The battle for America’s political soul could come down to a street brawl between two boys from Queens and Brooklyn.
Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer are spoiling for a clash once the President-elect takes office next year and the new Democratic Senate minority leader gets his hands on his caucus after winning election on Wednesday.
Schumer had hoped to be directing a Senate majority to implement Hillary Clinton’s agenda, but the stunning upset in last week’s election means he is the lone hope for Democrats as they resist an unexpected Republican presidency and GOP dominance on Capitol Hill.
“Chuck Schumer is going to be the single most influential Democrat in Washington,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to retiring Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “He is, as leader of the Senate Democratic caucus, the only thing standing between the Trump-Ryan legislative agenda and those who are opposed.”
Trump and Schumer — both flamboyant, media savvy, outspoken, deal-making larger-than-life New York personalities have history. In fact, Schumer is one of the few political figures in Washington who Trump actually knows well, and the billionaire contributed to several of his new rival’s election campaigns.
Schumer even rode to Trump’s defense when he got embroiled in a primary spat earlier this year with Ted Cruz over “New York values.” Schumer (Brooklyn) and Trump (Queens, then Manhattan), had common cause against the Texas senator.
Schumer could never have expected he would be matching wits against Trump in the White House — but the next stage of their political relationship promises to be one of the most intriguing stories of 2017.
Given their common experience in the New York fishbowl, where business and politics mix, both probably have an idea of what makes the other tick. That alone contrasts with the awkward relationship between President Barack Obama and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who lacked a common political language. McConnell would prefer to work with Vice President Joe Biden instead.
Skirmishes between Trump and Schumer will also reflect the ironic influence of the elite East Coast haven of New York on top-level politics in Washington — after an election decided in the industrial heartlands of the Rust Belt.
Trump, with his reality television background, promises to dominate the conversation once he moves to Washington in January.
But in Schumer, Democrats also possess a megaphone, and a contrast to the soft-spoken Machiavellian Reid, who was more of an inside player.
Schumer’s facility with the media led to the Washington cliche that the most dangerous place in the city was between him and a camera, but in recent years he has refashioned his image and spent less time in television green rooms.
He’s promoted other Democrats from his spot on the party’s Senate Democratic leadership team and become a more rounded political figure.
“He has become a much more serious legislator and I think Republicans understand that,” Manley said.
Still, Schumer’s capacity to drive a sharp political message and sense of shifting political winds will be vital to Democrats as they climb off the canvas.
Schumer the politician is known as a schmoozer, who is willing to engage the other side but to also fight tenaciously.
Schumer “has generally worked well with Republicans even though he can be a fierce partisan,” said Jim Kessler, who was a senior aide to Schumer on Capitol Hill for eight years and now is senior vice president for policy at Third Way.
“He has a belief that politics is a rough sport but it can be played fairly and cleanly. If you play the game that way even if you take a shot at him he feels that it is fair and doesn’t ruin the relationship,” Kessler said.
If it comes to a knife fight with Trump, Schumer is unlikely to shirk from a confrontation and will marshall his Democrats behind him.
“This is a guy — he wants to win,” said Jim Battista, a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, New York, where Schumer is a fixture at commencement ceremonies.
“It’s not much use being the minority leader, if … he is not winning.”
Still, if common ground does emerge in the new Washington, Schumer is likely to explore it.
In recent years, he has built relationships with Republicans like Sen John Cornyn of Texas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. And it’s likely his interactions with McConnell will not be as publicly acidic as those between Reid and the Republican leader in recent years.
The Democratic leader in waiting’s first task is to restore equilibrium to his traumatized party. By January, he must chart a strategy for their efforts next year to emerge as a roadblock to Trump and to salvage as much as they can of Obama’s legacy by wielding the Senate filibuster.
Then, Schumer must steel his party for a tough set of re-election races in the mid-terms in 2018.
Fresh from his uncontested election on Wednesday, the product of years of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that speaks to Schumer’s political shrewdness, the New York senator vowed to stand firm against Trump but to also seek areas where the next president and Democrats can work together.
“When we can agree on issues, then we’re going to work with them,” Schumer said. “But I’ve also said to the President-elect on issues where we disagree, you can expect a strong and tough fight.”
Possible common ground includes Trump’s proposals for a massive infrastructure building program and a plan to censure China for what critics says is currency manipulation.
But hopes for cooperation hit a reality check this week, with the appointment to a top White House job of Stephen Bannon, a Trump ally who has links to the white nationalist movement.
The move alarmed some Democrats because it appeared to suggest that the Trump administration would embrace some of the darker aspects of the Republican’s campaign — but it also energized a party that had spent the days since the election wallowing in grief.
“We’re going to keep a really careful eye on the president and on him. If they do anything from this day forward — they’ve done so much awful from this day back — and we’re going to go after them in terms of bigotry,” Schumer said.
Rebuilding the Democratic brand
One of Schumer’s most important duties — as the effective leader of his party in Washington, will be to repair Democratic links to blue collar and middle class Midwestern voters who defected to Trump.
With that in mind, he expanded the Senate Democratic leadership team to include Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose populist primary campaign tapped into the sense of economic malaise and anti-establishment fervor exploited by Trump.
Schumer’s critics have long pointed to his ties to Wall Street finance and big money donors to question his fealty to working class Democratic values.
But Kessler said no one in American politics has a better understanding of the economic challenges facing voters.
“He has the best intuitive sense of the middle class of any politician I have ever met,” said Kessler.
“He comes from the middle class, he still lives in a middle class area, and he obsesses about them and their well being. If there was ideology called middle class it would be his.”
As he reaches out to disaffected Democratic voters, Schumer might be influenced by his own dealings with economically challenged areas of his own state, where he won a thumping 70% of votes in his re-election race.
“He’s a broadly seen as a Manhattan guy who is working at not appearing so much of a Manhattan guy,” said Battista, who said Schumer had taken pains to understand the concerns of Western New York, including campaigns to keep the Buffalo Bills from relocating. “He’s somebody who has always seemed to be comfortable sitting down and talking to the Rust Beltier parts of New York.”