Chuck Schumer’s Populist Concession

Robert Borosage

Senator Charles Schumer sparked a back-alley Democratic Party brawl when he blamed the sinking fortunes of Democrats in 2014 on the administration’s 2009 decision to press forward on health care reform rather than staying focused on jobs and recovery.

Schumer got the impact of the health care reform wrong and distorted the reality of the political debate at that time: The austerity caucus – including many Democrats – was blocking any more spending on the recovery after the first stimulus passed. President Obama made the mistake of joining them, but Republicans and renegade Democrats led by New Dem Sen. Evan Bayh had already torpedoed the rescue boats.

What shouldn’t be lost in his argument about the past was Schumer’s surprising prescription for the future: the senator from Wall Street is sounding ever more like Elizabeth Warren. As reported by Thomas Edsall:

“The American public is so cynical about government that a Democratic, pro-government message would not be immediately successful,” argued Schumer. To restore credibility, the “first step is to convince voters that we are on their side, and not in the grips of special interests.” He specifically suggested the prosecution of bankers for “what seems, on its face, blatant fraud” and tax reform designed to ensure that C.E.O.s paid higher rates “than their secretaries.”(emphasis added)

[A]n element of populism, even for those of us who don’t consider ourselves populists, is necessary to open the door before we can rally people to the view that a strong government program must be implemented.”

There’s a characteristic cynical calculation in this phrasing that is off-putting, but Schumer’s surprising embrace of the populist temper of the time suggests that even money Democrats are starting to get a clue.

This sets the stage for what should be Hillary Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment: when she steps up before another Goldman Sachs audience and tells them that bankers who commit fraud will be prosecuted, and banks that are too big to fail and too big to jail are simply too big to exist.

That fantasy aside, Schumer’s remarks make it clear that populism is on the rise.

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