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Schumer embraces progressive economics, as Democrats lay out agenda

BERRYVILLE, Va. — Congressional Democrats Monday began outlining a new agenda for the Trump era, and it showed the nation's most powerful Democrat — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer — embracing progressive economics first and foremost over the middle-of-the-road appeals he once favored.

A decade after writing a book in which Schumer suggested that Democrats reduce illegal immigration and abortion by 50 percent, such social issues were missing entirely from the plan Schumer and other top Democrats unveiled at a sun-splashed event in this Shenandoah Valley town of about 3,000.

Instead, Schumer joined House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and several other top Democrats to release the early planks of a progressive economic plan called "A Better Deal."

The new Democratic agenda called for a $15 minimum wage, a crackdown on the high cost of prescription drugs, a new effort to prevent corporations from becoming too big and powerful, and new government jobs and infrastructure programs.

Asked about the plan's lack of moderate provisions on social issues such as the ones in his book, Schumer indicated that the new Democratic document is a sign of the times.

"We have focused on economic issues," he said. "We think that is what the American people are most yearning about. That doesn't mean we won't in future months discuss other issues, but the focus starts on economic issues. That's where the American people are hurting."

Pelosi said that Democrats are giving the people what they want: a focus on economics. "This has been a product of listening and listening and listening to the American people," she said.

Schumer, who has traveled to every one of New York's counties for years, has long done plenty of listening. Schumer's 2007 book "Positively American" was based on ideas he thought would appeal to Joe and Eileen Bailey, an imaginary middle-class couple from Nassau County.

The Baileys felt squeezed economically, and the Democratic Party had best appeal to people like them, Schumer wrote at the time. "Today, the Baileys are looking for support and solutions in a way that they weren't 25, or even 10, years ago," he wrote. "For the first time in years, government is back in style."

But the government Schumer advocated back then would not focus on a dramatically higher minimum wage or greater antitrust enforcement or a stronger focus on apprenticeships as a job development tool, as the plan Democrats unveiled Monday did.

Instead, Schumer outlined a series of "50 percent solutions." Democrats should push to increase math and reading scores and the number of college graduates by 50 percent. They should push to cut illegal immigration by 50 percent while increasing legal immigration by 50 percent. They should work to reduce tax evasion, abortions and access to internet pornography by 50 percent.

Such proposals would appeal to the Baileys, Schumer said. "They fear a society that ignores the morals they depend on," he wrote.

Democratic politicians today — such as Warren, the populist who's warned about corporate consolidation for years — concentrate their efforts on progressive economics rather than cultural issues.

While latching on to some of Warren's ideas Monday, Schumer defended his thesis of a decade ago.

"First I'll tell you the good news and bad news about my book," he said, beginning with a book review from a review of "Positively American" from a former Republican speaker of the House. "The good news is that Newt Gingrich of all people said if Democrats followed Schumer's book they'd be the majority party for a generation. The bad news about my book is that Democrats didn't follow it, no one bought it and I have plenty of free copies."

That's not the first time Schumer has indicated his own party had gone astray. In an interview about the new Democratic agenda with the Washington Post last weekend, he appeared to take a veiled shot at Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.

“When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things — Comey, Russia — you blame yourself,” Schumer told the Post. “So what did we do wrong? People didn’t know what we stood for, just that we were against Trump. And still believe that.”

A top Democratic aide elaborated on that comment Monday, saying: "Trump was talking about people, and we were talking about Trump."

And as far back as 2014, when Democrats lost control of the Senate, Schumer 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."

Democrats would have been better off focusing on economic issues, Schumer said at the time in a National Press Club appearance where he made a statement that would have fit right into his speech in rural Virginia Monday.

"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," he said.

Schumer has talked that way increasingly in recent years, but Clinton, in her 2016 campaign, did not. The Wesleyan Media Project found that only 25 percent of her television ads focused on policy, whereas all the other presidential candidates since 2000 had devoted at least 40 percent of their ad time to policy. Most of Clinton's ads attacked Trump.

Schumer's office joined forces with Pelosi's in recent months to craft the party's new slogan and agenda, which includes some hardy Democratic perennials from the party's 2016 platform, such as a higher minimum wage, along with a newly bold efforts aimed at curbing corporate influence.

Republicans dismissed the opposition party's new agenda as newly microwaved leftovers from last year.

“Democrats are so exhausted of new ideas that Schumer and Pelosi have stooped to cherry-picking ones from Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign and calling them their own," said Scott Sloofman, press secretary for America Rising PAC, a GOP political committee. "Voters will see through this though. Just as they rejected Hillary Clinton last year, they’ll reject Clinton’s ideas coming from Schumer and Pelosi today.”

Democrats appeared to be uniting around their economic agenda. Several lawmakers considered to be more moderate than Warren, such as Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, attended Monday's event.

Schumer said the new Democratic policy agenda should have a broad appeal with the electorate as well.

In his speech in rural Virginia, in a county that Trump won by nearly 20 points, Schumer acknowledged that there's been a debate among Democrats about whether they should appeal to blue-collar voters in such places or on the diverse coalition that supported former President Barack Obama.

The party doesn't have to choose one of those two paths, he said.

"The vision we’re laying out unites both coalitions and unifies the Democratic Party," he said. "It will have a larger stronger appeal to Americans of all economic levels and all political stripes. It will appeal to the young woman who just graduated from college in Los Angeles, the factory worker in Akron who’s now only making $11 an hour, and the single mom in Buffalo cleaning toilets on minimum wage."

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