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Schumer: Health Care Distracted Democrats From the Middle Class

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Charles E. Schumer says Democrats need to have a realistic agenda for demonstrating the importance of government to middle class voters, citing a rather unlikely subject as detracting from that message: health care.  

"The policy should be simple and easily explained — can it be grasped almost intuitively as something that will help middle-class families?" Schumer said. "Democratic priorities should be achievable. Yes — they must be easy to message, but they have to be a lot more than messaging bills."  

In recent years, Democrats have held no shortage of such votes in the Senate, on proposals they have no expectation of getting the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles, in part because of persistent Republican opposition.  

The messaging chief for Senate Democrats also told an audience at the National Press Club that it was a mistake for Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House to prioritize the overhaul of the health care system the way they did when they controlled both chambers back in 2009 and 2010.  

"After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform," Schumer said. "The plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships caused by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed. But it wasn’t the change we were hired to make." Schumer said that Democrats should have tackled health care eventually, but making the move at the time resulted in a change of focus away from the middle class, and those more likely to be in the electorate.  

"Our health care system was riddled with unfairness and inefficiency. It was a problem desperately in need of fixing. But we would have been better able to address it if Democrats had first proposed and passed bold programs aimed at a broader swath of the middle class," he said in reflecting on the first years of President Barack Obama's administration.  

Schumer said he had expressed his concerns about moving full steam ahead on health care at that time. Still, he attributed the 2014 losses to other factors that made the Republican message of smaller government more appealing that he contended it really is.  

"As 2014 began, the parties were in stalemate. But, when government failed to deliver on a string of non-economic issues — the roll out of Obamacare exchanges, the mishandling of the surge in border crossers, ineptitude at the VA , the initial handling of the Ebola threat, people lost faith in the government's ability to work, and them blamed the incumbent governing party, the Democrats, creating a Republican wave."  

"In order to win in 2016, Democrats must embrace government, not run away from it," Schumer said.  

While warning against being Luddites, he said that on issues like globalization and technology, Democrats will need to do more for the middle class.  

"People know in their hearts that when big, powerful, private-sector forces degrade their lifestyle, only government can protect them," Schumer said.  

There's one fissure between many Democrats on Capitol Hill and the White House — trade policy. While Schumer steered away from specifics in his speech, Senate Democrats have long had less of an appetite for proposals like Trade Promotion Authority (Fast Track) and trade agreements generally than has Obama.  

Schumer's speech at the Press Club, which came during the slow Thanksgiving week on Capitol Hill, is the first of three the New York Democrat plans to give about the party's agenda.  

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