You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Half Full

Chuck Schumer's practical solutions to everyday problems.

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

Still, Chuck was very much a liberal, and he knew or felt instinctively that practical wisdom did not lie in winning over the children of elites and alienating those, as the old Wobblies song put it, without whose "brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn." He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974 and, by November of that year, had been elected to the New York State Assembly. He was 23, the same age at which Theodore Roosevelt entered the state legislature. A career had been launched--a career with not only political savvy but with heart and brain.

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

Chuck cannot bear an America where many of the "haves" have far too much and the "have-nots" have nothing to spare. That America should be unbearable also to us. But, for all his devotion to justice and progress, pragmatism guides his pursuit of the ideal. The same hardheadedness he displayed at Harvard permeates his prescriptions, which tilt away from the pie-in-the-sky toward the modest and achievable. He describes his approach as "The 50% Solution"--an attempt to get halfway toward eradicating nagging problems. This is, to be candid, an immense relief. Here is a politician who is not promising, for instance, "no child left behind." Alas, there will always be children left behind. My God, with reading, even George W. Bush was left behind.

"Reduce Our Dependence on Foreign Oil by 50%." "Reduce Illegal Immigration by at Least 50% and Increase Legal Immigration by up to 50%." These are precise and palpable goals, and they fit onto many people's agendas, not just Democrats'. But Chuck is best on the specifics, and these stand in contrast to the bubbly goals enunciated in the John Kerry platform. I have no space here to list the 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 electorate is, in any case, tired of puffy pledges. Schumer insists we must return to the habits of compromise. Double cafe standards; drill in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. All right, both sides will feel discontent. Still, we would have made progress. Let China buy Middle Eastern oil. Let Hugo Chávez jump in the lake.

Among Chuck's proposals are white-bread items: reducing childhood obesity and cutting children's access to Internet pornography, for example. These are not earth-shattering. But they address real-life matters. And they are not ideological. No one wants the country to turn into a population of fatties, as no one really wants children learning about exploitative sex on the Web. On the other hand, some (even many) civil libertarians get the hives when any proposal is put forward that restricts or restrains the First Amendment. Schumer will 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 sure that the senator knows from where these will become available. He seems to believe that many forms of tax evasion are waiting to be tackled, and the funds then flowing to Washington will fill ample coffers. From his mouth to God's ears, as my mother used to say.

His last chapter deals also with a colossal challenge, and his response is also a 50 percent solution: "Increase Our Ability to Fight Terrorism by 50%." Fifty percent is so much more than we even now imagine we might achieve (although we talk of 100 percent victories) that Chuck's candor is itself liberating. What is also refreshing is that his analytic narrative doesn't just pin blame on President Bush. In fact, here and there, he assigns responsibility to his own party, which has, in some quarters, been dismissive of the intelligence services since the 1970s. Here is one Democrat who grasps the new world in which we live, and he knows that there is no escaping it. Chuck is an old-fashioned patriot, and, whatever elections the Democrats win in the near-term, they will only win the minds of America if they can say--without stumbling over the words and without showing embarrassment on their cheeks--that patriotism is an honorable and necessary vocation.

By Marty Perez