President-elect Donald Trump gets all the headlines. And the few Trump doesn't get go to House Speaker Paul Ryan. But, for true connoisseurs of Washington politics, it's a third man — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- who is the one to watch as the 115th Congress kicks into gear.
Schumer is a man who now has a job he's always wanted — even if it's not the one he expected to have a few months ago. He has finally ascended to the top of the heap among Senate Democrats — his long-expected showdown against Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for leader wound up ending like the most recent Ronda Rousey fight (Durbin was Rousey). But, contrary to most expectations, Democrats not only remain in the minority in the Senate — the party picked up two seats in 2016 but remain three seats short of majority control — and Trump, not Hillary Clinton is in the White House.
That setup alone is enough to make Schumer intriguing. He will be, for the foreseeable future, the face of the Democratic Party — in Washington and perhaps nationally as well. (Democrats are very leery of making House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even more high profile given the negative poll numbers she carries from a decade at the center of Republican attack ads.) He will also be the party's lead strategist as it attempts to deal with full Republican control of Washington. How much — or little — should congressional Democrats work with Trump and the Republican majority? On what? When?
Schumer's path is made even more intriguing by three other crosscurrents:
1. Trump has openly praised their relationship. According to the New York Post: “Trump 'said to Schumer he likes Schumer more than [House Speaker Paul] Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell because they both wanted him to lose,' a transition source told the [newspaper].”
2. The liberal left remains suspicious of Schumer, viewing him as too close to Trump — Schumer denies the two are friends — and too willing to compromise with the incoming Republican majority.
3. There is an ongoing fight for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee between outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.). Ellison, who Schumer has already endorsed, is seen as the liberal's liberal pick. Perez is seen as the Obama establishment favorite — but also quite liberal.
Schumer then is not only at the center of Democrats' calibration of how to deal with Trump, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) but also on the tip of the spear as Democrats pick up the pieces of the 2016 election and work to figure out where they need to head between now and 2018 (and 2020). It's hard to imagine anyone more central to how and whether Washington works over the next few years than the New York Democrat.
We got some indication of where Schumer will lead the party Tuesday night in a sit-down he did with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
“I am not afraid of Donald Trump,” Schumer told Maddow. “I am not afraid of the Republicans. And we're going to hold their feet to the fire. I am actually excited about this opportunity.” He also affirmed that he would do everything he could to hold the vacant ninth seat on the Supreme Court open for as long as possible — as payback for Republican stalling tactics on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the high court bench. Here's that exchange:
SCHUMER: “It’s hard for me to imagine a nominee that Donald Trump would choose that would get Republican support that we could support.”
MADDOW: “And so you will do your best to hold the seat open?”
What does that tell us? The very fact that Schumer did an interview with Maddow, an icon on the left, suggests that he is aware of the grumbling about him among liberals. That he was so feisty and confrontational indicate that, at least for the moment, Schumer thinks moving left and positioning himself as the guy willing to stand up to Trump is the right course of action.
That positioning by Schumer is made somewhat easier by the fact that Republicans are starting off their legislative year by repealing Obamacare, a move reviled by liberals. The question for Schumer is how and whether he readjusts his position when (and if) Trump and the Republican Congress turn to things like infrastructure spending or tax reform — issues with less clear cut partisan lines already drawn.
No matter what, Schumer is someone you need to be watching. He is the straw that stirs Democrats' drinks for the foreseeable future.