On Sunday, something weird happened.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is widely rumored as a potential future primary challenger to the New York senator, held a joint press conference to talk about how their party will attempt to keep the Supreme Court vacancy caused by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg vacant until after the 2020 presidential election.
AOC implored Democrats to “mobilize on an unprecedented scale” in order to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) not to push a vote before the election, adding: “We need to tell him that he is playing with fire.”
Schumer took that rhetorical threat even further. When asked about the possibility of Senate Democrats adding Supreme Court seats or eliminating the filibuster entirely if they win back the majority in 43 days, Schumer responded this way:
“Well, it will be a decision that is … comes to the Senate. We first have to win the majority before that can happen. But once we win the majority, God willing, everything is on the table.
“… As I said, we first have to win the majority, because if we don’t win the majority, these questions are all moot. But if we win the majority, everything is on the table.”
That is a remarkable statement by the man who, as of today, has at least a 50-50 chance of running the Senate come 2021. It’s also a reflection of just how aware Schumer is of the potential threat AOC poses to him in a 2022 Democratic primary – and how much he is going out of his way to move to the ideological left to shut down the possibility.
For months, AOC has refused to rule out challenging Schumer from the left come 2022. “I don’t know,” the New York Democratic congresswoman said this spring of a potential primary race. “Honestly, this news cycle is so insane, who knows where any of us are going to be in 2022?”
Which, in the world of politics, is essentially her acknowledging that she is thinking about it. Or at least wants Schumer to believe she is thinking about it.
Because all AOC had to say – either back in the spring or, well, at anytime between then and now – is something like: No, I am not going to run against Chuck Schumer in 2022. I support him and his efforts to win back the Senate majority this fall. That she hasn’t said that – and, in fact, has left the door wide open, tells you everything you need to know.
And Schumer is paying attention. As John Bresnahan and Marianne Levine documented in this Politico piece in late August:
“The self-described ‘angry centrist’ is no more. Once derided for being too close to Wall Street, Schumer aides now boast that he has stood up to the financial services industry. Schumer is still distrusted by some on the left, but the New York Democrat insists his views have shifted to reflect a different constituency, as well as the more progressive Democratic Party of the Donald Trump era.”
Or, as Schumer himself explained his evolution to Politico: “A good elected official looks at the needs of the people he or she represents and does everything he or she can to help solve those needs, and the world changes. And the problems that existed, say in the ’90s, are different than the problems that exist today.”
Sure! There’s no question that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 – and the resultant capitulation of elected Republican leaders to his whims in the years that followed – have forced Democrats to reevaluate how they see the other party and how much (if anything) can be done on a bipartisan basis.
But it is equally impossible to believe that Schumer’s change from proud centrist to defiant liberal has nothing to do with the specter of AOC running against him in 2022. Schumer is a deeply political animal – you don’t get to where he has gotten in politics without being one – and he understands just how powerful AOC has become in the party since her upset primary win over Rep. Joe Crowley, a member of the House Democratic leadership, in 2018. (Sound familiar???)
Schumer’s slide to the left is an acknowledgment of the rising power of the liberal left in his party. Progressives who aligned far more closely with AOC and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders than Schumer and former Vice President Joe Biden are ascendant in Democratic politics, as illustrated by a series of primary wins for liberals – including in Schumer’s home state – this year.
He also understands the power that AOC possesses within the Democratic Party. With Sanders, presumably, stepping off the national stage (he has now run for president unsuccessfully twice) the liberal wing of the party now seems to be AOC’s for the taking. And if her fundraising and staff hires are any indication, she is taking it.
Given that status, it is not inconceivable that AOC could oust Schumer – even if he is the Senate majority leader in 2022.
All of which makes Schumer more than willing to bring AOC as close as possible on this Supreme Court fight – and make proclamations like “everything is on the table.”