Chuck Schumer Is Good Now

Chuck Schumer standing, wearing a mask, looking stern
Something’s different about Chuck. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

For most of his congressional career, Chuck Schumer has been known for his relentlessly moderate political instincts, keyed to the imagined sensibilities of middle-class suburban New Yorkers. This is a man famous for thinking through policy issues by asking how they’d play with “the Baileys,” a fictional married couple from Massapequa, Long Island, who, as Schumer has explained, hate property taxes and love singing along to the national anthem before a hockey game. From his days helping to write the 1994 crime bill to voting for the Iraq war to defending tax loopholes for Wall Street to backing a border fence to opposing President Barack Obama’s Iran deal, the Senate minority leader staked out years of centrist and business-friendly positions that have led to deep distrust among progressive activists (even if he’s later reversed on them).

But lately, something’s been different about Schumer: He’s been moving to the left, and Washington has started to notice. A few weeks back, for instance, Politico published a piece headlined “Chuck Schumer isn’t an ‘angry centrist’ anymore,“ which declared that after decades on Capitol Hill, his “political evolution may be nearly complete.” Oddly, the piece did not actually mention any of the progressive policy proposals that Schumer has thrown his weight behind recently. But there have been several notable ones.

In July, Schumer joined Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to unveil a bill that would tie the size of unemployment benefits to the jobless rate, turning them into a so-called automatic stabilizer—an idea that House Speaker Nancy Speaker had previously ruled out as too costly.

On Sept. 10, Schumer and Massachusetts’ Ed Markey—the left’s new favorite septuagenarian —unveiled a climate- and social justice–focused economic agenda that called for zeroing out carbon emissions from electricity by 2035, and was backed by a long roll call of left-wing activist groups, including the Green New Dealers of the Sunrise Movement.

Earlier this week, Schumer told the cannabis industry website Leafly that he was “fervently committed” to finally decriminalizing and unscheduling marijuana, after introducing a bill to do so last year. “The states have been the labs of democracy and we’ve had our lab experiment,” he said. “They proved that legalization is the right thing to do. So let’s do it for the whole country. ”

In perhaps the most surprising turn, Schumer and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a resolution on Thursday urging the next president (meaning Biden) to forgive up to $50,000 of outstanding debt for student loan borrowers purely using executive authority. Warren floated this idea during her presidential run, and by definition it wouldn’t require legislation, but Schumer’s endorsement was a valuable boost from Democratic leadership. It’s also the second time the two have linked arms on the issue: In March, they introduced a proposal to pay down at least $10,000 of student debt for each borrower during the coronavirus crisis.

Finally, and tantalizingly, Schumer has left open the possibility that he would try to abolish the filibuster in order to push through Democratic priorities. As he’s told Politico, “nothing is off the table.”

In short, Schumer is cuing up a Democratic agenda that entails climate justice, legal weed, mass student debt cancellation, a better safety net, and possibly the end of stodgy, bill-killing Senate procedure as we know it. Twitter has begun to joke that the Baileys must have been radicalized. But what triggered them? Did their kid rack up a six-figure student loan bill at NYU?

In some ways, it looks like Schumer is really just setting the table for the bolder, more progressive planks of Joe Biden’s presidential platform. The climate resolution he introduced with Markey, for instance, is very much a congressional counterpart to Biden’s own, Green New Deal–influenced environmental agenda.

But in other cases, Schumer does seem to be nudging the party’s nominee in a bolder direction. Take student debt: After Schumer and Warren introduced their March plan to pay off at least $10,000 for each borrower, Biden backed it. Then, Biden went further, saying he would forgive all student loans for Americans earning less than $125,000, as long as they borrowed to pay undergrad tuition at a public college. With this newest proposal, Schumer and Warren are now shepherding Biden even further in the direction of a broad jubilee.

Then there’s weed. Biden has stubbornly said he only supports “decriminalizing” marijuana. The minority leader’s bill would finally let states have fully aboveboard recreational markets.1 Just call him Chuck Choomer.

One common theory among the online left is that Schumer is trying to guard against a potential primary challenge in 2022, after watching progressives pick off two older, white, centrist members of the New York Democratic establishment. In 2018 Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, who was the House’s fourth-ranking Democrat, and this year Jamaal Bowman unseated Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel. Schumer himself is very, very unlikely to ever actually lose his seat—New York tends to elect moderate Democrats like Gov. Andrew Cuomo to statewide office thanks to the influence of suburban voters and unions—but it’s possible he’s trying to prevent a messy race that would require him to spend money and effort campaigning.

There might be some truth to that theory (after all, even Cuomo took steps to shore up his progressive flank before his last reelection race). But the simpler explanation is that Schumer simply sees his party’s ideological center moving and is shifting with it, as he has tended to do in the past. In this sense, he’s not that different from Biden, another career-long centrist who has always been more a political than ideological animal, and is now running on the most progressive platform of any modern major party nominee. “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,” Schumer told Politico.

And the polling on issues changes, too. After all, two-thirds of Americans now back full marijuana legalization, and there’s no particular political advantage to pursuing a half-measure. After four years of the Trump administration, there’s a strong chance the Baileys would like to finally light up a joint and relax.

1To be specific, Biden has said he wants to make cannabis a Schedule II drug, like oxycodone and methadone, whereas the minority leader would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act entirely and provide funding for marijuana businesses owned by women and minorities.