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Cambridge Diarist; Half Full

If the Democratic Party wanted a platform that was believable aswell as stirring, it could do much worse than adopting theprinciples and the specifics of Chuck Schumer's new book,Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority OneFamily at a Time. I first met Chuck in the late '60s, when he wasan undergraduate and I was a young instructor at Harvard College.In fact, he was one of my students, and a very idiosyncratic studentat that. Chuck certainly was not one given simply to imbibing the(dubious) wisdom of his teachers. After all, in those days, ouruniversities were experiencing a St. Vitus's Dance mania of rageand zealotry that made a rational and functional discussion ofpolitics virtually impossible. So he was notable and noticed forhis capacity to stand apart from the building takeovers andmulti-slogan demonstrations. And, instead, he read his assignments,thought about them, and wrote and conversed intelligently about thematerial that was presented.

Still, Chuck was very much a liberal, and he knew or feltinstinctively that practical wisdom did not lie in winning over thechildren of elites and alienating those, as the old Wobblies songput it, without whose "brain and muscle not a single wheel canturn." He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974 and, byNovember of that year, had been elected to the New York StateAssembly. He was 23, the same age at which Theodore Rooseveltentered the state legislature. A career had been launched--a careerwith not only political savvy but with heart and brain.

Chuck's is a very practical book. He is averse to the kind ofsloganeering so favored by the junior senator from New York, towhom any concrete proposal has to echo in grand vagaries of thespirit. OK, this is how Hillary Clinton validates her ownexperience: She mistakes solemnity for significance. Not so Chuck,not at all. It is true that he uses a literary conceit through whichto refract the experience of a "typical" New York family, afictionalized family called the Baileys. But they are not stickfigures; they have contours and complexities. Yes, they aremiddle-class and white and go to church. And Chuck is middle-classand white and (sometimes) attends synagogue. Yet, like the Baileys,Chuck can feel the expectations and disappointments of others, andthis is not for him a matter of ascending or descending. Chattingwith his constituents in the South Bronx or Cherry Valley is notfor him a great drama.

Chuck cannot bear an America where many of the "haves" have far toomuch and the "have-nots" have nothing to spare. That America shouldbe unbearable also to us. But, for all his devotion to justice andprogress, pragmatism guides his pursuit of the ideal. The samehardheadedness he displayed at Harvard permeates his prescriptions,which tilt away from the pie-in-the-sky toward the modest andachievable. He describes his approach as "The 50% Solution"--anattempt to get halfway toward eradicating nagging problems. Thisis, to be candid, an immense relief. Here is a politician who isnot promising, for instance, "no child left behind." Alas, therewill always be children left behind. My God, with reading, evenGeorge W. Bush was left behind.

"Reduce Our Dependence on Foreign Oil by 50%." "Reduce IllegalImmigration by at Least 50% and Increase Legal Immigration by up to50%." These are precise and palpable goals, and they fit onto manypeople's agendas, not just Democrats'. But Chuck is best on thespecifics, and these stand in contrast to the bubbly goalsenunciated in the John Kerry platform. I have no space here to listthe promises it made. Just Google "Democratic Party Platform" and"2004," and you'll grasp how fat--in both senses--this document is.(In many ways, the Republican counterpart is worse.) The electorateis, in any case, tired of puffy pledges. Schumer insists we mustreturn to the habits of compromise. Double cafe standards; drill inthe eastern Gulf of Mexico. All right, both sides will feeldiscontent. Still, we would have made progress. Let China buyMiddle Eastern oil. Let Hugo Chavez jump in the lake.

Among Chuck's proposals are white-bread items: reducing childhoodobesity and cutting children's access to Internet pornography, forexample. These are not earth-shattering. But they address real-lifematters. And they are not ideological. No one wants the country toturn into a population of fatties, as no one really wants childrenlearning about exploitative sex on the Web. On the other hand, some(even many) civil libertarians get the hives when any proposal isput forward that restricts or restrains the First Amendment. Schumerwill give them calamine lotion and move on with his project.

Chuck's book does not really address health care or Social Security.These are problems that will need megazillions, and I'm not surethat the senator knows from where these will become available. Heseems to believe that many forms of tax evasion are waiting to betackled, and the funds then flowing to Washington will fill amplecoffers. From his mouth to God's ears, as my mother used to say.

His last chapter deals also with a colossal challenge, and hisresponse is also a 50 percent solution: "Increase Our Ability toFight Terrorism by 50%." Fifty percent is so much more than we evennow imagine we might achieve (although we talk of 100 percentvictories) that Chuck's candor is itself liberating. What is alsorefreshing is that his analytic narrative doesn't just pin blame onPresident Bush. In fact, here and there, he assigns responsibilityto his own party, which has, in some quarters, been dismissive ofthe intelligence services since the 1970s. Here is one Democrat whograsps the new world in which we live, and he knows that there isno escaping it. Chuck is an old-fashioned patriot, and, whateverelections the Democrats win in the near- term, they will only winthe minds of America if they can say--without stumbling over thewords and without showing embarrassment on their cheeks-- thatpatriotism is an honorable and necessary vocation.

By Martin Peretz