In November 2006, Senator Chuck Schumer, the senior senator from New York, did what many thought could not be done. He made electoral history as the principal architect of the Democrats' successful effort to win back the United States Senate. In "Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time," Schumer says 2008 is a critical year: Democrats have a chance that they haven't had in a generation. If they handle it right, in 2008 Democrats could become the dominant party for years to come. Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of his book.
CHAPTER 1: Victory?
Election Day is torture. You've finished crafting the message, cutting the ads, knocking on doors and reading the polls. Everything that you can do is done. But everything that really matters is yet to happen. It's all over, as they say, but the voting.
On election night 2006, I was in a suite on the eleventh floor of the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill with a small group of staff, friends, and family. While we waited, I paced the room and picked at cold calamari and oversize cookies. Having nothing to do brings out the worst in me -- I get antsy, irritable, and hungry. I was not on any ballot this year. But the election was as personally important to me as any I'd ever lived through. I was the senator in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the political organization responsible for all the Democratic Senate races. Two years earlier, I had taken the job because I worried that if we lost three more Senate seats, beyond the 45 that we held, there would be no check on the Bush administration's policies, which were doing so much damage to the country I love. For two years, I had been obsessed with preparing for this election. I had recruited candidates. I had raised money. I had approved senior staffs. And I had become friends with many of the Senate hopefuls whose fates were being decided on that night.
Now, waiting for the first returns -- the polls had closed in Virginia and Ohio less than an hour earlier -- I knew that Democrats were, amazingly enough, on the edge of actually taking back the Senate majority. To do it, we had to pick up six of eight vulnerable Republican seats and hold on to every Democratic seat, including six tough ones. Supposedly, during a card game on Air Force One a few weeks before election day, President Bush had said that for Democrats to take back the Senate, "Schumer would need to pull an inside straight." I was still waiting to see the cards. For the 400th time that day, I called J.B. Poersch, executive director of the DSCC, for an update on the exit polls -- voter information gathered on behalf of the networks and craved by campaign staffs, which are ravenous for any morsel of data.
"How's it look?" I asked as he picked up before it even rang.
"How about the big four?" These were four close states -- Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, and Virginia -- where we would need three wins.
"Missouri's okay. Montana's tighter." In Missouri, we had Claire McCaskill, the popular state treasurer who had almost won the governorship two years earlier. In Montana, Jon Tester, a lifelong farmer with a quarter-inch crew cut and a keg for a belly, was our candidate. Both were trying to unseat Republican incumbents. "Tennessee?"
"Not so good."
"The first precincts are reporting."
"I don't know."
Suddenly, every BlackBerry in the room was buzzing. "Chuck!" three aides yelled at once. "They're calling Ohio for Brown!"
Phil Singer, the DSCC's communications director -- and the best in the business -- came running into the room. "They're calling Ohio-"
A staffer handed me a cell phone. "Sherrod Brown," she mouthed.
"Call you back, J.B." I said, pulling one phone from my right ear and putting another to my left. "Sherrod! You ran a great race! See you in the Senate." Sherrod Brown had beaten incumbent Mike DeWine by running an energetic populist campaign in Ohio -- a state that, two years after making the difference for Bush, had turned bluer than a clear sky.
One down. Five to go.
Again, the room erupted in BlackBerry buzz.
"Chuck," everyone yelled, "They're calling..." Voices were lost in a jumble.
"Pennsylvania for Casey!" screamed half the room.
"And New Jersey for Menendez!" screamed the other half.
Bob Casey, pro-life and pro-gun, had unified the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and trounced the ultra-conservative Senator Rick Santorum. Bob Menendez, who had been appointed to his seat by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine less than a year earlier, had overcome a barrage of nasty attacks to notch a solid win. They represented one pickup, in Pennsylvania, and one save, in New Jersey.
A minute later, two cell phones were thrust at me. "Bob!" I cheered. "Congratulations!"
Two down, four to go.
While trying to get some sleep a few days after the final results came in, I felt a familiar unease settling over me. As well as we had done, I was worried that the party I had grown up in, and in which I had a newly prominent role, would misinterpret the results. Just as Bush's reelection in 2004 was not the mandate that he claimed it was, Democrats' impressive victories in 2006 were not the sign of a lasting Democratic majority. If those 11,000 voters (9,000 in Virginia and 2,000 in Montana), out of the millions who had cast their ballots, had made a different choice on election night, it would have been a good night -- a four-seat pickup -- but we would still have been the minority party. As the celebration continued and newly emboldened Democrats strode across the country proudly proclaiming our party's rebirth, it seemed that in the euphoria we were forgetting a critical truth about the election: It was a great night for the Democrats, but mostly because it was such a tough year for the country -- and because George W. Bush was stubborn and intransigent.
From the beginning, Harry Reid and I knew that 75 percent of the election would be about Bush and 25 percent would be about us. In the end, we played our 25 percent well and they played their 75 percent terribly. We recruited great candidates, spoke to the middle class, and drew a sharp contrast with Bush's failures -- from the continuing violence in Iraq, to the Republicans' culture of corruption, to Bush's assertions about the economy that were out of touch with the nagging financial concerns of most Americans. But nevertheless, the overwhelming reason for our victory was that Bush had screwed up.
In 2006, Republicans' mistakes and our campaigns made a lot of voters willing to consider Democrats, but in 2008 and beyond, we won't have George W. Bush or Tom DeLay to kick around anymore. It seemed obvious to me that the next couple of elections will be much more about what the Democratic Party offers; we will have to show voters why they should stick with us. Even if we are able to recruit the best candidates and raise more money again, it all too likely won't be enough. Unless we build on our values to generate better ideas, sharper policies, and a clearer vision, we will be in trouble. Unless we are able to answer the question that Democrats are always asked -- "What does the Democratic Party stand for?" -- voters will go right back to voting for the Republican Party they have been supporting for the last 25 years. Our victory was well deserved, but the Democratic Party still needs a new paradigm.
About a year before the election, during a particularly frustrating Democratic issues meeting -- periodic gatherings of party leaders and strategists to help decide what the Democratic platform should be -- a realization hit home. The meetings were always full of smart and dedicated people, each of whom I'm sure could have generated powerful and important ideas on his or her own. But the product of the meetings too often turned into pablum -- big ideas were made small; tough choices were made weak; bold plans were made timid. A lot of our best stuff was drowned in a sea of consensus.
In this particular meeting, we were talking about energy independence. Of course, it was suggested that the Democratic platform should include higher CAFE standards. Short for "corporate average fuel economy," these are the fuel-efficiency standards that are set for car companies. Raising CAFE standards should be a no-brainer for Democrats -- it would save people money at the pump, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and help the environment.
"Let's do it!" I said. "It's a win, win, win."
"Hang on," someone stood up. "We can't do that. In Michigan, we depend on car companies and the United Auto Workers. They're against this. If CAFE standards are included, we'll walk out." So, CAFE standards were taken out. I left the meeting disturbed and pessimistic.
At these issues meetings, we were able to come up with some specific, trenchant proposals -- raising the minimum wage, making college tuition tax deductible -- that were meaningful and important and could win consensus in 2006. We rode them to victory against Bush, when voters just needed a feel for how we would govern. But they did not answer the essential question -- what do Democrats stand for? Almost every Democrat, in every corner of the country, is still asked this question almost every day.
In 2008 and beyond, a greater percentage of the electorate will focus on our vision. We will need to be clearer, bolder, broader, and more specific. In those meetings, I saw that it is just not possible by consensus.
The last time a political party created a new and successful model was in 1994. That year, Newt Gingrich did it with the Contract with America. After the meeting on CAFE standards, I kept asking myself, how did he do it? I wrestled with this conundrum for weeks. And then I had an epiphany. Newt Gingrich's Contract with America was not created as a consensus document of the Republican Party; it was the manifesto of a renegade who was trying to shake up his own party. It was aimed far more at Republicans than at Democrats -- more at Bob Michel than at Bill Clinton. I became convinced that instead of calibrating our direction with careful tactical decisions made in private gatherings, the solution was to take a vision -- a set of ideas uncompromised by countless chefs, each adding his or her favored spirit to the brew -- present it to the public and see how it fared. If it caught on, the party would respond. If not, someone else would present a better one.
That's why I wrote this book.
For years, whenever friends or colleagues had suggested I write a book, on the 1994 battle for gun control or my 1998 race against Senator Alfonse D'Amato for instance, I had demurred. But while sitting in that meeting watching the Democratic platform being whittled down, I decided to give it a shot. I had no ambition to create our entire vision on my own, nor any illusion that I alone could define a new paradigm. But I did have ideas and a perspective that I wanted to share. And I knew they would never make it out of those meetings intact.
I wrote this book, which is a reflection of my own particular perspective and vision, to try to help move the Democratic Party in the right direction. While I certainly do not have all the answers -- I'm not even sure of all the questions -- I feel that my background and my 30 years in politics give me a unique perspective that I yearn to share with my party and my fellow Americans.
Much of this book was written before election night 2006. But I am convinced that it is even more relevant now than it was when I started -- after 2006, people are more open to our message. If Democrats hope to expand our razor-thin majority, if we want to win back the White House, if we dream of turning Democratic values into a paradigm and platform that will make our party the majority party for a generation, we have a long, long way to go. Bush's failures inspired Americans in blue, purple, and red states to give us a chance. But now that we control Congress and because a presidential election with no incumbent is approaching, the onus is on us. Saying that we can do better is no longer enough -- now we must prove it. In the wake of our victory, the Democratic Party needs additional ideas and policies even more than we did before we won.
In 2008 we must be able to respond to the question that we have not been able to answer sufficiently since Bill Clinton was on the top of our ticket in the mid-90s: What do Democrats really stand for?
This is excerpted from "Positively American," by Senator Charles Schumer.