Politics & Policy

Chuck Schumer’s Uncompassionate Liberalism

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The New York senator all but declared that winning elections trumps helping the truly needy.

At a time when Ferguson, Mo., has been under siege, the president unilaterally brought millions of illegal immigrants “out of the shadows,” the so-called Islamic State beheaded another American, an architect of Obamacare admitted that the law was conceived and birthed in deception, and the secretary of defense was unceremoniously dumped, it’s no wonder that a speech by Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) — the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — didn’t get the coverage it deserved.

But for political junkies, Schumer’s speech at the National Press Club is a marvel to behold. It is at once one of the most impressive acts of political truth-telling from a major politician in our lifetimes and a sophomoric explication of political philosophy. Let’s start there. “Democrats must embrace government. It’s what we believe in; it’s what unites our party,” Schumer explained. “If we run away from government, downplay it, or act as if we are embarrassed by its role, people won’t vote for our pale version of the Republican view.”

Somewhere, a straw man’s ears are burning. Barack Obama is the most pro-government president since FDR and Woodrow Wilson. Throughout his presidency so far, to the cheers of the news media, he has passionately made the case for the state as the cure for whatever ails us.

His greatest hits are familiar to anyone who has paid attention. From “you didn’t build that” to “government is us,” Obama has cast government as the engine of progress. His 2012 campaign’s “Life of Julia” ad was a tech-friendly updating of Wilson’s progressive vision of getting the individual to “marry his interests to the state.” Obama laid out that vision in great detail in his second inaugural and countless other speeches. More important, he has pushed policies — from Obamacare to tax hikes — to back up his rhetoric.

In Schumer’s telling, however, the Democrats must “embrace government.” What movie was he watching? This is the essence of ideological liberalism: Government is always the answer. It would be fun to see Schumer as a contestant on Jeopardy responding to every category, “What is proof we need more government?”

Because liberals lack philosophical diversity on the role of government, all they have left to disagree about is tactics. And that’s where Schumer’s speech is a breath of fresh air. The senator has no principled objection to a government takeover of health care; what he objects to now is the timing. Back in 2009–10, he was a vocal champion of the law.

Last week, he said, “Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem — health-care reform.”

The senator said he still favors Obamacare’s goals, but “it wasn’t the change we were hired to make.” Voters wanted Obama and his party to fix the economy. Indeed, in a remarkable moment of honest cynicism, Schumer went into great detail lamenting how the law was designed to help mostly poor people who for the most part don’t vote.

Morally, this is a fascinating admission. In Schumer’s hierarchy of needs, winning elections for Democrats matters more than helping the truly needy. Call it uncompassionate liberalism.

The great irony here is that Schumer is widely seen as a blocking tackle for Hillary Clinton, whose path to the presidency depends on her ability to distance herself from the president and a politically disastrous law. The hope seems to be that Schumer’s broadside against the tactical failures of the Obama administration will create space for Clinton to criticize her former boss’s stewardship while still embracing the unquestioned primacy of liberal-run government over everything.

The irony is that Clinton’s appeal is that she will reincarnate the alleged successes of her husband’s presidency. The hitch: Bill Clinton’s governing style didn’t exactly jibe with the philosophy of Obama, Schumer, or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. It did, briefly, after he was elected and Hillary Clinton pushed an earlier version of Obamacare known back then as “Hillarycare.”

After losing Congress in the wake of Hillarycare’s wreckage, Clinton instead admitted he had moved too far left and subsequently embraced welfare reform and banking deregulation and proclaimed “the era of big government is over.”

And that, for Schumer, Obama, and Hillary Clinton’s party, is nothing less than heresy.

— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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