The Alternate Histories of Chuck Schumer

New York Senator Chuck Schumer “won the morning,” as the saying goes, by telling a National Press Club audience that the Democrats of 2009 “put all our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform.” As TNR’s Brian Beutler pointed out, Schumer had said this before, though not before so many cameras, and not during a news cycle that’s typically easy to “win.” (Had the Ferguson decision not happened on Monday, Schumer’s speech would have easily been the political story of the pre-Thanksgiving lull.) The newness of the approach brought out a triad of Obama administration veterans, all former messengers who now work in the private sector. First, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

Next, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau.

Finally, former Obama speechwriter-turned-TV writer Jon Lovett.

Nerve: Struck. Sides: Taken. Lovett et al simply disagree with Schumer about how the Democrats should have used the advantages won in 2008, and see it as cynical to suggest that the party should have punted on health care in order to win more elections. Like Jim Webb, like Ben Nelson, Schumer went along with the ACA push because to do otherwise was to undo the Obama presidency and because, one assumes, he agreed with the eventual goal of universal health coverage.

But where Webb and Nelson have since criticized the ACA from the right, and where Lovett et al see Schumer cynically separating the ascendent Democrats (the Hillary circle) from the unpopular ones, the “shouldn’t have done it first” critique is actually rooted on the left. The theory goes like this: Just as Franklin Roosevelt used his first two years in power to regulate big finance and engage in wild, stimulative deficit spending, Obama should have spent two years on banker-thrashing and redistribution. Roosevelt’s 1934 midterm wins — the last midterm wins for an incumbent president until 1998 — allowed the party to become more ambitious in the second half of his first term, and to pass the Social Security Act. 

There’s an alternative history of the Obama years in which the administration, like some time traveller sent back to fight Skynet, prevented the Tea Party from ever being born. It governed from the populist left; it owned the fight against “Wall Street” and denied the right the ability to side with the proles by opposing TARP. It’s a widely held belief on the left that this really could have been done, with smarter hires and less concern for the financial world that was going to turn against Obama anyway. Obama could have, like FDR, “welcomed their hatred.”

The small problem with this argument is that it’s bonkers. The Republican opposition to the new Obama presidency did not begin with the ACA. It began with the economic stimulus bill, which Democrats had hoped to get as many as 80 Senate votes for, and ended up scraping through with only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. (The NIH funds that were required to bring then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter on board ended up resulting in some of the stimulus’s worst headlines, about goofy science projects that were being funded instead of “shovel-ready jobs.”) There was just no evidence that the Republicans could be cowed, no matter how populist the Obama policy. In retrospect, Democrats regret spending so many months on Senate health care bills that might have won the votes of Olympia Snowe or Chuck Grassley, not the passage of a bill.