Here’s the question posed in a headline from this morning’s New York Times: “Will Schumer Satisfy the Left?” I can answer that question. The answer is ‘no.’
From my long and painful experience with left-wing activists I can assure you that it is impossible to satisfy them. Political practicality is just not in their DNA. It’s not just that they won’t accept half a loaf. If they get a whole loaf they will complain that you didn’t provide them with the entire bakery.
One night in the fall of 2010 I found myself at a cozy little restaurant in Stockholm. The mayors of Madison, Portland and Minneapolis had all been invited to be guest speakers at a European conference on environmental issues. We got together one evening for dinner and the conversation turned (as it always does with mayors) to local politics.
All of us had been elected in progressive cities with help from the left. All of us had progressive political views. And all of us were sick and tired of the left. We had the same stories. We had worked hard to deliver on one progressive issue after another and we had been mostly successful. But it was never good enough for the true believers. “Thank you” was a phrase that simply wasn’t in the vocabulary of the left.
Over my eight years as Madison mayor I became closer to the business community. I found that community (which is about as progressive as a group of businesses can be) to be sensible, reasonable and willing to accept compromise. I liked them. I liked working with them.
The left, by contrast, was humorless, self-righteous, unwilling to deal with the realities of politics and quick to attack their own (including me) when there was any deviation from progressive orthodoxy. I found most progressive activists to be politically naive and personally disagreeable. I did not like them. I did not enjoy working with them.
So how does all this relate to new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer? Well, he’s up for reelection in New York and he’s facing the prospect of a challenge from the left. Two of New York’s liberal congressmen have already gone down (one to leftist star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) in primaries. Schumer is working hard to head that off by courting groups that might line up against him.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s just smart politics. But the problem for the country and for the Democratic Party is that what Schumer thinks he needs to do to save his own seat has big implications for national policy. The left in his home state is pushing him to push policies in the Senate that will be out of the mainstream of American politics and will be resisted by Democrats from more moderate states and districts.
Take the minimum wage as one example. There’s no question that it should be raised and it deserves to be a priority for the party. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) has said he won’t vote for $15 an hour. He supports $11. And since you can bet that there will be no Republican votes for any increase, it looks pretty clear to me that $11 is what the Democrats should settle for.
That would mean that about 1.6 million workers would get a 50% pay increase. That sounds like a good day’s work to me. But it’s almost literally half a loaf when compared to the progressive dogma of $15. So, Schumer could get through a 50% increase in the minimum and still incur the wrath of the left — and quite possibly gain a primary challenge — in his home state.
Tip O’Neil was right when he said, famously, that all politics is local. But in the case of Chuck Schumer local politics becomes national. And that is not a good thing for the prospects of moderation, bipartisanship and compromise — exactly the things the country needs right now.