The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schumer: Time for ‘robust defense of government’

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) laid out Thursday a five-point set of issues that Democrats need to focus on in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections, from college affordability to increased spending on infrastructure projects.

In the effort to win over middle-class voters, Schumer said Democrats could mount a strong defense of the vital role of the federal government that would contrast with “tea party elites” that have blamed government for the slow economic recovery.

“The times are ripe for a renewed and robust defense of government,” Schumer said in an hour-long speech before liberal activists at the Center for American Progress. He predicted that the issue of the troubled early stages of the Affordable Care Act would be “less important in determining who wins these elections” than the income-inequality issue that has become a focus of President Obama and some senior Republicans.

Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in Senate leadership, gave a detailed account of the issues that Democrats should focus on, but in most instances he acknowledged that congressional Democrats and the White House had not yet agreed upon a detailed legislative policy. His agenda would focus on: increasing the minimum wage; making college more affordable; infrastructure projects; equal pay for women; and imposing penalties on global competitors for unfair trade practices.

Among those five issues, the minimum wage hike is the only one that currently has been drafted into detailed legislative text and is supported by Obama and congressional leadership. The legislation was offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the top Democrats on the respective committees overseeing labor issues.

The speech came in advance of Obama’s state-of-the-union address at the Capitol on Tuesday night, when the president will lay out his own agenda for the year ahead after a frustrating 12 months for Democrats in which a host of initiatives – from gun control to an immigration overhaul – stalled amid GOP objections.

Schumer’s speech also included a critique of how Democrats at times played into the hands of tea party activists and made decisions that were then portrayed as big government actions that voters didn’t recognize as critical. In particular, he said, pushing the ACA in 2009 and 2010 during a time of high unemployment and sagging wages was well-intended but did not match the needs of most voters at the time.

“It was a worthy goal, but it wasn’t at the top of most Americans’ to-do lists. It’s not that they were against reforming our health-care system, but for 90 percent who had employer sponsored healthcare or government health care [Medicare or Medicaid], it seemed beside the point,” he said.

Looking at the year ahead, Schumer said it was imperative that Democrats find “a few specific, popular issues” that will be easy for the public to understand, as opposed to devoting the entire year to defending the complicated health law.

“The issues should be apparent and intuitive,” he said. “Trying to explain a complicated or abstract government program will not break the hold the tea party’s generalized ideology has on its sympathizers.”