Is Chuck Schumer's vision for America realistic?

Sen. Charles Schumer is urging Democrats to embrace government as the solution to middle class decline, cronyism, and the destructive forces of technology and globalization. However, polls show that voters' trust of government is at a historic low.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Charles Schumer, (D) of New York, is reflected in a TV monitor during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington earlier this year. Senator Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats performed poorly in this month's midterm elections in part because they let Republicans portray government as a drag on society.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a key player in crafting the Democrats’ message to voters, has put out an idea for 2016 that portends a steep climb for Democrats: Embrace government, don’t run from it.

In a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday, the New York senator said that “the public knows in its gut” that only a strong and united government “can reverse the middle class decline and help revive the American Dream.”

Senator Schumer argued that only government is strong enough to shield Americans from the destructive forces of technology and globalization – not that government should try to stop those forces, but that it should help people adapt to them and thrive.  

It is an age-old stand that needs vigorous backing, in Schumer’s view. Democrats should start by convincing Americans that government is on their side – not acting on behalf of special interests, he charged. Then the party needs to lay out a pro-government plan to motivate the base and win back white working class voters who abandoned them in 2014.

But at every step, this path will be a challenging one.

First, a gut check. Polls paint a different picture about Americans’ views of government than Schumer does. The 2014 midterm election exit polls showed that a majority of voters (54 percent) believe that the “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals,” while just 41 percent think “the government should do more to solve problems,” The Washington Post reported.

From Gallup to the Pew Research Center, 2014 polls show Americans’ trust of government at historic lows.

Second, about those special interests. While liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts champions consumers even as she charges at Wall Street, on Capitol Hill, Schumer is known as “Wall Street Chuck,” according to The Huffington Post. He has raised millions for Democrats from the financial sector, which he oversees as a member of the Senate Banking Committee.

“Chuck Schumer taking on special interests is like Kim Kardashian taking on media hype,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert and professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. “The likely 2016 presidential nominee is Hillary Clinton, who is also no stranger to Wall Street.”

Third, Democrats had a pro-government middle-class plan, and they still lost the Senate. The plan, called a “Fair Shot” agenda, included raising the minimum wage, pay-equity for women, and affordable student loans. Its chief architect? Schumer.

He defended it vigorously. “The best thing we had going for us was the Fair Shot agenda and we need to do more of it,” he told reporters after the speech, according to The Hill newspaper.

Schumer pointed to two red states – Alaska and Arkansas – that passed increases in the state minimum wage. He he referenced the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll after the election that said the three most popular things that Congress could do next year were to provide access to lower-cost student loans, increase spending on infrastructure, and raise the minimum wage – all government actions.

This year’s elections, he said, was not “a repudiation of government” per se, but of government ineptness – in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (and even in the timing of its passage), in the Department of Veterans Affairs, at the southern border, with the Islamic State. When government “messes up,” Democrats can lose, he said – obviously putting the blame on the administration.

Schumer is “trying to thread a needle,” says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J. In an email, he writes that the senator is “building the case for vigorous government while acknowledging its past failures and pinning those failures on a lame duck president.”

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