Chuck Schumer wants an FDR-style first 100 days

An interview with the Senate minority leader about how Democrats need to change, what he’ll do if Trump tries to steal the election, and whether the filibuster must go

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If Joe Biden indeed becomes president, and the Democrats indeed retake the Senate, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York would become the Robin to Biden’s Batman. Like Biden, Schumer is a moderate, a centrist, a prodigious fundraiser from Wall Street who in many ways symbolizes the modern, business-friendly Democratic Party establishment. Like Biden, Schumer in recent months has hinted at the need for Democrats to chart a new way, reviving the forsaken legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I interviewed him yesterday by phone, with a hope of understanding what a Trump defeat might usher in. For getting rid of the president is hopefully just the beginning.

Before we get to that, a programming note. I will be doing one of my live video chats for full subscribers today at 1 p.m. New York time, 6 p.m. London time, 10 a.m. Pacific time. The login info will land in subscribers’ inboxes about an hour beforehand.

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“Our job is to create a Rooseveltian-type response”: a conversation with Senator Chuck Schumer

ANAND: So it's election eve, you and Joe Biden are both known as centrists, moderates, but Biden has also talked about an FDR-sized presidency given the circumstances. In the event that Biden is president and you're Senate majority leader in January, should the first 100 days look like the modern, centrist Democratic Party's, or should it look like FDR's?

CHUCK: It ought to look like FDR's.

One area is climate, with a big, strong, aggressive climate agenda that takes into account working people, takes into account racial injustice.

The second is wealth and income inequality. Obviously, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Changing the tax code so it's fairer for labor rather than capital. Strengthening labor unions. One of the reasons working-class incomes have declined is the weakening of the labor movement. We have to strengthen that. We need a big, broad infrastructure bill, and it could create millions of jobs. A lot of those jobs should go to poor people, people who have had prison records. And these are good-paying jobs. Getting rid of student debt. I have a proposal with Elizabeth Warren that the first $50,000 of debt be vanquished, and we believe that Joe Biden can do that with the pen as opposed to legislation. 

Then there are issues that don’t seem related to income inequality but are. Immigration reform. Criminal-justice reform is another economic issue. If you have a small conviction for a minor crime, you can never get a good job. I like the idea of paying care workers more.

The third area is democracy. We’ve got to change the structure of society. Making it much easier to vote. We can change America structurally that way. 

So it’s a big, bold agenda. My job is to get as much of that passed and get the votes for it, which obviously is not something I can snap my fingers and do. I want the boldest agenda that we can get the votes to pass.

ANAND: To get a lot of those things done, do you think the filibuster needs to go?

CHUCK: We’ve first got to get the majority. Because if we don’t get the majority, all is lost.

ANAND: I know, but I'm saying if you get the majority and you want to do these things, is there any way you could get them done with the filibuster in place?

CHUCK: Everything is on the table. Everything is on the table. 

ANAND: But if you have a majority, would you be willing to fight for that at this stage?

CHUCK: What I’ve said to you is you have to get the majority, and then everything is on the table. That is what I said.

ANAND: But that's different from saying this agenda is so important that, come hell or high water, I'm going to fight for that.

CHUCK: We have to get it done. We have to get it done, and I will figure it out. We have to have unity in our caucus, right? I have a leadership team that meets every Monday night. On that team are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and on that team are Mark Warner and Joe Manchin, and we have had great unity. Every member opposed the Trump tax bill, every member supported impeachment, every member voted to keep healthcare, every member voted against Amy Coney Barrett.

So we’ve got to create a dynamic where we can get these things done, and we're going to figure out the best way to do that.

ANAND: Are you in favor of expanding the Supreme Court at this point?

CHUCK: As I said, everything is on the table.

ANAND: But why only leave things on the table? Why not advocate for things?

CHUCK: Because you have to get the majority, Anand. I can't snap my fingers and make everybody do it, OK? You know that. And I am going to work hard for the boldest agenda we can have, the best way we can, and we’re not eliminating any way.

ANAND: Given what we're seeing from the president, in terms of his statements about lawsuits, given what we're seeing with his cheering on people committing violent acts against the Biden campaign bus, and with Marco Rubio, your colleague, today calling on Floridians to engage in similar violence on highways with cars

CHUCK: He did? Marco Rubio did? This is despicable.

ANAND: It feels like we are now talking about open calls for political violence from the president and others. Do you believe the president is specifically attempting and making plans to sabotage and steal the election as we speak?

CHUCK: I think he will try to do whatever it takes to prevent himself from losing power. I don't know what exactly he will do. I'm not in his head. If we win by a whole lot, it will be a lot harder for him. And we’re preparing for it. I have a group of senators who are looking at all the alternatives should he try to do this — Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Chris Murphy, Tammy Duckworth, and Martin Heinrich. And we’re looking at all eventualities. We’re looking at legal actions. We’re looking at working with governors. We’re working with intelligence agencies — everybody that we can — to prevent him from thwarting democracy, which I have no doubt he will try to do.

ANAND: Inciting violence is actually a crime, as you know. Do you believe Trump has crossed the line into specifically inciting violence?

CHUCK: He has an obligation to say, “No violence. Discourage violence.” When he applauded those people trying to run that bus off the road, it was outrageous and he was encouraging violence.

ANAND: You have been one of the two principal opposition leaders in Trump’s tenure. More than 200 judges got confirmed. A lot of his work of gutting the State Department, rolling back environmental regulations, etc., was able to get done. Is there any day on which you've looked back on your own performance in this time and thought: I should have been tougher as a source of resistance in this or that particular way?

CHUCK: Well, we fought him tooth and nail. And, as I said, on every major issue, we beat him [Editor’s note: 👀] and had total unity. Once we got the House, we could thwart a lot of bad things he wanted to do legislatively. But we did a good job of fighting him tooth and nail. But the biggest challenge we face now, should we get the majority, is not just stopping him, but creating a big, bold agenda.

ANAND: Do you expect to face a progressive primary challenger in 2022?

CHUCK: Look, I have been in politics a while. I do a good job. The best job I can for the people of New York and the people of the country, and it’s always worked out.

ANAND: You haven't heard any of those murmurs of people looking to run against you?

CHUCK: The answer I gave you is the answer. You do a good job for New York, you do a good job for the country, and it works out.

ANAND: But behind that, the question is when you talk about some of the big things at the beginning of this conversation, the big, bold agenda, some of that represents, frankly, a recognition, it sounds like, that what Democrats stood for in the ’90s and 2000s was often not big and bold enough. Is that a fair statement?

CHUCK: Well, certainly in the ’90s. But the world changed, and income has flowed to the top in the last 15 years. Unions are much weaker than they used to be. Climate is much worse.

ANAND: But don’t Democrats have a lot of responsibility for letting some of those things happen?

CHUCK: No, we fought them when we could, up and down the line. In 2009 and ’10, the last time we had power, we did some good things, but we should’ve done a lot more. The world has changed in ways that make it much harder for average Americans to get ahead, and our job is to create a Rooseveltian-type response to it. I agree with that.

ANAND: But I think that the notion is, whether you read Kurt Anderson's new book, “Evil Geniuses,” or Jane Mayer's book “Dark Money,” a lot why the world changed was because of what folks did on the right. But a lot of it, also, was a Democratic Party that was very solicitous of the donor class, going along with too many things. I just wonder if you agree with that basic thesis or you disagree with it.

CHUCK: Well, you'd have to give me specifics. I mean…

ANAND: Do you think you took too much money from Wall Street?

CHUCK: Pardon?

ANAND: Do you think you've taken too much money from Wall Street, in retrospect?

CHUCK: I think we’ve opposed Wall Street. The people I've appointed to these commissions have been very pro-working people. 

ANAND: There’s now a new conversation that's being had about the role of money in politics that may not have been the conversation ten years ago. When you look back on your own fundraising, it's heavily Wall Street. Do you have any regrets about that?

CHUCK: I’ve opposed the Citizens United decision the minute it came out. I don’t want soft money in politics. I’ve always been against that. I’ve always been strongly for campaign-finance reform. 

ANAND: But other candidates for office, Bernie Sanders and others, have rejected Wall Street money. You have not rejected Wall Street money. Correct?

CHUCK: Well, I don’t — you know, the bottom line is, I stand by what I propose, what I stand for. The bottom line is, judge me by my actions. Yes, you should. 

ANAND: So there’s no source of money that’s corrupting if it doesn’t result in a specific proposal? 

CHUCK: I think we have to change campaign-finance law dramatically. Citizens United was one of the worst decisions that we had.

ANAND: Part of bold change involves a recognition in all corners about each of our role in the old normal being bad. So I will say as a media person, there are a lot of ways in which my industry works that, in retrospect, we have huge complicity. We are very complicit. And I just wonder, do you look at your Democratic Party and say, here is where we actually fell short and enabled some of the institutional and economic weakness?

CHUCK: Well, give me an example. I don't, I mean, you know, the bottom line is, I'm fighting for the right things.

ANAND: I mean a simple example is financial deregulation. What I’m saying to you is a lot of people don't necessarily trust the ability to do big, bold change by people who are not forthright about the fact that that was not happening before. And it was not happening for a specific set of reasons.

CHUCK: Well, I will certainly say the change in the last 15 or 20 years has not been big enough or bold enough.

ANAND: What should Americans do if in the next day, two days, three days, Donald Trump actually does attempt to steal the election, declare false victory, try to stop votes being counted?

CHUCK: He can declare false victory, but we’ve talked to the governors of the various states. We cannot allow him to declare victory. We have to fight back and fight him in every way we can. We’re going to have to fight it tooth and nail. I don’t underestimate what Donald Trump might start. 

ANAND: Do you think we'll know who's going to be the new president by Tuesday night or not?

CHUCK: Hope so. If Biden wins Florida by a lot, wins North Carolina by a lot, there’s no telling. The goal here is to beat Trump to get something real done. I believe that passionately.

Chuck Schumer is the Senate minority leader. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty