“Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has created the most important vacancy on the Supreme Court in our lifetimes.” So says Chuck Schumer, the veteran lawmaker and top Democrat in the U.S. Senate – the body that will be deciding over the next several months whether President Donald Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee will be going to the tailors for a robe fitting.
You won’t find a single progressive or card-carrying Democrat in the country who would take issue with Sen. Schumer’s description. The entire Democratic Party is preparing for a battle royale that may very well determine the ideological balance of America’s highest court for the next three or four decades.
But that’s where the similarities stop. While Democrats from the left to the centre are unified in stopping a conservative ideologue from becoming the next Supreme Court Justice, they differ on the strategy. And Schumer, the consummated political insider who has been immersed in the world of politics since he was first elected to the New York State Assembly in the 1970s at the ripe age of 25, is getting hit hard by a liberal faction that is clearly on the upswing.
Arm twisting and threatening is not a Chuck Schumer trademark. He is far more comfortable cajoling, persuading, and coddling his colleagues in the hope they will eventually see things his way. Yet coddling is not what progressives like soon-to-be-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and the Democratic Socialists of America want from the most powerful Democrat in the country. What they want and indeed expect from the nominal leader of the Democratic Party is full blown obstruction and confrontation. Anything less than Schumer using all of his political power to block the second-coming of Clarence Thomas from entering the Supreme Court chamber is a capitulation. As one told the Washington Post, “We need a person who will physically put their body on the tracks. This decorum and civility — we don’t have the luxury for that.” Said another: “It really is essential that senators stick together and ultimately that is Sen. Schumer’s responsibility as minority leader…”
Liberal circles have never been a big fan of the New York pol. I can still recall a conversation I had with one a few months back with one who was incredulous that Schumer didn’t do more to whip Senate Democrats against Mike Pompeo’s nomination at State and Gina Haspel’s at the CIA. Several moderate Democrats votes to confirm both despite the vast majority of the party voting “nay.” Younger progressives in particular generally regard him as too cautious, too establishment, too out-of-tough with the changing dynamics within the party happening at the ground-level.
Yet what all of these activists and bleeding-hearts forget or choose to ignore is that Schumer is responsible for the entire Democratic caucus. That means giving Democrats in Trump country like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp the freedom to vote the way they need to vote based on the demographics and political realities of their state. Screaming at the top of your lungs and playing hardball against Trump definitely works in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley; it doesn’t work particularly well in the farming communities of Indiana or in the Rust Belt.
So give Chuck Schumer a break. He is in an unenviable position. Any tactic he endorses will anger some constituency, somewhere. Schumer’s job is to navigate the Supreme Court waters and come out the other end with as little damage to the party’s chances this fall as possible.
If that doesn’t sound glamorous, that’s because it isn’t. But this is the unavoidable reality – and unlike many activists who shoot for the stars, Schumer deals is a pragmatist at heart.