Chuck’s Chance

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

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.”

The Thursday before the Alito hearings began, Schumer gave a speech laying out what would prove to be the Democratic road map in questioning the judge. As it happened, just two hours earlier, Ted Kennedy had covered similar ground in a briefing with reporters—but the briefing had not gone well. Kennedy, looking tired and haggard, had said in error that the Democrats had abandoned any thought of filibustering Alito. Schumer’s speech, meanwhile, was crisp and sharp and focused. Among some nomination politicos, the coincidence reinforced a sense, already growing, of a generational shift of leadership taking place on the committee.

“Whatever party forms the right viewpoint, both substantively and message-wise, will be the dominant party for the next ten years, at least. Everything’s up for grabs.”

Later, I asked Schumer if he thought he was inheriting Kennedy’s mantle. “No, I’m not,” Schumer quietly said. “I’m not as liberal as he is.” But then he added, “He has basically said to me, ‘You take the lead.’ ”

For Schumer, taking the lead in the committee’s hearings is no easy task. As the second-lowest-ranking Democrat, he must wait until six others have spoken before taking his turn. Yet in taking on Alito, Schumer’s queries were easily the most forceful and effective—especially on the first evening of questioning, when he succeeded in rattling Alito concerning his stance on abortion. When it was over, the conservative blogosphere was abuzz with worry (for the first and only time during the hearings), while Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, released a statement lauding Schumer’s performance as “masterful.”

Unfortunately for Democrats, Schumer’s competence was the exception to the rule. Pat Leahy, Dick Durbin, Herb Kohl: Not a single well-formulated interrogatory came forth from any of them. (As for Joe Biden, well, let us not speak ill of the unhinged.)

And yet, for all of Alito’s relentless discipline in speaking much but saying little, the judge did nothing to allay the fears of those possessing even a passing familiarity with his record. In virtually every area of controversy, Alito left the distinct impression that whatever views he had expressed in the past (on the regulation of machine guns, the strip-search of minors, an unchecked executive branch in an age of Bushian domestic surveillance) were the views to which he adhered still. Indeed, on Roe, he even refused to go as far as Roberts in according the ruling the status of “settled law.”

The trouble for the Democrats, of course, is that to defeat Alito would almost certainly require a filibuster. “It’s very hard,” Schumer says. “You have to persuade all but four of your colleagues to vote for the first time to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. On the other hand, there is so much at stake for a generation; just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shy away from it.”

In all likelihood, the Democrats will indeed shy away from it. To many of the party’s leaders, the politics of 2006 are shaping up favorably with Alito off the radar. Iraq. Abramoff. Domestic spying. Why mess with a volatile and unpredictable issue that might blow up in their faces?

Though Schumer would never say as much, he no doubt sees the point. When I ask how optimistic he is about the Democrats’ prospects for regaining control of the Senate, he offers what has lately become his standard assessment. “To take back the Senate is an enormous task,” he says. “If you would’ve asked me a year ago, I would’ve said, ‘It’s out of the question.’ Now I’d say, ‘If the stars align right, it could happen.’ ”

As Schumer knows, the stars are only part of the story. The alignment that actually needs to happen for the Democrats is deeper and more fundamental: a realignment of the party with an assortment of changing realities—economic, cultural, and geopolitical. The same, obviously, could and should be said of the GOP. Both parties are woefully out of whack with voters and the turbulent times in which we live. “The world is changing,” Schumer says. “And Democratic New Deal politics has been gone for a while, but Ronald Reagan Republicanism is gone, too. The public’s up for grabs, and whatever party forms the right viewpoint, both substantively and message-wise, will be the dominant party for the next ten years, at least. Everything’s up for grabs.”

The point isn’t brilliant, novel, or piercing—but it’s essential all the same. Can Schumer do anything about it? We shall see. But that he grasps the nature of the project is at least a start—and a reason for Democrats to hope that his ascension continues rapidly within their ranks.


Chuck’s Chance