Paulson and Carl Icahn, both of whom were major Trump backers and have supported Schumer in the past. Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made billions from the collapse of the housing market, was a major fundraiser for Schumer.
So Schumer knows he has to thread a needle in both protecting and containing a dominant industry in his state, and convincing liberals. He can point to the support of Sanders and Warren, who credit Schumer with advancing several of their interests.
“I don’t attack Wall Street just for the sake of attacking it,” Schumer said. “But whenever there’s a challenge, I go after them. I was one of the leaders — Elizabeth Warren — Prof. Warren — called me and Dick Durbin up [after the housing bubble collapsed] and said we need a [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau]. I got it into the Dodd-Frank bill. I pushed the Dodd-Frank bill. And I have said repeatedly, and I say it as leader, they will not repeal it. They will not get 60 votes for any part of repeal of Dodd-Frank.”
Dodd-Frank also included numerous reforms to the banking industry. Republicans have pledged to do away with it, and most of Wall Street agrees.
“The number of people on Wall Street who are mad at me and don’t do donations exceeds the number who do,” said Schumer, noting that bankers and investors are also liberal New Yorkers. “A lot of these people support choice, support environment.”
Paulson is “one of the biggest environmentalists around,” Schumer said. “He’s a bird watcher.”
Regardless of progressive distrust of Schumer, he has long made it his mantra to focus on the needs of the middle class. And for him, the successes of both Sanders and Trump with disaffected white voters tells him he needs to address them more clearly. And the fact that the economic messages of Sanders and Warren from the left resonated better with them than the cautious pronouncements of Clinton tells him the progressive message is actually the one that speaks to the broader audience.
“There’s this debate ― do we appeal to the Obama constituency or the blue collar constituency? A bold, strong, progressive economic message that focuses on the rigged system and what we’re going to do when we change it, will appeal to both groups,” Schumer said.
“The beauty of that message is it unites Democrats.”
Unknown, though, is whether liberals will buy in.
In Schumer’s office is a photograph of Ebbets Field, taken on the last day the Brooklyn Dodgers played there before betraying the borough for the West Coast. In that picture can be seen one of the most famous baseball billboards of the day — a 3-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide advertisement for Brooklyn politician and tailor Abe Stark.
“Hit Sign, Win Suit,” it says. Schumer agreed it was brilliant because — unlike a much larger version that it replaced — it was a great promise that delivered almost no suits.
HuffPost asked Schumer if liberals would regard his newly bold and progressive agenda as something akin to Abe Stark’s sign offering something to swing for, but never hit.
Schumer certainly knew there would be some who feel that way. But he felt that more than words, he could offer deeds.
“Wait and see,” he said.