The Slatest

What Should We Expect From Chuck Schumer as Senate Democratic Leader?

Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer, seen together here on Capitol Hill in November 2013, have worked hand in hand to craft Senate Democrats’ messages for years.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What little drama remained in the race to replace Harry Reid as the Senate’s top Democrat has all but disappeared. The New York Times reports Chuck Schumer has already locked up the support of all 42 members of the current Democratic caucus who plan to stick around for the next Congress. That group includes the man who had long been seen as Schumer’s most realistic challenger, Dick Durbin; the media’s dark-horse pick, Patty Murray; and progressive favorite Elizabeth Warren. Barring a serious surprise between now and January 2017, Schumer is now a lock to take over for Reid after the Nevadan retires at the end of this term.

So, just what can we expect when Schumer takes the reins of the Senate’s Democratic caucus? The short answer: pretty much the same thing we got from Reid.

As my former colleague Matt Yglesias and others have already noted, Senate leaders don’t actually do a whole lot of leading when it comes to setting their party’s policy agenda. The caucus largely decides where it wants to go, and then it’s the Senate leader’s job to plot the course to get there. By the very nature of the job, Schumer’s personal views—say, on Wall Street, which he sees as his hometown industry and uses as a campaign ATM—will take a backseat to those of his party as a whole. The New Yorker will have to find middle ground between Warren and Bernie Sanders on his left, and Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp on his right—just like Reid did (and like Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly struggled to do within the GOP in the more unruly House).

The good news for Democrats is that Schumer has plenty of practice doing just that—and that, along with his unrelenting and prodigious fundraising, was no doubt a major reason why his party was so quick to end the leadership race before it began. Schumer’s currently the No. 3 Democrat in the upper chamber, and has long played the role of Reid’s corner man during the never-ending partisan fights with Republicans. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reminds us, following the GOP’s Senate gains in 2010, Schumer took over the Democratic Policy Committee and set up a legislative war room in the Capitol, where his and Reid’s staff have worked together ever since to craft messages the entire party could rally around. It should come as no surprise, then, that Reid picked Schumer to keep the machine running without him, or that Schumer was quick to promise to do just that.

Reid has done a remarkable job of keeping his caucus in lock step, particularly as it’s played the filibustering spoiler to the new GOP majority this year. That unity was what allowed the outmanned Democrats to pull out a legislative victory during the recent Department of Homeland Security fight, and what will certainly cause more headaches for Republicans as they move forward with their budget. Expect Schumer to continue that legacy. The fact he was able to short-circuit the race to replace Reid so quickly and completely is only evidence of how good he’ll be at rallying the troops. (That job may get even easier in 2017. The next electoral map has Democrats dreaming that they’ll retake the Senate, but the more likely outcome is that they’ll simply cut into the GOP’s current majority. If that happens, Schumer won’t have to work quite as hard to find the 40 votes for a filibuster.)

The one obvious place that Schumer will provide a stark departure from his predecessor is in front of the camera. Reid’s proved to be a solid parliamentarian tactician but he’s never had a commanding public presence. When he’s not mumbling, he’s saying things you’d expect to hear from Joe Biden, just without the Biden-esque quality that lets the veep get away with it.  Schumer, the smooth-talking son of an exterminator, should at least provide more coherent sound bites on the Senate floor.

That’s not to suggest that Schumer’s ascension to Senate Democratic leader won’t be noteworthy in less superficial ways. How he performs behind the scenes and on the floor will go a long way toward deciding what gets done in Washington and what doesn’t. But it’s a mistake to view Schumer’s rise as a sign of where his party is heading. A hypothetical Democratic caucus that picked Warren as its leader wouldn’t become more progressive once she was in charge—it would need to have already been more progressive to pick her in the first place. It’s not. It is, instead, the caucus that’s gladly marched along with Harry Reid. And soon, it will do the same with Chuck Schumer.