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Outside ‘the Talks,’ Schumer Is On Message

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Charles Schumer leads the message strategy for Senate Democrats and in doing so has helped frame the broader debate with Republicans on matters such as Medicare, the budget and, lately, raising the debt ceiling.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) might not be in the room for White House negotiations on the budget and debt, but he’s taken full charge of the Senate Democrats’ messaging war room — and that’s exactly where Majority Leader Harry Reid wants him to be.

At the end of the last Congress, Reid needed someone who would aggressively push the Senate Democrats’ message when the stakes were highest. It’s a role the Nevada lawmaker doesn’t fill naturally, and he chose Schumer to be his top lieutenant.

Since then, Schumer has targeted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in April’s continuing resolution debate, well before it was in vogue after last week’s Cabinet Room blowup. He’s also spearheaded the party’s message on corporate jet tax breaks in concert with the White House, and he even persuaded rank-and-file Senators earlier this month to abandon their desire for a Democratic budget so the party could focus on a tighter message of protecting Medicare and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy.

The current political climate, with intransigence in both parties on efforts to raise the debt ceiling, has just elevated Schumer’s platform. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“We’ve been a lot more consistent, focused, and I think that’s helped the caucus get a message out at a tough time,” said Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.), one of the Members elected to the Senate during Schumer’s tenure as the Democrats’ campaign chairman.

“Sometimes it’s simply that we all have a policy focus and a policy message but we don’t emphasize it, we don’t combine it,” Casey added about Schumer’s role in the new war room. “Just like anything in life, to be successful, you have to come back to basics and repeat and focus the message. You’re really not talking about policy change. It’s really just an emphasis, a focus on what we already believe and are trying to enact into law.”

The back-to-back spending debates, first to avert a government shutdown in April and now to raise the debt ceiling, not only have enabled Senate Democrats to kick into messaging overdrive but also mark a critical point for a leadership operation that has not always worked seamlessly. Over the past six months, the merger of the Reid and Schumer camps has had its bumps. Both men have distinctly different styles that led to staff-level clashes that only recently dissipated. In part, that is because many of Reid’s top communications staffers from last Congress have left.

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