As the recently anointed head of his party’s political-messaging operation, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has been the little voice in Democratic senators’ ear telling them what to say and how to say it. In fact, Schumer has become so prolific in his new role that some are beginning to wonder if Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) still merits his title.
In the ongoing debate over the federal budget, Schumer has been the loudest Democratic voice by far, despite having no formal involvement in the negotiations between the two parties. He has been unrelenting in his badgering of House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), urging him to “abandon the Tea Party” and cut a deal with Democrats ever since 54 Republicans rejected a short-term spending resolution over the objections of GOP leadership. The only alternative, Schumer says, is a government shutdown.
Indeed, Schumer has also been the most outspoken rabble-rouser over the prospect of a government shutdown, or rather, in his view, Republicans’ determination to bring one about. Since House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) released his initial budget proposal for the remainder of the fiscal year, Schumer has not stopped talking about a government shutdown. That was back in early February, long before the budget debate had really started to take shape. Naturally, Schumer’s odd and persistent obsession with a government shutdown has led many to question his motives.
GOP leaders have repeatedly stated their opposition to a government shutdown, and more importantly, their actions have clearly confirmed this position. But Schumer has continued to insist otherwise until only recently. Now he has taken to accusing “extreme elements” within the caucus, namely the Tea Party, of actively pursuing a shutdown to the detriment of a “good and honest man” (Boehner). One Republican source tells National Review Online that it is the Democrats who would like nothing more than to see the government shut down. “It’s practically their only strategy at this point,” the source says. “They refuse to cut spending and they think a shutdown would benefit them politically by turning the public against Republicans.”
These suspicions, harbored by many on the right, were seemingly confirmed on Tuesday by the extraordinarily candid remarks of Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at a conference panel organized by National Journal. Dean said that if he were still head of the DNC, he would be “quietly rooting” for a government shutdown, because of the political damage it would likely inflict on Republicans. “From a partisan point of view, I think it would be the best thing in the world to have a shutdown,” Dean said.
“Unfortunately, [Schumer and Dean’s] comments are not surprising,” says Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action. “The defenders of big government have made perfectly clear they have no intent to cut spending and get our country on the path to prosperity. Rather, their focus is on denigrating conservatives and reelecting President Obama in 2012.”
The public also received an unexpected behind-the-scenes glimpse into Schumer’s operation on Tuesday, when reporters on a conference call overheard the New York Democrat briefing colleagues on how to denigrate conservatives. “I always use the word ‘extreme,’” Schumer said, unaware that the press was listening. “That is what the caucus instructed me to use this week.”
And so they did. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) urged Boehner to “abandon the extreme right wing.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) blamed a “relatively small extreme group of ideologues” for obstructing negotiations. Later that day, Reid dutifully accused GOP leaders of being afraid of their “extreme Tea Party members.”
Schumer has continued to paint the Tea Party as “the only obstacle in the world” to a bipartisan compromise on the budget, insisting that negotiations — which he is not a part of — are making progress, a claim that House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) has dismissed as “far-fetched.” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Schumer was “making up fairy tales trying to derail serious discussions . . . because he believes his party would benefit from a government shutdown.” Schumer has also sought to portray Democrats as the reasonable party, by repeating the false claim that they have met Republicans “half way” on spending cuts, as well as touting an alleged White House offer of $30 billion in spending cuts (that actually would meet the GOP about half way), though Republicans insist they have yet to see such a proposal.
From the perspective of someone tasked with political messaging for his party, Schumer has certainly gone to great lengths to lay the groundwork for a government shutdown — to ensure that if it does happen, Democrats will come out ahead. The strategy is fairly straightforward: Get the word out early and often that Republicans want to shut down the government, and portray “extreme” GOP opposition as the sole impediment to agreement on a reasonable Democratic compromise. In short, make sure the public blames Republicans in the event of a shutdown.
Lawmakers have just a matter of days to reach an agreement before the current CR expires on April 8. At the end of the day, one nagging question remains for Schumer: Could he bear to see all of his hard work go to waste?
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.