Schumer Deserves More Credit

The shutdown fight revealed his strength.

Nancy Pelosi’s critics did the honorable thing last week after the House Speaker emasculated the president. They said they were wrong about her, that she had risen to the occasion, and that she’s precisely the leader the Democrats need. That’s good. I want to enlarge that praise to include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

If there were doubts about Pelosi, there was fear about Schumer caving for the benefit of his neoliberal overlords. (I kid, mostly.) Yet throughout the shutdown fight, not once did Schumer budge from the party’s demand that Donald Trump reopen the government before a deal could be made on border security. Schumer railed against Trump, calling demands for a wall nothing short of a hostage taking. Those efforts paid off. The Democrats exposed his weakness, and will continue to expose it.

Schumer flexed more muscle Tuesday when he told Trump to butt out of negotiations. He hinted that a president billing himself as a master deal-maker is terrible at deal-making. "When the president stays out of the negotiations, we almost always succeed. When he mixes in, it's a formula for failure," he said, according to the Washington Examiner. "So I'd ask President Trump, let Congress deal with it on its own.”

Part of me wonders if Schumer’s critics are duped by appearances. Schumer and Trump are New Yorkers. They talk like New Yorkers. Yet while Trump stomps around, Schumer calculates trade-offs. He cares about appearances, obviously, all politicians do. But he’s too smart to believe appearances are all that matter. Results matter more. Comparing the two men gives the impression of one being weaker than the other. That’s true, but it’s other way around. Schumer is stronger than Trump.

Consider that Schumer knows how to bargain even from a position of weakness. During the last shutdown fight, the Democrats had very little leverage. To get protections for Dreamers (children brought to the US illegally by their immigrant parents), they threatened to shut down the government. They tried to generate leverage by enticing Trump with billions for border security (though not a wall). Trump called their bluff. Schumer and the Democrats surrendered within a day.

Trump does not know how to bargain from a position of weakness, because he does not permit himself to believe he’s ever bargaining from a position of weakness. After the midterm wave election, Schumer told him that elections have consequences. It’s time to play ball, Mr. President. Trump said no. The economy is good. I still have all the cards. He did not bother even to offer enticements. There is no negotiating with a man who deludes himself. All you can do is smash him. The Democrats did.

Being a transactional creature means being vulnerable to ideologues. CIA Director Gina Haspel was associated with George W. Bush’s torture program. After the Senate confirmed her, critics said Schumer got rolled. Before the midterms, as Mitch McConnell larded the judiciary with mirror-fogging apparatchiks, Schumer agreed to fast-track 15 nominees in exchange for time for Democratic senators to campaign. Critics raged. One said: “It is hard to think of a more pathetic surrender.”

I get that, but life is complex.

Perhaps Haspel should be tried for war crimes. For now, she’s no fool. By simply doing her job, she’s wedging the president between his magical thinking and stone-cold empirical reality. In Senate testimony Tuesday, she and Direction of National Intelligence Dan Coats flatly contradicted Trump’s claims on pretty much everything. They said North Korea is still a nuclear threat, that Tehran is honoring the US-Iran deal, and that Russia continues to threaten western democracies. They did not do something important to Trump. They did not say the border is an emergency.

Then there’s this:

As for judges, well, that’s complex, too.

I have no doubt installing mirror-fogging apparatchiks to the bench is a bad thing. But even mirror-fogging apparatchiks can sense a change in political winds. In the Obama era, a federal judge in Texas ruled that expanding DACA to include the parents of kids protected from deportation was unconstitutional. In the Trump era, that same judge ruled that DACA can’t be cancelled overnight. I don’t know if Andrew Hanen was dumbstruck by Trump’s sadism, or if he’s splitting hairs. But I can’t help thinking his second ruling was inspired by compassion and by fear that Trump has gone too far.

Watch this video, if you can, to see what I mean by sadism.

You could say none of that matters. What matters is Schumer failed! He should have stopped Gina Haspel! He should have stopped Mitch McConnell! OK, I get that. So he should have. Instead, he calculated political trade-offs. Those were distasteful. But things aren’t as bad as Schumer’s critics said they would be. Not yet, anyway.

When Pelosi, Schumer and the Democrats didn’t have the advantage, they made the best of bad situations even if the best wasn’t all that good. C'est la vie. When they had the advantage, as they did during the shutdown, they struck, and they struck hard.

Nancy Pelosi deserves credit for that.

So does Chuck Schumer.

—John Stoehr


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