Nation & World

Democrats need unified message

5 min read

At KSG, Schumer offers prescriptions for his party's success

In 1967, Charles E. Schumer, a middle-class teenager from Brooklyn, N.Y., arrived at Harvard College with two goals in mind: to play freshman basketball and to study organic chemistry.

At the basketball tryout, the would-be power forward – now New York’s senior senator – never got on court, after admitting to the coach that his dribbling was poor.

As for chemistry – that was quickly submerged by a sudden new interest: politics. When Schumer discovered the excitement of getting out the vote (back then, for presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy), he decided on a social studies concentration, followed by three years at Harvard Law School.

On Feb. 9, Schumer – the architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress – was back at Harvard. His dribbling has likely not improved, but his passion for politics is intact. Before an audience of about 200 at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG), Schumer discussed the challenges of the coming 2008 presidential race.

The biggest is the lack of a compelling, unified message. “If Democrats don’t have a platform, if Democrats don’t have a vision,” he said, “we’re going to lose.”

And the core of that message, said Schumer, must appeal to the middle class, that wide, multicultural segment of U.S. society that Democrats could unfailingly count on at the polls only a few decades ago.

It’s a segment that’s relatively comfortable in economic terms (with incomes in the $30,000 to $75,000 range), he said. But it’s socially distressed – by the failure of public schools, by immigration, by the cost of energy and health care, and by the unsettling challenges of technology, terror, and same-sex marriage.

“We don’t have a plan,” said Schumer of Democrats. “We don’t have any discussion of what our values are.”

That’s where Joe and Eileen Bailey come in. They’re a fictional middle-class couple from Long Island that Schumer said he has been using as a guiding ideal since his days in the New York State Assembly. (Schumer entered, and won, his first political race in 1974, just out of Harvard Law School, and has held political office ever since.)

The idea of what the senator called his “imaginary friends” drew a good-natured laugh from the partisan Feb. 9 audience. (The talk, at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, was sponsored by the Harvard College Democrats and by the KSG Democratic Caucus.)

But the Baileys – an amalgam of what Schumer sees as abiding middle-class values and present concerns – hold the key to winning elections, he said.

The Baileys, swing voters with no deep party loyalties, are pro-choice, “but are glad their church isn’t,” said Schumer. They dislike the greed of Enron executives, he added, “but they hate the people who burn the flag even more.” They’re uneasy about affirmative action, and concerned more about the immediacy of energy prices than the grand issue of global warming.

The Baileys are “capitalist and democratic,” said Schumer, and unembarrassed about the self-interest that underlies both adjectives.

Who the Baileys are, and a few ways to bring them back into the Democratic fold, are the subjects of Schumer’s new book, “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time” (Rodale, 2007).

In his talk, the senator was frank about why the Democrats have lost the middle class since the 1970s: a core Republican tactic of bold, clear, unified messages based on values.

A core message is enough to move elections. In 1992, Newt Gingrich was a “solitary backbencher” in the House of Representatives, said Schumer. Two years later, he was the architect of the straight-edged Contract With America. Its message won hearts and minds, and tipped Congress decisively into the Republican camp.

In 2004, despite growing public doubt over the war in Iraq, Republicans still drew in 22 percent more white middle-class voters than Democrats did, by having a clear message. “The Republicans ran on eight words,” said Schumer: “War in Iraq. Cut taxes. No gay marriage.” No word was just rhetoric; each was tied expressly to a value.

In 2006, Democrats won a slender (6 percent) majority of votes from that fickle cohort of white middle-class voters – but only by casting doubt on those old eight words, said Schumer.

In the next two years, the critical question for Democrats will be, he said, “What are our eight words?”

“National health care” might be three of them, said Schumer – but not without a concrete plan first.

The eight magic words don’t exist yet for Democrats, he said. But in a search for them, and to spur discussion, Schumer used his book to go beyond the Baileys – to 11 reforms in the next 10 years that might win them back.

Each is based on what Schumer calls a “50 percent solution”: a 50 percent reduction in illegal immigration, dependence on foreign oil, cancer mortality, childhood obesity, abortions, children’s access to Internet pornography, and tax avoidance.

And a 50 percent increase in legal immigration, college graduates, reading and math scores, and resources to fight terrorism.

Along with the proposals will come controversy, including the senator’s suggestion of a biometric national identity card, and a tripling of federal education spending.

“You’re going to agree with some, you’re going to dislike others,” said Schumer of his proposals. “But they’re all things the Baileys care about.”