On Wednesday, July 12, we held our sixth Prospect breakfast, this one featuring the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senator Charles Schumer. The guests included Michael Tomasky, Harold Meyerson, Mark Schmitt, and Robert Dreyfuss from The American Prospect; Jane Mayer, The New Yorker; Walter Shapiro, Salon; Ellen Ratner, Talk Radio News Service; David Grossman, politicstv.com; Zach Roth of Washington Monthly; and Matt Stoller of MyDD.com. A full transcript follows:
Charles Schumer: Excuse my sweating here. I try to exercise every morning; I try not to gain weight. I've given up losing weight. I go over to the House gym, which has proved very helpful to me as head of the DSCC because I talk to all the House members about what's going on in their states. The Senate gym is for old men; it's one of the last places where you can get a medicine ball, the big leather ones? So I stayed in the House gym, where I've been for eighteen years. Now, Chris Dodd has updated the Senate gym, but I stayed in the House gym so I had to rush over here.
What I'd like to do … when I spoke to Michael … and I'm going to set some ground rules here. I am doing a lot of thinking about the longer-term future of the Democratic Party. I had a mentor from Brooklyn, from Canarsie, named Tony Genovese, who was a great man and who died in a car crash about three months before I was elected. I've always regretted he never saw me … but he had a little Zen diagram. And he said, there are four kinds of tasks in life … you know, the plus, minus, plus, minus. And on one scale was “important” and on one was “immediate.” And he said, you always do the important and the immediate things first and you always do the unimportant and non-immediate things last. But the trick in life is to do the important and non-immediate before the immediate and non-important. And all of us, especially in this city, tend to gravitate to the immediate and non-important.
I want to talk about the future of the Democratic Party and where we're going, and why we don't an issues template, a values template. I mean, to sum it up in a nutshell, we all knock George Bush but he won the election on eight words: war in Iraq, cut taxes, no gay marriage. Frankly, those things -- I don't agree with them -- but they're what politics is supposed to be. Specific issues that he took flak on and was willing to make some waves over that were related to a system of values. So that when a voter heard “war in Iraq,” he knew “tough foreign policy, “ “cut taxes” -- “cut government,” “no gay marriage” -- “traditional values.” Well, we Democrats don't have eight words, we don't even have 80 words. Ask any voter what were John Kerry's eight or 80 words in the 2004 election and he wouldn't know. And I don't blame him for that. That's just where we're at. Michael's been pushing the envelope and trying to come up with a new system, and I've been doing some thinking about it, and I frankly don't agree with him on some things. But I'd like to talk about that for a while and I'd like to keep the discussion focused on that. I'm not going to talk about Joe Lieberman, OK? I've said enough. I've said all I'm going to say. And I don't really want to get into the specific races. I do that all the time, once a week or every other week over at DSCC, Rahm and I do, and we answer all those questions, and I'd rather not get into that. Even though it's immediate, it may be less important, so OK.
So here's what I think, and my thinking is evolving, and I think crystallizing and what's forcing me to do it is I'm writing a book about this. And what made me write this book was this: We Democrats … and this is all on the record, right? OK, too bad, I didn't want that. But we Democrats are putting together our system, our little what-do-we-stand-for. Frankly, I think the 2006 election will be 80 percent, 75 percent a referendum on George Bush, and only 20 percent, 25 percent a referendum on what Democrats stand for. It will flip in 2008, where there will be no incumbent and everything will be up for grabs, and I'll get into that in a minute. But in 2006, it's mainly George Bush, and if you want to win the election you want to keep the focus on George Bush, not shift the focus to Democrats. But we do have to stand for things, show people if we get in what we're going to do. It's very hard to do that in a major, groundbreaking way when you try to do it by consensus. If your energy package doesn't include CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards because certain people from Michigan or other states might object … So I was having trouble with this. I said, how do we really break through? I realized that to do it for 2006 is wrong, but the more important epiphany I had … I went back and looked at Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, and the epiphany I had … everybody thinks he did this to take over from the Democrats. He didn't. He was not the minority leader. We all forget that. I was there and I forgot. He was a backbencher, and basically the Contract with America when he put it together was aimed at Bob Michel not at Tom Foley. What really changed things and why they took the House had to do more with a man named Benjamin Ginsberg and how they drew lines so that … For instance, Georgia went from nine Democrats, one Republican -- nine Democrats, one was black -- to eight Republicans, three Democrats -- three Democrats black, eight Republicans white. That's what counted for the majority of seat shifts in 1994. But Gingrich was a backbencher, and he didn't do it by consensus.
And so I decided to write this book. I decided it shouldn't come out before 2006 and create waves and get in the way of winning the election, and I want to win. And I'm doing everything we can to win, that's my motto. We've spent too long not winning, and there's been disastrous consequences for the country, as we have all seen. And so I decided to do it in 2008 and I'm thinking about things and I'm trying… It would too grandiose to say I can lay out the eight words. We're not there yet. But I think I can lead a pathway to the eight words, and that's what I'm trying to do.
So let me tell you where we're at politically, in a broad sense. I think New Deal democracy, which is still the basis for the Democratic Party, is gone. In this sense, not in certain deep-values senses, but in this sense. New Deal democracy, as it evolved, became a conglomeration of groups, and Franklin Roosevelt patched together a coalition that was diverse in many ways, but he did things for each that each of the groups wanted. And as we went past Franklin Roosevelt, it became more so that way. And so the Democratic Party said, “you're an environmentalist? I'll do this for you.” “You're a civil libertarian? I'll do this for you.” “You're a labor-union member? I'll do this for you.” Technology has changed everything. And one thing technology has done is homogenize all of us. The person who lives in rural Nebraska and the person who lives in south Brooklyn buy the same products, see the same things on TV… They're far closer today than they were in 1932 or 1962. And so appealing to groups doesn't quite work. And I think in certain ways it hurts us. On each issue we sort of let the group decide what we want to do, and the group tends to be far over to the left side and it pulls us away from talking to average Americans.
So New Deal democracy just doesn't work anymore, all right? And that's one of the reasons we can't come up with eight words. We can come up with eight words for the environmentalists, and eight words for the ACLU, and eight words for … but it just doesn't carry the day. OK, so New Deal democracy is over; it's been over for a while. I think it's fundamentally one of the reasons we've been the minority party since 1980, because we still cling to the notion. I see it particularly in the House and Senate. But here's the more important point: Reagan Republicanism is also dead. Why? I would say that technology has so dramatically changed our world that it's created a whole different world from the world that existed in 1980.
1980 -- Ronald Reagan came in saying government was fat, tired, and out of control. It was. And here are two lessons in how I learned it. Crime was ripping apart my district, ripping it apart. I had a multi-ethnic district that was working-class and middle-class. I mean, when I first got married, every day I would slide my khakis on over my pajamas, run downstairs -- we couldn't afford a garage -- to see if my car was still there. There was massive car theft and they'd have these guys who would break windows; it was $160 in those days for a windshield and you had to go to work, there was no car … horrible! Not the greatest problem, but when you're living with it, you hate it. We later found out they were hired by a couple of the glaziers in the neighborhood. A very lucrative business. I get to Washington, and who is writing -- no offense, Ellen -- who is writing crime policy in the Democratically-controlled Congress that had been there for 50 years? The ACLU. And the ACLU's view was basically better 1,000 guilty people go free lest you convict one innocent person. Now they wouldn't say it that way, but that's the way it looked to me, and that I think has reality because there's a pendulum here between liberty and security, as there is today. Now the ACLU should be at the table. I don't know what my rating is … I'm sure it's been in the low 90s, high 80s for my career, so I'm hardly anti-civil-libertarian. But it struck me just how out of touch … Don Edwards was chairman of the Crime Subcommittee, a lovely man, former FBI agent, representing Berkeley, and he shared that view. And that's who was writing the legislation.
I was driving out west two years later -- my family goes hiking out west every summer --and we were driving on a road at 8 in the morning, going to Monument Valley from Phoenix. I looked at my speedometer and we were going 95 mph. It was a flat road, not a curve, no mountains -- flat. Uh oh, the speed limit's 55, I'd better get down to 55. And I tried driving at 55 and at least for me, and I think for a lot of people, it was excruciating. So I saw how these western people could say, “Who the hell are these people in Washington? Maybe 55 is needed on the Beltway but why are they telling me that I have to drive at 55?” So that's my western version of the out-of-touchness.
Reagan came in; we deserved to lose. We stopped being democrats -- small “d” -- talking to average people about what affects their lives, and instead had these ideologies. OK, Reagan comes in and basically accomplishes a lot of things that he wanted to accomplish, especially on those type issues -- crime. I spent 10 years trying to get the Democratic Party to move to the middle on crime. When Bill Clinton came in, he got it. Crime is much lower now. One of the things I'm proudest of … crime went down, racism went down because, unfairly, people were always associating blacks with crime. And it was a major, major thing for America. Still is. And the reason New York City's population has grown only from 1990 to 2000 and people can live together in a beautiful place like New York is cause crime went down. It's a great thing. And one of the things I'm proudest of, when I wrote the Crime Bill, a majority of the Black Caucus and a majority of the Republicans voted for it.
But technology has changed all that. The average person, who in 1980 said get government out of my way, feels anxiety. Now, we have to understand something -- the average person, and that's who I aim my book at … I have fictional people in my head. They're Joe and Eileen O'Reilly. They live in Massapequa. They're registered independents. He's an insurance salesman who makes 50,000 bucks a year; she works part-time in the schools, makes 20,000 bucks a year. I know these people; I grew up with these people. And that's my neighborhood, transformed to 2006. And before I do anything, I talk to Joe and Eileen. One of my press secretaries got me into trouble because he told people , oh Schumer has imaginary friends. But I do. I don't agree with Joe and Eileen … Joe and Eileen don't agree with my view on gay marriage, but when I talk about gay marriage, I talk to them. I don't talk to the New York Times editorial board, with all due respect. I talk to Joe and Eileen. And Joe and Eileen O'Reilly are happy with their lives. That's an important thing to understand. When Democrats condescend to them, they hate it. “Oh, you poor person, we will help you.” You know what Joe and Eileen's reaction is when you say that to them? [gesture] “I built my life. I'm proud of that. Don't you tell me that you can help me that way.” With Joe and Eileen, things have changed. Technology has changed, and Joe and Eileen understand in their belly that there are some big forces out there that they need some help dealing with, which they didn't feel in 1980. Terror. They feel terror. And technology has allowed small groups of bad people to strike in our heartland and do things we have never experienced before. They understand that. World economy, broadband, has allowed there to be a one-world labor market where Joe -- not Joe, his job is pretty secure as an insurance salesman -- but their kids are going to have to compete with people in China and India and everywhere else, and they know that. Technology has made people live longer. What do you do? How do you pay for it? Technology's allowed their kids to have access to pornography. Joe would go the candy store and maybe take a quick glance at the dirty magazine section, now his kids can get everything.
Technology has changed the world. And Reagan Republicanism is dead because this idea that government's your enemy -- and you have to cut its hand off every time it moves -- is over. And the good news for us Democrats is we sort of know New Deal democracy is dead. They have no idea that Reagan Republicanism is over, but it's over. It's gone. This is not temporary. And the fundamental thing about Reagan Republicanism, I would say … I mean we got to deal with the security issue, which is a little different … but the fundamental domestic issue -- government should shrink, let everybody do just what they want, get government out of my way -- is over. And that's the opening for the Democratic Party because basically the thing that unites us, from the more liberal to the more conservative, is we believe government should be an active force for good. And so we have to define that. And that is what I'm trying to do.
Now here is the point that I wanted to discuss with Michael, and I haven't read your book, but I've read a lot of reviews and stuff. And that's one of my regrets as a senator -- I don't get to read books. I read a lot of articles and almost no books. And when I go on vacation to decompress I do read books, but I don't want to read books about what I'm doing so I read fiction, I read biographies of people who have nothing to do with my life. Here is the fundamental question that I have that I'd like to discuss, and I'll just open it up. I won't get into specifics. I'm not supposed to anyway because they're going to be in my book. But they're different and they're aimed at making Joe and Eileen … Joe and Eileen, by the way, voted Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Bush. They're your typical swing voter, almost by definition. How do we get them to vote for us? One of the other interesting things you have to understand about Joe and Eileen -- and liberals don't understand this. They don't like what Enron did, but they hate people who burn the flag. I'm against a constitutional amendment, obviously. They hate people who burn the flag more than they hate the head of Enron because the person who burns the flag is saying, “You're not worth anything.” And Enron was an excess of a system they're a part of and proud of.
Anyway, the system in America has basically said, whether it's capitalism or free enterprise, do what's good for you and it will create the greater good. That's been the genius of it. It's been a system that harnesses independent self-interest and channeled it to the greater good. I say to immigrants when they come -- you know I like to swear them in -- when you work hard, you benefit yourself, you benefit your family, but you also benefit America. There are other places where you work hard and you don't benefit anybody, except maybe the guy who hired you. And democracy's the same thing. You read democratic tracts -- people aren't supposed to vote to help somebody else; they're supposed to vote in their own self-interest. And democracy says, when the public can vote, when the public has rights, by defending what they want, it's good for everybody. And from what I understand, one of the strains of thought is that the Democratic Party should switch to a sort of communal view, that we should be helping everybody instead of helping ourselves, and that's the future. And don't see … obviously some of that fits in with your view of human nature, maybe mine's a little more hard-nosed than that. But to me it's a total break from the way we function and the way average people work and think and do. And it might do very well on the West Side of Manhattan, where people have a doorman and people have a lot of money and they're all happy and they feel good. I mean, one of the most astounding times I went through was in the late '60s at Harvard, and it influenced me dramatically. I was against the war; I cut my teeth in the McCarthy campaign, but when the radicals came in, I was appalled. I kept saying to them, “You know, if the war is wrong, why can't we convince other people?” You know, they had all these theories and Marcuse and al that, the public's been brainwashed by the media. I had more faith in the average citizen. You know, they'd go over to police officers, right up to their nose and go PIG, so they would hit him … provoke the police officer. And I would go to them, I would say, “What are you doing? That guy's trying to earn a living.” Those were the people I grew up with, and I lived through a mobocracy. I lived in a mini-French Revolution and it was of the left and it was of well-to-do people, but it influenced me profoundly. The point I'm making, I thought that underneath it all, what was trying to happen then was shifting from a society of self-interest to a society of the greater good, and it didn't work. And the people I met at Harvard in the late '60s were the most unhappy people I ever met, and some of them are still my friends and they haven't been able to put their lives back together. Harvard screwed them up, particularly the guys and gals who came from small towns in the Midwest and South. They couldn't go home but they didn't feel comfortable there. So I'm not sure if this eleemosynary Let's All Work Together for the Common Good can carry a political philosophy and appeal to enough voters to create a majority. I'd like to hear you … I'd like Michael to have five minutes to answer that.
Michael Tomasky: Oh, I'm not going to take five minutes. Can we do this another time?
Schumer: That's what I thought this was going to be. But I'm not going to get my way I guess.
Tomasky: I'm sure that there are plenty of smart people around this table, and they'll have things to say about it. But I'm going to ask about something else that you said. I basically share your analysis of the groups and the whole idea of the ACLU's writing the crime policy and so forth. That was kind of central to my Common Good article because I was kind of talking about what you were talking about, in the context of appealing to a large group of people, appealing to people in terms of what they have in common rather than what separates them. So on that we agree, and my question on that is what is the evidence that the Democratic Party can stop doing that to the extent that it has done it for the past 20 years?
Tomasky: Yes, yes. I see no evidence that this will happen this year, that it will happen with the candidates in 2008, and I'm not asking you to handicap candidates, but how do you see the Democratic Party not saying, “This for the environmentalists, this for that, and this for the other thing?” I don't see it.
Schumer: Let me tell you, I've been thinking a lot about this and the reason I'm saying I don't think the book that I'm writing is hardly going to be a panacea is because I don't think you can do it inductively. We're so much in the woods, we're so much in the wilderness. They're in a worst wilderness. They don't know it and they're in a worst wilderness than us. But I'm talking not about winning the next election, will be based on Lord knows what; I'm talking about … whichever party sets a paradigm to deal with the technological changes in the world and the way people are affected is going to be the majority party for the next 20 years. And in 2008, it's a seminal election; it's going to be up for grabs, totally up for grabs. Not in 2006. All the drumbeat of where's your platform, where's your platform … we have to talk about some things we want to do but it's impossible to get a Democratic platform of eight words. Remember, it took them 50 years, and losing, and it started with Goldwater, it started with Buckley and those guys in the '50s, but with Goldwater they said, we've got to figure this out. That was their stunning revelation. We haven't had that as Democrats. We haven't been routed so badly at any one given time because we tend to represent more people than they do, all things being equal. So we haven't come there.
What I'm trying to do is figure out what Joe and Eileen want. It's not just little things like fix Part D, prescription drugs, but what do they want in a larger sense? And build up inductively. And that is to me the way to it in 2008. And I will lay out 10 or 15 different types of ideas that are not tiny, nor are they grandiose; they're sort of in the middle. And I think that's the only way to get there because I don't think you can … you can't replace something with nothing. And the group thing does have appeal, and I see it every day and now that I'm a part of the Democratic leadership, I see it more so. A group that represents .01% of Americans has senators quaking in their boots. And that's because they're there. You get 1,000 letters from an organized group … I mean, here's a little epiphany I had the other day. I spoke at Hofstra University's graduation, and some guy came over to me, and I'm probably more hawkish than most of the people in this room, and somebody came over to me and started screaming at me, like … you know, it reminded me of the '60s. And I said, “What makes you think … you are so arrogant … what makes you think that you have the right to scream at me? Let's discuss it. I'm certainly open. I like to discuss things. If I didn't like to discuss things I wouldn't be here today. But what makes you scream and yell at me?” I hate that … that he was morally superior. The hard right's much worse than the hard left. But the hard left has a moral elitism that is obnoxious. Some people, not everybody, obviously. So we got nowhere and he wrote about it on his blog. He was a professor at Hofstra. Two weeks ago, ABC came to interview me in front of my apartment [in Brooklyn]. Hofstra's out on Long Island. And actually I was saying stuff condemning the Bush administration about the way … I forget what had just happened … they had had their cut-and-run and the next the day the prime minister and General Casey … I forget what it was about. But anyway, I was on the left side of things, as I usually am. And some guy on a bicycle in a T-shirt, with a beard, comes over and starts, “I'm disrupting this! Stop the war, stop the war, stop the war! You're a killer!” And I said, “You're arrogant. I'll come talk to you later.” “No!” OK? And the nice cameraman went over to him and said, “You're not letting me do my job. I'm getting paid to film him and get the thing back by 6:30. Could you please …” And the guy rode away on his bicycle. And I said, this is something … it's the same guy. He went on his blog and wrote about it. It's just a little microcosm; it's a small number of very vocal people … it was a little epiphany to me. He was very strong in what he felt; he was not apathetic, and God bless him … but it was the same person, and if I hadn't known that I might have thought there were more people mad like this. I think if you analyze who emails us from MoveOn, it's basically the same group. I'm glad they're active. I like them. We get pushed around too much. We don't think of Joe and Eileen. The reason I think of Joe and Eileen is I need a pushback. When you're in the Washington world you need a pushback.
And I don't know. I'm not that hopeful. I think we can win 2008 for short-term reasons, but to build up this whole platform of how you help average Americans in a brave new technological world in a way that appeals to them, I think we're a ways away from it. I do. But I don't think … it's just my instinct that's saying, well, let's all appeal to the greater good. I mean, Joe and Eileen O'Reilly, when they see the pictures of Darfur, they're upset, but it's not going to be the No. 1 thing they vote on.
Ellen Ratner: I was going to ask about the death penalty but I have two other questions. One is … I almost moved my part-time residency out of New York when the New York State Supreme Court came out with their ruling about gay marriage the other day. How do you make that acceptable, or at least civil unions acceptable, to the Democratic Party? And my second question is on the Geneva Conventions. They don't apply to the CIA. Do the Democrats care about that?
Schumer: I say to my friends in the GLBT movement that it's amazing the progress we've made. And the fight over gay marriage, and I believe Americans 2-to-1 are not accepting of gay marriage, has made civil unions acceptable, not just to the majority of New Yorkers but to the majority of Americans if you look at the polls. So I think if you focus on the specifics of equality, it can be accepted, and that would be my preference, and that's why I support civil unions as the way to go rather than talk about the whole large picture, which scares people. In other words, if you quantify and break it down, you can win. And I think that America is ready for civil unions. And I met with the gay leadership here. The Human Rights Campaign and the other groups in this room about six months ago. And I said, instead of focusing … we'll fight the anti-gay marriage amendment obviously -- but instead of focusing on gay marriage, we ought to be focusing on the specifics … 10 ideas … taxes, hospital visits, etc. … and we could win. Because progress is being made. And I think the poison of America is race and racism. You compare the progress that the women's movement or the GLBT movement has made in the last thirty years with the deep, long history of racism … I think I'm much more optimistic about the future. Not being gay and not being a woman, it's easy for me to say, but I think we are making progress and I think we should take that progress … sort of happily.
Ratner: Let me follow up on that. I agree with you but as someone who was on the streets in 1970, I think the anti-gay feeling is worse now.
Schumer: I don't. I think that when you have … this is, again, technology. You have shows on TV about gays. And it reaches rural Nebraska. And I've always felt when people talk to each other directly, it works. It generally works because I think people are good. I don't know [inaudible] I think they're good. In a conceptual sense anyway. But no, I think America is far more understanding. I mean, when was Stonewall? 1969? When Stu McKinney died, I didn't know he was gay. And I was involved because I was friends with this and his family. And it was a great moment when I went to his funeral, which was in Southport … Episcopalian church and they were al these people in pink ties…very old-time Episcopalian service, but at the end the minister said, “now we're going to sing.” And no one knew Stu McKinney was gay. He died in San Francisco. “And now we're going to sing ‘That's What Friends Are For,'” which at that point was sort of the gay anthem. And all these people in their pink ties and green pants gathered hands and swayed as we sang and there wasn't a dry eye in the church. It's progress. It was a wonderful moment.
Robert Dreyfuss: You talked about Joe and Eileen and it seemed like you were mixing apples and oranges when you said they don't like Ken Lay but they don't like flag burners worse, since Ken Lay exists and flag burners don't. But…
Schumer: Two weeks ago, seven flags were burned … it was in all the newspapers.
Dreyfuss: But my question is…
Schumer: I don't think it was a political act. I think it was an act of vandalism.
Dreyfuss: I don't agree with Mike so much about the common good, If I had to choose between the common good and the class struggle, I think I'd go with the class struggle. But you talk about how technology is changing things so much, to the point that old ground rules are out and we have to have new ground rules. We've been through a lot of technological revolutions in the last 150 years. Wouldn't it be safer to argue that rather than the homogenization that you talked about that the gap between the rich and the poor has grown enormously and that a theme about the People versus the Powerful and about the fact that we're not all in a big homogenous common good boat, we're in a boat of…
Schumer: When I said homogenized I meant sort of culturally and the way we think and identify. There's less gap between … people don't identify with groups. They identify with the greater good. Having said that, there are obviously groups in there, and yes, I agree with you. I think what Joe and Eileen sort of understand in their gut -- they're doing pretty well and they're proud of what they've accomplished. But they're not sure their kids can do as well as they did and that bothers them. And it relates to specific things like the high cost of tuition. It used to drive me crazy. I had a bill which became law which allowed middle-class people to deduct tuition. The New York Times editorialized against it -- the money should all go to poor people, they need it more. Someone making $60,000 a year has a very rough time paying for one, let alone two or three college educations and deserves help, in my opinion.
But I would say this. This is again technology … we have to deal with it. And that is why the Bush theory of taxation or Reagan Republicanism is out. Technology has allowed wealth to agglomerate to the top. The No. 1 reason that wealth is agglomerating to the top is not the Bush tax cuts -- they've exacerbated it -- but it's the change, the fundamental change in society. Why? We're an idea society. When an idea can create so much added value, it doesn't spread around. Here's what I mean: When Henry Ford had his great idea, it took a million people to carry that idea forward. You needed people to build the car. You needed people to transport the car. You needed people to sell the car. And Henry Ford, if the value of this thing was $1 billion, probably he had to give away $950 million of that to other people to effectuate his idea. When Bill Gates came up with his great idea, which was more of an idea per se than a thing, much more of an abstract thing than a concrete thing, he only needed about 5,000 or 10,000 people to carry out his idea. So instead of creating a whole bunch of middle class … as profound an idea as Henry Ford's and deserved, at least if you believe in the capitalist system, to gather wealth. But he didn't need too many people to get it out there. So instead of creating a million middle-class people, which Henry Ford did, he created 5,000 low-level millionaires. And this is a real problem. I see it in New York. The financial services industry has shrunk the number of people but it has gone way up in revenues. It's valuable to New York. But the people who the financial services people need to help them have nothing to do with their business. It's more people who work in restaurants and who drive taxis and stuff like that.
And so technology agglomerates wealth to the top, and you know, here's what I think about Joe and Eileen in terms of these ideas. They don't, they never articulate what I said, but they're very smart. And the thing that I found that the public has is a good nose. They don't know all the details but they sort of can tell what's going on in a broader sense and who's leveling with them. Although I would say George Bush duped them. And that's why they picked him; that's why the hard right picked him. I believe that if George Bush were popular, they'd pick George Allen in 2008 because he's George Bush redux … and our guy's giving George Allen a run for his money in Virginia. So I think one of the problems is wealth is agglomerating to the top and I think the middle class does fear that the middle class is shrinking and there's less of a chance for their kids to be middle class. I wouldn't make it into class warfare. Joe and Eileen are glad that people become rich. They're not angry that people become rich. But they sure don't want, now more than 20 years ago, much more, a government that's going to favor those rich over them.
So it's really the way you deal with it, and if you deal with it in a positive way … I have no problem saying, “Joe, Eileen, your school -- Massapequa High School -- ain't as good as it was 30 years ago and you can't afford any more property taxes to make that school better because you're up to your necks but at the same time you know your kids need that school to be better for them to have as good a life as you've had, right? So let's make sure we tax wealthier people and pay for the schools.” And they'll buy that in a minute. On the other hand, if you say, “those evil wealthy people, they're taking all your money, let's get them.” Back off.
Judith Kargbo: Two questions. With William Jefferson's under investigation, does it take away from the values Democrats are trying to set up in 2006? And also, with the recent train bombing attack in India, we see that terrorists have the capability of using our transportation systems against us.
Schumer: You bet…
Kargbo: Coming from New York, are you guys sufficiently prepared for any kind of subway attack? And do you think the Bush administration is doing all it can to support that?
Schumer: First, on the second one. This is an example of where we can win in an easy way. It relates to your question Mr. Dreyfuss, which is, we don't have enough money to protect ourselves at home. This administration has played a game on homeland security, and it takes a long time to break through. It hadn't really become the salient issue it should be, but more bombings and more terrorism and more threats that revealed -- they're sort of in a dialectic, if you will, because they want to reveal these threats to show they're real and you want a strong guy. But every time you reveal the threats it reveals their soft underbelly -- that they're not doing much about it at home. And so I'm putting on the floor this week, the Homeland Security Bill, a bill to increase mass transit funding by $300 million. Homeland security funding to protect the rails by $300 million. And let me give you an example of how bad these guys are. Technology causes terrorism; small groups of bad people can strike us the way they never could before. And that makes Joe and Eileen afraid … not afraid, but … worried is a better word. And if we ignore that worry, if we just say, hey, it's our fault in one way or another, they turn us off. But technology's the answer too. How is it the answer? Well, you talk to scientists, you could develop a smoke detector that's put on every subway car, every subway entrance. You can't do what you do in the airports, it would slow things down to a standstill. But the detector can detect explosives: biological, chemical, and nuclear. Costs about $1 billion dollars to come up with it. This administration won't put in a nickel because they prefer tax cuts for the wealthy. And so put some money in to do the first year of research on that and for patrolling the subway cars and other things. But this is an example, just another example of how this administration doesn't understand the needs of the modern world. When ideologies take over, we tend to lose. Their view is cut taxes above everything else and … I think in 2008 -- I really do believe this -- the “no-tax” part of their eight-word mantra won't have resonance, especially if we Democrats take advantage of it in the right way. So we have to do a whole lot more and I think the average citizen realizes that.
In terms of Jefferson, I don't [think] the average person is affected by it. The basic view of the average person is congressional immunity shouldn't allow you to hide bribe money.
Mark Schmitt: Senator, I want to go back to what you said at the end of your opening comments. I was surprised when you talked about how the old New Deal Democratic model based upon interest groups, based upon aggressive interest groups, is dead. I was surprised at the end of that, you equated that with MoveOn and blogs. And I wonder, isn't there a significant difference between those two models?
Schumer: I didn't intend to equate them.
Schmitt: OK, what's interesting to me, and I want to go back to something you did a lot of work on, one of the problems with that interest group model is that huge issues don't get touched at all.
Schumer: And huge numbers of people don't get touched by it.
Schmitt: So take an issue, for example, like the bankruptcy bill. You did a lot of work on it.
Schmitt: No interest group gave a damn. I worked in the Senate for a long time. That thing passed in … the phone did not …
Schumer: I held it up.
Schmitt: You held it up single-handedly. Now you've got MoveOn, bloggers, all of a sudden got charged up about it, not out of self-interest but because they saw that as part of a kind of common good -- what kind of society do we have? What matters? Do you see some value in the emergence of broad, multi-issue liberal groups that can be as interested in the bankruptcy bill as in abortion rights?
Schumer: The more you can plug people into the system, the better it is. Because frankly, whether it's Democrat or Republican, the only reason interest groups have sway is because there's apathy everywhere else. On the other hand, you look at Joe and Eileen -- they don't have any time or desire, and they don't see it in their self-interest, to read The New York Times every day cover to cover, which I do and probably half the people in this room do. And so they don't know, and it's not in their interest to know, all the details of things that are going on. So getting them involved would be great, but, and it's a good question, will they? Will technology allow Joe and Eileen 20 years from now to be more involved in things that they wouldn't have time to do now because of transaction costs? I don't know; I've got to think about that. Maybe. It's a good point. But I will say this: on the bankruptcy bill they wouldn't because most people don't worry about things that might happen to them unless it's right in front of their face. You know, 9-11 … they worry. It's right there. Even though no one in their family was hurt, a guy down the street was. And I'm sure there was a guy down the street who went bankrupt, but it probably had less sway.
Here's what you have to figure out: Technology allows people to more into governing, but what is their interest in doing so? How do they fit it into their busy day? And does the payback equal … I mean, I would read The New York Times if I were retired; I enjoy it, but you're never going to get people to read the A and B sections the way they read sports section. So it's a good question, but I didn't mean to equate the bloggers … on the war yes. They're way over there and that's been their major thrust, although you can look at polls and maybe they're not. I guess I would stick, just thinking it through preliminarily and I certainly would like to give it more thought, I guess I would stick to the view that the average person isn't going to have much time to digest politics and it's one of the reason you need a paradigm. So the bankruptcy bill would have to fit into a broader paradigm.
Walter Shapiro: Going back to what you were saying about the problems with the Democratic Party, to what extent is the sort of phony language the Democratic media consultants use, to what degree is that part of the problem? I'm thinking about an ad for one of your Senate candidates -- we won't talk about individual races -- it goes something like this: So-and-so is fighting for working families in [state to come]. He's fighting for [state to come]'s seniors. He's fighting, he's a fighting progressive.
Schumer: I don't think that has any effect.
Shapiro: But the fact is that the Democratic consultants, using these words that no American uses, like “working families,” are cluttering the airwaves with ads for the senators you need to elect to get a majority.
Schumer: I have always fought against in our little leadership meetings and everywhere else blank words that mean nothing because the public turns them off. Better health care! The beauty of George Bush's eight words is they were specific policies that related to values. That is a very hard to do; that's like climbing Mount Everest. It's just that they're out of touch. Those words don't work anymore, and furthermore, they screwed it up. They screwed up the war, even though most Americans would agree with a strong foreign policy.
But I don't have any disagreement, I think those words don't work. I think the best ads are when they show the character of the person because that can come through in an ad and the average citizen can understand it and its specifics. The things that work best, what I tell our candidates, are specifics that relate to where you stand as opposed to just saying here's where I stand. So instead of saying, “I'm for working families,” you would say, “I'm for raising the minimum wage,” although that doesn't affect Joe and Eileen.
Jane Mayer: I'm Jane Mayer and I work for The New Yorker magazine.
Schumer: We've met once before.
Mayer: Yes, definitely. And I wanted to follow up on Ellen's question. There were two questions and one didn't get answered. I'm interested in whether or not you see any openings for the Democrats on the issue of civil liberties in the war on terror. I know that Joe and Eileen are worried and they feel threatened by terrorism. At the same time, I'm watching Republican … some of people like Alberto Mora in the Defense Department and McCain and the military establishment are the people who are the standard bearers for civil liberties and the rule of law in this country. Where are the Democrats on it?
Schumer: OK. Joe and Eileen believe in the rule of law; when you say “checks and balances,” it has some resonance with them. When you say “let's go after the people who did these dastardly deeds,” it doesn't. Because Joe and Eileen are very practical people and they realize that s--- happens. If I wasn't on the air, I'd say the word. Sometimes bad things happen when you're doing a good thing. They don't get on their high dudgeon when some bad things happen. But they don't want it covered up and they want it corrected. And I think where Democrats lose out, or some of them, is high dudgeon. “This is the worst thing that ever happened,” and blah blah blah. And not even pay attention that the other side did things worse. That would throw them off. But to say we better correct it, and we ought to find out what went wrong? And they would even have sympathy with the idea that there shouldn't be a fall guy if this is sanctioned policy. But their inclination is to believe that it wasn't sanctioned policy, that what happened was an aberration … let's talk Abu Ghraib -- it was an aberration, someone who did the wrong thing should be punished. We shouldn't be proud of it, but we shouldn't condemn the whole military or the whole system of justice because of that because, as I said, bad things happen when you try to do good things.
Mayer: If we know better, if there was a sanctioned policy … who makes that argument then?
Schumer: But I don't know if there was a sanctioned policy to do … I mean, you can get into the lawyer words, they're not going to get into that. They do not believe that there was a sanctioned policy to do horrible things to people, and you would define what horrible things are.
Ellen Ratner: The Genevas now only apply to the Defense Department not to the CIA.
Schumer: I understand. That's not going to be a Joe and Eileen issue. This is not the first, 10th, or 15th thing on their minds. But when you say we should do something about this and correct it, they say yes. But they wouldn't want someone to be in high dudgeon and take that example and say that's the whole military establishment, that's why you can't fight any wars, that's why we can't defend ourselves. And there's too much of a tone of that with some people who are, justifiably, upset with what happened.
Matt Stoller: Hi, my name is Matt Stoller.
Schumer: I have to make this the last one.
Stoller: Thank you then. I'm a blogger at MyDD.com. First of all, I think it's actually really insightful that you said that people don't think in terms of groups anymore. It does, actually, very much get to one key…
Schumer: By the way, MoveOn has said, “We have to do what we have to do to back up our constituency.” They've said that to me. They do in some ways behave like a group. They say, “We have a constituency and we have to feed them some red meat.” The leaders of MoveOn have said that to me on occasion.
Stoller: OK. I want to talk about Joe and Eileen. I'm going to name a couple of issues and I'm going to speculate as to their political sensibilities. Tell me if I'm wrong. They probably supported the war in Iraq. Eileen probably wasn't as sure but Joe convinced her.
Schumer: They both supported it.
Stoller: They're probably worried about -- these are not voting issues -- but they're probably worried about global warming, maybe they've seen stories about nuclear proliferation, maybe they've seen stories about bird flu, maybe they've seen stories about Sudan, but they're not voting issues.
Schumer: Let me just take that before you continue. All of these things add up, so they understand it's a big world out there. It's much more inter-connected world and things that are far away can hurt us the way they couldn't when they grew up. And that leads to the fact they need somebody helping them with these things. And that somebody has to be the government.
Stoller: So you're saying all of these problems are basically … what you just need to do is distill that into an ideology or some set of statements that Joe and Eileen can understand?
Schumer: They understand, but you have to distill it into certain policies that relate to those things in a clear and easy way, and that's hard to do.
Stoller: I'm going to take issue with the basic frame of what you're talking about, which is how do you know that Joe and Eileen represent average Americans? I'm not saying they don't, I'm saying how do you know?
Schumer: It's an axiom not a postulate. Except I won 71 percent of the vote; I carried the West Side of Manhattan with 90 percent, and I carried Cayuhoga Country, 2-to-1 Republican, with 62 percent. I've been able, in the Congress, to create coalitions -- take the Crime Bill, where the Black Caucus and the Republicans voted for the same thing on an issue that was then one of the most contentious in America. So this is just one person's view and I could be wrong. But I've got to go with my instinct. I've been a politician, an elected official for 32 years, it's worked for me. And I want to share what's worked for me. I'm trying to do this with our candidates. I don't want to talk about our candidates but I tell our candidates to think of their Joe and Eileen.
Stoller: I deeply respect your experiences as a politician. I think that gives you a better window to understand this than any of us, but my question is, is there anything that would make you change your mind on whether Joe and Eileen represent average Americans. There are a lot of demographic changes, but what are you looking at to make sure that the picture you have in your head actually represents what's going on in the country?
Schumer: Joe and Eileen … they're an average family. I've made them the average family since they're fictional. I think they're the average family. Now, I think where my theory might be wrong is maybe you don't aim politics at the average family. But I really do believe they're pretty much the average family. And when that guy was yelling at me from his bicycle, he said, “You don't represent your constituents.” See, that's the kind of arrogance … I said, “Why do you think I know less about my constituents than you do? I don't represent you on this issue, that's for sure. If you want to vote against me, God bless you, that's the system. But my job … I've done a pretty good job at representing my constituents through the years. So what I've thought about is not that Joe and Eileen are not the average folks; they may not be 20 years from now, but I bet their kids will be.
But maybe that's not the way to do this. Maybe deductive reasoning works. I don't think the Republican Party came from the average person. I think they came from a couple of groups, very wealthy greedy people who wanted to keep all their money and keep all their power … you know, the right wing, the royalists. I say the two major … I give a little speech to the DSCC. I say in the late '90s, two groups combined: the theocrats -- those people who believe that … they have deep faith. And what I say to people, whether it's the West or … I respect that faith. I've been in enough inner-city black churches, working-class Catholic parishes, rural Methodist churches, little Jewish temples to think faith is a gift, and I believe that. But the thing these people do is they take their faith and want it to influence our politics. That's un-American. That's what the Founding Fathers took up muskets and put down their plows for. But, I say, they were joined by a far more insidious group, and I call them the economic royalists. And here's how I personify that. They're personified by when Tom DeLay goes back to his country club in the wealthy suburbs of Houston. I've never been there, I say, but I'm sure within five minutes this happens: Someone comes over to him and says, “Tom,” -- he's angry -- “I made my money all by myself. Your government didn't help me. How dare your government take mine from me!” The next five minutes, “Tom, I bought those 10,000 acres in the middle of Texas all by myself with my money. It's my land. How dare your government tell me what I should put in the air, put in the water!” Third one, “Tom, this is my company. I built it with my own hands. Those 12,000 employees work for me. How dare your government tell me who I should hire! If I want to discriminate against blacks or women or gays, if I want to treat them this way or pay them that, that's my business, not your government's.”
So this group started with narrow greed, and over 40 years, in think tanks and everything else, they came up with a philosophy. I think it's a patina of a philosophy, you go a half-inch in … but it sort of works. The Wall Street Journal editorial page. And it's no longer a self-interested theory, if you will -- it is in my judgment -- but to them it's a great theory on how to move America forward.
So maybe you don't start with Joe and Eileen. They didn't. They started with the outliers and worked to the middle, but I don't believe that works ultimately. I think it worked because we were out of touch. Ronald Reagan came at a time when he was needed in a certain sense, even though I didn't agree with him. American government needed that kick in the butt, but I think it's over. So, how do I know they're average folks? It's just instinct, and you can probably … I mean, it's not just raw instinct, I look at a lot of polls and a lot of demographics and a lot of population studies. I love that kind of stuff, I always have. But I could be wrong. And will they be the average family 20 years from now? No, but I follow them as they change.