WASHINGTON – The Democrats’ main message man in the Senate they just lost said Tuesday that this happened because government temporarily wasn’t working – and that the party made a mistake in 2010 by passing health care legislation so quickly.
In a speech at the National Press Club in which he urged the party to reclaim its focus on the middle class, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said a series of missteps – from the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” to ineptitude at the Department of Veterans Affairs to the first response to the Ebola crisis – soured voters on Democrats.
“Democrats lost in 2014 because the government made mistakes that eroded the electorate’s confidence in its ability to improve the lives of those in the middle class,” said Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, where he is in charge of the party’s messaging. “But that same underlying expectation that government should help make life easier for the middle class is as strong as it’s ever been, setting the stage for a Democratic victory in 2016 if, and only if, we can convince people that government can work and help restore the middle class to prosperity.”
Schumer said Democrats focused too strongly on passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 rather than further addressing the nation’s economic concerns after passing an inadequate stimulus bill a year earlier.
“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus,” said Schumer, who has represented New York in the Senate since 1999. “But 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.”
Schumer’s diagnosis of the party’s problems met with an angry response from former aides to President Obama, who focused congressional energy on passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009-10.
Schumer said he privately made his feelings known about the dangers of passing health care legislation in 2009-10, but former Obama chief speechwriter Jon Favreau tweeted: “Funny, I don’t remember Chuck Schumer giving that advice when he was privately and publicly championing the Affordable Care Act in 2010.”
Former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor was even more blunt about Schumer’s 45-minute speech.
“Shorter Chuck Schumer – I wish Obama cared more about helping Democrats than sick people,” Vietor tweeted.
Meanwhile, Dan Pfeiffer, currently senior adviser to the president for strategy and communications, said: “The broader point is Obama ran to solve long-festering, politically hard problems that others shy away from.”
Schumer’s comments, nearly five years after the March 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act and a year after upward of 10 million previously uninsured people got health coverage under the law, appear to be among the harshest self-critiques yet from any Democrat in the wake of the party’s loss of Senate control in the November elections.
Yet they are hardly unique. Like Schumer, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has long criticized the 2009 stimulus bill as inadequate and not properly focused on infrastructure improvements. Asked about Schumer’s comments Tuesday, Higgins said the senator was right on many counts, even though the Affordable Care Act is turning out to be a success.
“He’s right that Congress has not been focusing on creating jobs,” Higgins said.
Schumer stressed that he still supports Obamacare, even though its passage came at the wrong time. “I think it’s a good bill,” he said. “It’s having a good effect. But it should have come later.”
Asked if his speech could be seen as a criticism of Obama, Schumer said it was not. Instead, he said, the party simply failed to double down on its message of helping middle-class voters and enacting policies that help them.
While Schumer’s public criticism of the passage of Obamacare was new, his remarks were also an update of a message he has been delivering at least since the publication of his 2007 book, “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time.”
“The most salient factor in our political economy is that, for the first time in American history, middle-class incomes have been in decline for over a decade and the grand optimism of America and the American Dream itself is in jeopardy,” Schumer said in his Press Club speech.
Democrats must design their priorities around that reality, Schumer said in the speech, which did not include specific policy proposals. He said he would unveil those later.
“We must ask ourselves, does this policy directly benefit middle-class families in an immediate and tangible way?” he said. “Will the policy help increase their incomes or lower their expenses in a meaningful way? If we are to fulfill our pact with the middle class, we must articulate policies that will make their lifestyle more affordable. Period.”
While focusing squarely on the middle class in his remarks, Schumer also included echoes of the growing strain of progressivism in the Democratic Party, which has been more typically represented by figures such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“To borrow President Clinton’s phrasing, ‘We must first prove that the era of big corporate influence over government is over,’ ” he said. “Big business, big banks, big oil – they may be allowed a seat at the table, but right now Americans feel that big special interests are buying the whole room and renting it out for profit.”
Schumer said that message, combined with the right policies, would provide a potent message for the 2016 Democratic nominee for president – whom, he said, should be former Secretary of State and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “She’s just right for the times,” said Schumer, who told The Buffalo News after the speech that he had not discussed his remarks with Clinton or anyone in her inner circle.
While Schumer predicted that Clinton will win in 2016, he also acknowledged that the decline in middle-class incomes over the last decade has produced a fickle electorate that elected a Democratic president in 2008, a Republican House two years later, a second term for Democrat Obama in 2012 and a Republican Senate this year.
“Each time a party appears to be in charge but is unable to convince the public they have the solution for easing middle-class decline, the electorate picks the other party – creating a sort of electoral whiplash,” he said.
Schumer’s comments appeared to catch Republicans as well as Democrats off-guard. The Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment, and Rep. Chris Collins – a Clarence Republican who is among Obamacare’s fiercest critics – declined to comment.
It’s clear, though, that Schumer’s analysis runs counter to the GOP’s analysis of its big election victory. In a memo earlier this month, the Republican National Committee attributed its success in 2014 not only to Obama’s unpopularity, but also to the GOP’s small-government message and the campaign the party waged.
“It took the right candidates, the right offensive strategy, superior data, successful fundraising, minority engagement, and a host of other factors to turn the president’s unpopularity into a winning year for Republicans,” the RNC said.
Schumer said the economic decline of the middle class is much more than a political problem for the Democratic Party.
“While many may not know it, the nation is on the edge of a crisis,” he said. “If we have another 10 years of middle-class decline, we will have a fundamentally different country … a sour, angry country where people of different backgrounds, races and economic levels no longer get along; with a government that few of us, left or right, will like.”