Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Progressives have been lambasting the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, all over my social media feeds this week for failing to stand up to the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. Those criticisms peaked this week as McConnell seemed to be calling the shots on the debt-limit impasse. Even though Schumer maneuvered to get what he wanted – the Senate extended the debt ceiling (till December) – there was no letup from the left.
While many progressive lawmakers have deep disdain for their moderate colleagues, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – who have been blocking Democrats’ ambitious social spending infrastructure package – they are also furious at Schumer, holding him responsible for failing to keep his caucus in line. Why can’t he keep the caucus together, they complain, without seeming to recognize the bind Schumer is in.
With Manchin and Sinema, the issue is leverage. Schumer has absolutely none over Manchin, who thus has enormous power within his caucus and can decide the fate of much of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
Theoretically, the more Schumer pushes Manchin, the more he may force the worst outcome of all for the Democrats – Manchin switching parties and the Republicans taking control of the Senate. That could well unleash senators like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton with new oversight powers to help fuel their own presidential ambitions. Giving any of those men a gavel would be a nightmare for Biden.
And it would be easy for Manchin to run as a Republican in West Virginia, which went for Trump by a whopping 38 percentage points.
But that would mean losing his leverage and power. He gets nothing for switching parties and loses nothing by staying a Democrat.
What really makes things impossible for Schumer is Manchin has never delivered a specific plan or list of every program he wants eliminated from the bill, creating the impression that it’s power he’s after rather than specific problems with elements of the bill. He has scant pet programs that need to be funded with the help of other Democrat committee chairs, nor political allies he is looking to promote into senior government jobs that need Schumer’s help in getting confirmed. In fact, his very power rests on the fact that power is all he seems to want.
What frustrates progressives is their belief that he doesn’t care about the actual programs, but has instead positioned himself as focusing on the top-line number of the reconciliation bill – $3.5 trillion – which he says he will never agree to and which he would shave down to something closer to $1.5 trillion. “I’m just not, so you know, I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving toward an entitlement mentality…OK?” he said last week.
Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said it best in a tweet on Thursday, “Ah yes, the Conservative Dem position: ‘You can either feed your kid, recover from your c-section, or have childcare so you can go to work – but not all three. All 3 makes you entitled and lazy.”
The “you pick your poison” philosophy seems to reveal Manchin’s thirst to be the kingmaker, without a real sense of how policies should be developed or implemented.
And that’s what makes Schumer look weak and ineffective. On the surface, not being able to control your own caucus would seem to disqualify one from leading the caucus. The better question here is who could do a better job? Progressives like Elizabeth Warren? She’s tough so could whip people into line. Not likely that’s an effective Manchin strategy. Maybe a popular moderate like Mark Warner from Virginia? Same result – no leverage with Manchin.
The fact is Schumer is doing the best he can in an impossible situation. Manchin holds the high cards and is using them well. Schumer is playing his hand as well as he can.
And for those who think this is an unprecedented situation, close watchers of the Senate understand that sometimes the most powerful people are those who are only interested in power.
Bottom line – let’s lay off Schumer for a while.