For my money, it’s Bernie, Warren and AOC. Kimberly Strassel sums up the Schumer/AOC connection.
“Me and my shadow / . . . Not a soul can bust this team in two / We stick together like glue.”
If Sinatra reveled in his shadow, Chuck Schumer lives in semicomical fear of his. It’s hard to know who runs the Senate these days—the majority leader, or his harrier from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Mr. Schumer released the Senate to recess this week, having accomplished the AOC and Bernie Sanders plan for the most audacious expansion of government in U.S. history: a $3.5 trillion budget outline that proposes to create new permanent entitlements, lay the foundation of the Green New Deal, take the first steps toward Medicare for All, and soak the rich and the middle class with a new tax regime. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has hailed it as “absolutely a progressive victory.”
What AOC wants, Mr. Schumer delivers. A few days earlier, the majority leader had joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley (an original member of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s “Squad”) to complain that President Biden’s new order to “pause” student loan payments didn’t “go far enough.” AOC has been pushing for outright debt cancellation, and Mr. Schumer is now so all in that he wears a face mask emblazoned “#CancelStudentDebt.”
Or witness Chuck last week jogging across the Capitol to congratulate Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, another Squad member, for her sit-in that pressured the administration to extend its illegal eviction moratorium. “You did this!” Mr. Schumer roared, hugging Ms. Bush and AOC for the cameras. “You guys are fabulous!”
What Mr. Schumer meant to say was: “You guys are terrifying!” The 70-year-old New Yorker has had a lock on his Senate seat since 1998. But these days he’s suffering the ghosts of Joe Crowley and Eliot Engel. Those powerful, longtime (and old, white and male) representatives were both defeated in primary upsets—the former in 2018 by AOC, the latter in 2020 by progressive Jamaal Bowman.
The Ocasio-Cortez team within months of AOC’s taking office hinted she was hungry for more. Progressives have since become more brazen with the threat to run against Mr. Schumer in the 2022 primary. Her decision “is dependent on what Schumer does,” Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats (which recruited AOC for her House run) told Politico in February. Adopt the AOC agenda, or prepare for retirement.
Mr. Schumer made his choice, and there’s not an issue on which he’s willing to let AOC get to his left. He’s proposed to kill the filibuster and pushed a federal takeover of elections. AOC wants the Green New Deal; Chuck does too. AOC wants to decriminalize marijuana; Chuck does too. At least Sinatra’s shadow took him to jazz clubs. Mr. Schumer’s signed him up for paid family and medical leave, free community college and subsidized child care.
The AOC threat has produced one of the more rapid and disturbing political transformations in Washington. While always a liberal, Mr. Schumer’s career was defined by New York pragmatism. A self described “angry centrist,” he could as easily be found in a Wall Street boardroom as at a labor rally. His primary interest was his state’s industry and residents, making him a modulating voice against higher taxes or excessive regulation of banks, hedge funds or private equity. Bidding to succeed Harry Reid as Democratic leader, he even sought to define himself by working with Republicans—most notably as part of the bipartisan immigration Gang of Eight. Before he became minority leader in 2016, New York’s Daily News wrote that he was “expected to use peacemaking style to unite Congress.”
Donald Trump’s election and the ascendancy of the Democratic left changed the calculation. Progressives are Mr. Schumer’s true problem. In the not-so-long-ago days of raw New York political power, a Senate leader would have simply ordered state political bosses to gerrymander AOC out of political existence. To do so today would be to earn animated progressive wrath and guarantee a primary challenge.
Mr. Schumer’s other, obvious option is to show some backbone and lead in a way that doesn’t harm the country or his party’s political prospects. Polls show only about 15% of Americans self-identify as progressive, and most voters reject the progressive agenda, from the Green New Deal to open borders. Even the Democratic primary electorate chose the “moderate” Joe Biden over Mr. Sanders. The AOC agenda could make Mr. Schumer minority leader again.
Mr. Schumer seems happy to take that risk if its spares him losing his job altogether in a primary fight. The Democratic establishment, including the White House, is running scared of the progressive bogeyman. And Ms. Ocasio-Cortez isn’t about to give up her leverage. Asked this week if she’d decided on a primary challenge, AOC was noncommittal. “Senator Schumer and I have been working very closely on a lot of legislation and that, to me, is important,” she said, grinning. “And so, we shall see.”
Appeared in the August 13, 2021, WSJ print edition.