Bombastic Senators in 'This Town'

Tuesday, 27 Aug 2013 02:30 PM

By Robert Feinberg

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This commentary on the best-selling expose of life in political Washington, "This Town," by Mark Leibovich, is inspired by his characterization of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as "a bombastic Jew," a label that cries out for color and context.

When I first saw Schumer when he arrived as a young member of the House Banking Committee, Schumer appeared to be an insufferable, bombastic left-winger. In the intervening decades, Schumer has grown in stature and influence, and he has developed a repertoire of pitches to complement his fastball.

Readers who are impressed by people who excel on standardized tests would appreciate that Schumer posted a perfect 1600 on his SATs before there was any fudge factor in the scoring. Perhaps it is disappointing, therefore, that he frequently resorts to cliches like, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," and slipping into the pedestrian prose that marks most congressional debate, based on expressions like, "There is no silver bullet (perhaps the bullet is multi-colored), but my bipartisan, common sense legislation strikes the right balance," which frequently reduce Congress to a bad skit from Saturday Night Live or "The Gong Show" without the gong.

As two-time chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Schumer was instrumental in delivering a majority that Republicans have been unable to reverse or even to reduce. It is difficult even to imagine that not so many years ago, the Republicans appeared to be within striking distance of a 60-vote majority.

Now the 2014 election will be the third cycle in a row in which the Republicans will be predicted to take control, but will probably fall short once again or even manage to lose seats. Schumer was rewarded for his success with a position in leadership, and he appears to harbor no ambition for higher office outside the Senate, nor has he cashed in by taking higher-paying opportunities on Wall Street, K Street or Massachusetts Avenue, Northeast, home of former GOP star Sen. Jim (Creme) DeMint, R-S.C.

One can think of examples of bombastic senators from other ethnic backgrounds. For example, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., the incumbent Schumer defeated in his first Senate race, a clash of titans, would fit the description of "a bombastic Italian." During the campaign he called Schumer a "putz," but when the campaign was over, his concession speech was so gracious that listeners might have wondered whether, if he had showed that much class during the campaign, he might not have needed to concede on election night.

D'Amato followed the New York maxim, "If they give you an inch, take it." When Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., was too timid to take on Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., who was in failing health, D'Amato jumped in and established himself as a dominant power in the state as his protege, George Pataki, won the governorship.

Another senator who comes to mind is the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., a "bombastic Irishman" and Richard Nixon's favorite Democrat. When Moynihan was serving as U.N. Ambassador and Sen. James Buckley, R-N.Y., was in office, Moynihan was asked on Meet the Press (way back when I watched it regularly) whether he might run for the Senate, and Moynihan responded that not only did he not have any plans to run, but if he did, in fact, run, voters should be so taken aback that they should not vote for him.

This disclaimer went far beyond what was required and in the event turned out to be mere bombast, but this is what viewers can expect when they turn on programs where senators appear as guests or when they watch Senate debates and hearings on C-SPAN.

Mark Leibovich was certainly not speaking as a Republican when he attached his label to Chuck Schumer. Conservative Republicans should beware. When Schumer was promoting his book in 2008, I attended his presentation at the downtown Borders bookstore, which shows how long ago it was. He recognized me, and we discussed the outlook for the regime that would likely arrive in January, with Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

That evening, Schumer was lamenting that the Democrats had no national message with the power and simplicity of the Republican appeal based on religion and family issues, opposition to gay rights and support of gun owners' rights.

Looking back, if the Democrats really had a message problem, they have solved it, they have developed dominant fundraising, candidate recruitment and voter turnout games, thanks to the leadership of Schumer and his teammates who are now in the White House.

After the Democrats' most recent electoral triumphs in the presidential and Senate races of 2012, Schumer appeared at a Capital breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. He could have crowed and taunted his opponents, now in disorderly retreat, but his demeanor was subdued and measured.

Until Republicans can close what now appears to be a significant talent gap, they might do well to take a lesson.

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