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Some liberals said after the 2016 election that Nancy Pelosi was the worst person to lead the resistance to Donald Trump’s authoritarian reign. Turns out, they were wrong. Pelosi was exactly the leader America needed. She handed his ass to him every time they negotiated. She led two historic impeachments against him. She held her caucus together through thick and thin. The doubters were once loud. Now, they’re quiet.
The same thing can’t yet be said of Chuck Schumer. I suspect liberals doubt the new Senate majority leader more than they ever did the House speaker. They still do. Monday saw an intense debate over how to organize the Senate that rose to a feverish pitch, then broke. The outcome of this stand-off suggests Schumer is on the same trajectory as Pelosi once was. The doubters are loud, but they may soon be quieted.
With twin victories in Georgia, the Democrats control the Senate. Control depends, however, on the Senate president breaking ties. Kamala Harris, as the vice president, has other duties. (She can’t be running from the White House to the Senate to settle every dispute.) So Schumer and his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, have to establish rules and procedures to determine who does what. Until Tuesday night, the Senate was at a stand-still. The leaders could not agree. Meanwhile, the old rules still applied. Despite everything, the Senate Republicans remained functionally in charge.
That pissed off a lot of liberals. Some said Stacey Abrams had not moved heaven and earth to turn Georgia blue and flip the United States Senate just so Schumer could act squishy. But he wasn’t. His first priority, naturally, is getting his caucus members set up with their respective committees. That couldn’t happen until McConnell agreed to proceed. McConnell refused until Schumer guaranteed the Democrats would not kill the filibuster, the rule giving the minority veto power. Schumer said no dice. Killing it is totally on the table. That’s where things stood until McConnell caved.
Why did he cave? It’s hard to say for sure. It might be because two conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said they opposed killing the filibuster. (McConnell cited their remarks Monday in claiming a “win.”) But it might be as Amee Vanderpool argued today—that McConnell caved as a result of Schumer sending a message of some kind during an interview with Rachel Maddow. “We have ways to deal with him,” Schumer said. Even before the interview finished airing last night, McConnell folded. “It is apparent,” Vanderpool said, “that the final blow was executed by Majority Leader Schumer in his calculated reminder, that appeared to be directly aimed at and done for the benefit of Mitch McConnell.”
You could say McConnell didn’t cave. He won. He got two Democrats to kneecap their own caucus, clearing the way for McConnell to sabotage Joe Biden’s agenda just like he did Barack Obama’s. This appears to be true, but appearances can be deceiving. First, assurances mean little. Schumer runs the floor, not Manchin and Sinema. Two, assurances can be reversed. Three, they probably will be when the GOP inevitably abuses the filibuster. While McConnell might appear to have won, in truth, he played the only hand he had. His only hope for success is two Democrats standing against a Democratic president’s popular agenda in order to protect an obscure Senate rule. Are Manchin and Sinema going to oppose $2,000 in covid relief to defend the filibuster?
Vanderpool speculated what Schumer’s “calculated reminder” might be. “He could have inside information about McConnell’s plan to have Democrats convict Trump in the Senate for him, so that he continues to keep his hands clean. Or, Democrats might be planning to pass legislation curtailing campaign finance that would limit the GOP and McConnell substantially. Maybe there is some incriminating evidence against McConnell, that we still don’t know about, that could greatly implicate him in something big, from which he can’t easily escape.” (Read her newsletter here.)
Whatever it was, it was wily, it worked, and it’s a reminder of another kind. Schumer labored under Pelosi’s shadow for four years. He labored under McConnell’s. Either he seemed weak one way or he seemed weak another. That wasn’t fair. (Schumer deserved more credit than he got.) But that was his cross to bear. As the new majority leader, he must find ways to instill trust in liberals—and he is. Last night, he told Maddow the Democrats would no longer trust the Republicans to act in good faith! (He said his party will not repeat the mistakes they made during the Obama years.) And last night, the man most responsible for that bad faith surrendered.
It’s time to trust Chuck.
A slightly different version of this article originally appeared at The Editorial Board.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University.
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