Chuck Schumer reclines on the couch in his office on Capitol Hill, his stockinged feet propped up on the coffee table, a carton of takeout Chinese food perched precariously on his belly. It’s late one night a few days before the start of the confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito, and Schumer is laying out the objectives of each side in the high-stakes game. For the Democrats, Schumer says, the goal of the hearings “is almost metaphysical, or epistemological: It’s to bring out the true Samuel Alito. And his job is to say as little as possible, but enough so that the public doesn’t feel that he’s answering nothing.”
A little more than one week later, we all know how that worked out. For three solid, nearly interminable days, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Democrats poked and prodded at Alito: about Roe v. Wade, privacy, federalism, executive power, and much else. And though they succeeded in demonstrating that Alito is charmless, humorless, and tedious—that he is, in short, no John Roberts—they failed to reveal anything about his judicial philosophy or ideological inclinations that wasn’t already manifestly clear from his record long before the hearings began. Instead, their main accomplishment was to reveal themselves as befuddled, toothless gasbags.
Except for Schumer, that is.
Indeed, for Schumer, the Alito hearings marked yet another step in his improbable political ascent: from New York’s favorite schlepper senator to national Democratic macher. Not even two years ago, people wondered if Schumer would run for governor. Now you watch him and wonder why he ever even considered it. See Chuck whisper in the ear of Minority Leader Harry Reid. See Chuck take over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—and with a zap of his manic energy and pragmatism help make it borderline plausible that the party might retake the Senate in this year’s midterm elections. Mention to Chuck that 2005 was an excellent year for him—and listen to him crow.
“Yeah, it was! DSCC was great. We met every goal. Every one of our incumbents is up by ten points—and all of them are doing Chuck Schumer’s Sunday press conferences. I told Maria Cantwell [Washington], Bill Nelson [Florida], and Ben Nelson [Nebraska], you’ve gotta get out there and do it! You can’t just issue stuff from Washington! I took some flak for backing [Pennsylvania pro-life Democrat] Bob Casey, but now everyone agrees that was a great move. So, yeah, it’s been a good year for me.”
Important as the DSCC is to Schumer’s rise within the Democratic leadership, his role on the Judiciary Committee is equally so. Inside the Senate, it’s a source of institutional status and intellectual credibility. And in moments like the Alito hearings, it offers him an invaluable national stage. “Chuck thinks that he can be the Senate Democratic leader some day—that’s what he’s aiming for,” says a senior party operative.
Schumer is at pains to insist that neither politics nor personal ambition fuels his zest for being in the thick of judicial-nomination battles. When I ask him about the intersection of his roles on the Judiciary Committee and at the DSCC, he scrunches up his face and shakes his head. “I started on this crusade before the DSCC was ever a gleam in my eye,” he says. “My basic rule in politics is, have an internal gyroscope, do what you think is right. And then try to craft the message and the politics to help it happen.”
Among some liberal judicial activists, of course, Schumer’s gyroscope has often been seen as an instrument that guides him inexorably toward the TV cameras—and away from the substantive nitty-gritty. “He has the smarts, he has the staff, he has the legal background,” says one former Senate staffer. “But he’s more worried about how he looks than if he’s going to win, and he’s more concerned about how he sounds than if he makes his point.”
During the Roberts hearings, in particular, complaints about Schumer’s straddling the fence, performing delicate political calculations, were legion on the left. “The fact that he took so long to make up his mind about Roberts was a critical factor in the low vote total against the nomination,” says another activist, still irked at the memory.
“I was torn,” Schumer says. “When you sat down with John Roberts, you liked the guy. I felt like I was back at law school. I liked debating these issues with him. I learned from him. And even though I voted against him, I still like him!”
Schumer’s reaction to Alito, by contrast, was altogether less giddy. In their single meeting (“I requested three meetings with Roberts, and got them easily and promptly”), the judge came across as “less open, more defensive,” Schumer says. And when he acquainted himself with Alito’s past rulings and writings, he saw an uncomfortable parallel with a prior nominee: “I don’t think he’s as far over as Bork, but he has elements of Bork in him.”