Middle-Class SOS: Can Chuck Schumer Make a Difference?

Senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer. John Minchillo / AP Photos

The next three months will be crucial to determining whether Barack Obama has a reasonable shot at reelection or whether he’s toast. A lot of that hinges on the fate of the jobs plan the president announced with such fanfare to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8. Right now it doesn’t look good. On Oct. 11 the Senate, to no one’s surprise, voted down the comprehensive $447 billion package. And then last Thursday a smaller piece of the bill—$35 billion to rehire more than 400,000 teachers, cops, and firefighters who have been laid off by cash-strapped states—failed, too, falling far short of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, a body where Republicans now require a supermajority on every major piece of legislation.

Whether any remaining portion of the original jobs bill will make it through the Senate will largely depend on the inside role played by Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer—not the White House’s favorite Democrat, but one it’s been listening to more and more lately. It was Schumer—the sharp-elbowed three-term senator from Brooklyn—who urged the president during the debt-ceiling fight to toughen his rhetoric and start calling out Republicans (he didn’t then; he is now). He also devised the strategy of breaking the jobs bill into smaller pieces and forcing the Republicans to vote against its most popular parts.

Anything the Democrats manage to push through will be financed by the so-called millionaire’s tax, a surtax on dollars earned above $1 million, which would hit just 0.2 percent of the population. Schumer first floated the idea last December, when Obama was negotiating with Republicans about extending the Bush tax cuts. Going back to 2001, when the tax cuts were enacted, “wealthy” meant $250,000. But that level could include successful working couples who were well off but not exactly rich. And, as Republicans constantly reminded people, it could include small businesses. “When we were debating over $250,000, every third word out of [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell’s mouth was ‘small businesses,’” Schumer says. “And you know: it’s kind of believable. So I thought, we ought to just make a clean message.”

To Republicans, of course, the tax is still “class warfare.” And some liberal critics think it yields too much ground to the GOP. But it polls through the roof—around 70 percent, with massive levels of support from both Democrats and independents. If Obama and the Democrats emerge from the jobs fight perceived as at least having tried to battle for the middle class, Schumer’s debate-shifting idea will be a big part of the reason they’ve done so.

But can it pass? According to Schumer, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “The No. 1 fact of this last decade in our political economy is that the median income declined,” he says. “And it declined from 2001 to 2007, even before the meltdown. If the middle-class dream flickers and dies, it’s a different America.” And as for class warfare, Schumer says, “the class warfare in this country has been against the middle class.”

Schumer says the Democrats are going to start being much more aggressive in highlighting GOP obstruction, and he still likes to hold out hope that, eventually, some Republicans might come around to some portions of the jobs bill. “Maybe,” he says, “three, four months from now, with the economy still hurting, you’ll get a few moderates going to McConnell and saying, ‘We need to do this.’ I do think the big tectonic plates are moving now.”

They may be moving out in the country, but they sure aren’t moving on Capitol Hill, where Republicans appear to be as intransigent as ever. Over the next three months, the lines of argument will be as clear as they can possibly be in American politics, and where the American people come down may go a long way toward determining how the country votes next November. Democrats need Schumer’s savvy—but they could also use some results.