Rebranding the Democratic Party in the Donald Trump Era

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer talks to journalists after attending the Senate Democrat party leadership elections at the U.S. Capitol, November 16. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Packed into a cramped Senate hearing room, the crowd erupted into prolonged whistles and cheers. Bernie Sanders had just joined a "Hands Off Medicare" rally-cum-press conference on December 7, and the activists in attendance, mostly union members in matching T-shirts, were enthralled. When the headliners of the event, Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, took the podium, however, there was nothing more than polite applause.

This didn't seem to faze Schumer, who had the unenviable task of following one of his colleague's stem-winders on inequality and the greed of the "billionaire class." After embracing Sanders on his way to the podium, Schumer opened his remarks by thanking "my friend and colleague and fellow James Madison High School of Brooklyn, New York, graduate." Schumer is nine years younger, so the two didn't overlap in school, but he likes to play up their shared Brooklyn roots. "Bernie was on the track team, and they won the city championship," Schumer reminisced, his own Brooklyn accent more tempered than Sanders, despite the fact that the latter relocated to Vermont decades ago. "I was on the basketball team; we weren't that good. Our motto was 'We may be small, but we're slow.'"

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Schumer likes to trot out that high school sports anecdote whenever he and Sanders appear together in public. He does it so often that some on his staff know it by heart. And the rest of us may as well, given how regularly they now tag-team press conferences in Washington. As Democrats come to grips with their demoralizing 2016 election losses, one thing is already becoming clear: This loudmouth, Brooklyn-born duo are two of the leading forces shaping the party's identity in the era of Donald Trump.

Progressive firebrands such as Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren are the closest things Democrats have to a public face right now. They command huge followings on social media, can rake in cash from small-dollar donors and relish slamming the president-elect the way the party's base craves. Sanders also has a new political organization, Our Revolution, run by former aides, to maintain his following among progressives. But make no mistake: Neither he nor Warren is in charge. It is Schumer whom fellow Democrats expect to steer the party through the Trumpian wilderness.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a Capitol Hill rally to promote a people's agenda and a common commitment to stepping up grassroots mobilizations for economic and social justice and equality in Washington, D.C., November 17 Carlos Barria/Reuters

As the new Senate minority leader, Schumer controls the most powerful lever the party has to counter Trump. "In the House…the minority just doesn't have that much power," explained one Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his company does not allow him to comment publicly on politics. But on the other side of the Capitol, Schumer has "a working and functional minority in the Senate that can still push back and defeat Republican policies." To pass most legislation (an Obamacare replacement, tax reform, defense spending) or confirm Supreme Court nominees, Senate Republicans need to reach the 60-vote threshold required to defeat a filibuster (the House minority has no such procedural tool). Having lost two seats in November, the GOP is down to a narrow 52-vote majority. Schumer has already said he's prepared to filibuster a controversial nominee to replace the deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death last February left a 4-4 deadlock on the high court. And peeling off eight or more Democrats to overcome that threat will be a lift, to say nothing of winning over Democrats on new health care proposals or immigration restrictions.

Schumer, of course, faces his own balancing act with Senate Democrats, a caucus that includes everyone from Sanders, the democratic-socialist, to Jon Tester, a centrist Montana farmer who is up for re-election in 2018. That ideological diversity was evident in the expanded leadership team the Senate Democrats rolled out before Thanksgiving. Warren, elevated to caucus vice chair, and Sanders, elected to a new position, chair of outreach, flanked the next minority leader as he addressed the press in the Capitol. Fittingly, moderates Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia stood farther to Schumer's right.

It remains to be seen whether Schumer's expanded team is more than mere symbolism, and what kind of influence Sanders will have in his new role. The Vermont senator's new post means he'll be "attending all the leadership meetings, which is a big deal," insists a Schumer aide. "Decisions actually get made in those meetings." A senior Sanders aide says Schumer and Sanders have been talking every day.

Schumer is also one of just a few people in Congress the famously prickly Sanders could call a friend. "They are personally close. They like each other a lot," Schumer's aide affirms. "Chuck helped sort of make the peace between Bernie and Hillary [Clinton] at the end of the primary campaign, because both Bernie and Hillary saw Chuck as an ally." While most Democrats in Washington were still trying to make sense of Sanders's startling transformation from quixotic backbencher to progressive rock star last winter, Schumer quickly saw the power behind his movement, and, though a staunch Clinton supporter, he reached out to Sanders, as well.

It's also telling that Sanders has declined to go after Schumer publicly for the latter's long-standing ties to Wall Street—the socialist's bête noire. Asked about it at a recent breakfast with reporters in Washington, the Vermont senator demurred. "Chuck is, in the best sense of the word, a very good politician" was all Sanders would say. "He knows how to bring people together, he knows how to seize the moment."

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders stands behind U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer after attending the Senate Democrat party leadership elections at the U.S. Capitol on November 16. Carlos Barria/Reuters

"From the get-go, Schumer has recognized, more than anyone else, the value Sanders brings to the platform," an aide for another Democrat in the Senate says. "He understands how to keep Sanders on the team." That has been particularly evident in the weeks since Trump's victory. Long known more as a New York City–style publicity hound than a power broker, Schumer evolved as he moved up the ranks of Senate Democrats. At their joint presser December 7, the incoming minority leader gladly ceded the spotlight to Sanders when asked about Medicare legislation Democrats could support. "To quote Donald Trump again, during the campaign, he said, 'Wouldn't it be a good idea if Medicare negotiated prices with the pharmaceutical industry?' We're going to hold him accountable for that!" the Vermont senator bellowed, drawing enthusiastic applause.

Increasingly, Democrats are using these kinds of economic broadsides to respond to Trump. Talk of collaboration has died down as the president-elect has rolled out appointment after appointment that portend a hardline conservative administration. Democrats insist obstructionism isn't their sole aim. "We are at least open to working with him," says Schumer's aide. "He ran a different campaign, and some of his appeal was on our issues, and it's not Democratic nature to just say no." But they are also seizing on any issue on which Republicans have broken with Trump, hoping to drive a wedge between the party's traditional free marketers and Trump's protectionist promises. "The path to quote-unquote compromise and working with him is to cut Republicans on the Hill out of it and go directly to where Trump was" on the campaign trail, Schumer's aide says.

Medicare is one obvious example. During the election, Trump pledged not to touch Social Security or Medicare benefits, which are popular among voters. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Representative Tom Price of Georgia, Trump's appointee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, are two of the party's staunchest champions of Medicare privatization. In the final weeks of the 2016 congressional session, Democrats also hammered House Republicans for abandoning workers Trump promised to protect. Senate Democrats threatened to shut down the government after Republicans refused to extend coal miners' health care benefits for a full year in a stopgap spending bill (the final legislation extended those benefits through April) and for slashing a "Buy American" steel provision from a water infrastructure bill.

Not only do these issues expose fissures within the GOP; they allow Democrats to focus on what unites them. Advocacy groups on the left are pressuring party officials to take a more combative approach to Trump's Cabinet appointments.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who made Clinton's vice presidential short list this summer, is preparing for a long, bitter battle. "Every single day we're going to have to get up, buckle our chinstraps and be prepared to fight," Booker tells Newsweek.

But other up-and-coming Democrats worry that assuming a defensive crouch against Trump risks repeating the mistakes Democrats made in the 2016 campaign. "There's a lot of work Democrats have to do to uphold our fundamental values as Americans, the fundamental values in the face of Trump's assault," Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts says. "But we also have to show Americans a new way forward. I want people voting for Democrats because they see us as the party of the future"—not just an alternative to Trump. Red-state Democrats, meanwhile, need bipartisan accomplishments to take back to their constituents, particularly the 10 senators who face re-election battles in less than two years in states Trump won.

On middle-class economic issues, however, Democratic strategists believe there's little division within their ranks. "Fighting for the preservation and expansion of entitlements—that is a Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin issue"—Schumer's aide asserts, citing the Democrats' most- and least-liberal members. And Sanders has proved to be one of the party's most effective voices on economic fairness, something Democrats on the Hill now recognize. "He obviously talked about issues in a way that resonated with a ton of people, so [Democrats] want to hear from him in terms of what he thinks works," says Schumer's aide. And thanks to the Vermont senator's tireless campaigning and fundraising for progressive lawmakers in 2016, he has a new set of grateful allies in Congress and statehouses across the country.

Few Democrats, however, think Sanders alone is the answer for rebranding a party that lost not only the White House but many governor's mansions and state legislatures, and gained far fewer seats in Congress than expected. "I think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are incredibly important voices in our party, but they don't speak for everyone," says Moulton. "If we are going to expand the Democratic tent, then we've got to hear from voices in the center, as well, right now."

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, trailed by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, arrives for Senate Democratic party leadership elections at the U.S. Capitol on November 16. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The 38-year-old Iraq War vet helped lead a group of young Democrats who forced Pelosi and her cohorts to delay party leadership elections in the House in November and give them time to reflect on their defeat. Like most in his party, Moulton believes Americans still support Democratic policies on taxes, entitlements, labor and trade. "If we've got the right policies but our message isn't resonating, then you've got to question both the message and the messenger," he explained. The insurgent Democrats didn't oust Pelosi from her perch as minority leader, a post she's held since 2002, but they did force House party members to expand their leadership ranks to include younger members and grant rank-and-file members more power to shape the party's agenda.

Democrats desperately need new faces. How easy was it, anytime Clinton promised reforms on the campaign trail, for Trump to counter with, in effect, "Why didn't you already do it in your 30 years in public life?" It was a deadly, if not entirely fair, attack. At a gathering of state Democratic chairs earlier this month, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean urged the party to focus on 18- to 35-year-olds, "a group that voted for us in bigger numbers than the others" and who will "vote for us for 50 years." And yet it's hard to appeal to those voters when the messengers are as old as the grandparents of most millennials. Age was an issue in the 2016 campaign—Clinton is 69; Sanders 75—and it continues to dog Democrats during their post-election soul-searching. Warren is 67. Pelosi is 76. Her deputy, Steny Hoyer, is 77. Schumer punches in at a relatively youthful 66. "Let's just be honest, that's not the Democratic Party of the future," says Moulton.

Reorienting the party toward its millennial base is a long-term process, however, one that will require not only elevating younger voices but also rebuilding the Democrats' thin bench, decimated by years of losses at the state level. The selection of a new Democratic National Committee chair, due in February, is another step. It's currently an open race. Liberal Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota is the pick of Sanders and Warren, but soon-to-be former Labor Secretary Tom Perez just joined the field, and he may be able to unify the party establishment. The debate between the candidates will be another opportunity for the party to hash out its identity.

For now, however, the septuagenarian Sanders is the closest thing Democrats have to a millennial whisperer, another reason Schumer is happy to have him in front of the cameras.

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