Updated at 7:02 p.m.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate's third-ranking Democrat, slammed his party Tuesday for pursuing health-care reform in 2009 and 2010, arguing that Democrats hurt themselves politically by not focusing instead on policies aimed at helping a "broader swath" of middle-class Americans.
"After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus. 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, who voted for the health-care law and has championed it, suggested that he voiced similar concerns to colleagues back when the law was being crafted but was overruled by others who saw the moment as the best possible chance to reshape the nation's health-care system.
"We should have done it. We just shouldn't have done it first," he said of what is considered by many Democrats to be President Obama's signature accomplishment.
Schumer made his remarks during a speech at the National Press Club that served as a sharp critique of his party in the wake of a disastrous midterm election in which Republicans swept into the Senate majority and padded their House advantage.
Some Democrats took issue with Schumer's remarks on health-care.
"We come here to do a job, not keep a job. There are more than 14 million reasons why that's wrong," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told CNN in a statement.
Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman for Obama, put it this way on Twitter:
Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter, tweeted: "Funny, I don't remember Chuck Schumer giving that advice when he was privately and publicly championing the Affordable Care Act in 2010." He urged fellow former presidential speechwriter Jon Lovett to weigh in on Schumer’s remarks as well, saying the comments represented “the worst instincts of the Democratic Party in action.”
Others came to Schumer's defense, if carefully. In a statement, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said, "I agree with Chuck that the ACA was essential as our health care system was unjust and spinning out of control. I also agree that if we could have done more infrastructure first it would have connected more with working Americans, and our sales job was less than stellar."
In his speech, Schumer suggested that Democrats must return to an argument that government can improve everyday Americans' economic outlook to win in 2016. That argument was diminished in recent years by federal government blunders and misplaced policy priorities, he said.
The VA scandal, Ebola concerns and the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border coupled with a weak message on jobs and increasing middle-class incomes fueled Democratic woes in the midterms, Schumer argued.
"Democrats lost in 2014 because the government made mistakes that eroded the electorate's confidence in its ability to improve the lives of the middle class," he said.
For Democrats, winning in 2016 will depend upon emphasizing how government can help middle-class Americans and contrasting that view with Republicans, Schumer suggested. Then they can move toward passing legislation on that front.
"That two-step strategy must become our blueprint – indeed it should unite Democrats from Elizabeth Warren to Hillary Clinton to Joe Manchin," Schumer said.
Even as he made a fresh pitch for Democrats to remake themselves ahead of 2016, Schumer could not escape questions about whether he should absorb some of the blame for Democratic failures at the ballot box. As Democratic Policy and Communications Committee chairman, Schumer helped design the "Fair Shot for Everyone" agenda Senate Democrats touted this year, which included a call for a minimum wage increase.
Asked by a reporter whether he could pinpoint any errors in the plan or the way it was rolled out, Schumer responded by pointing to the passage of minimum wage increases in red states as evidence that the platform worked and must be expanded.
"It just has to be bigger, broader, more prominent and more across the whole Democratic Party," he concluded.