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The emerging liberal blowback against Chuck Schumer, explained

It’s not just about border security.

Senate Lawmakers Address The Media After Their Weekly Policy Luncheons Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Liberals have turned their ire on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Growing blowback against Schumer — especially among progressive activists — has been building for some time, but the latest trigger is a statement he made on Tuesday concerning border security. During a press briefing, Schumer noted that Democrats were standing firm on backing $1.6 billion in funding for border security measures — a figure lawmakers had agreed to earlier this year as part of a Homeland Security appropriations bill.

That statement, however, was initially misinterpreted as Schumer backing $1.6 billion for a border wall, something he has said he was willing to negotiate on in the past but wasn’t referring to this time around.

This perception of his comments set off a flurry of outrage from liberals who have been eager to see Democrats offer a more full-throated condemnation of President Trump’s immigration policy in the midterms and were baffled by a seeming willingness to cave to Trump’s demands, especially as the border wall remains one of the least popular policy priorities with voters. Some felt that offering any funding for any of the administration’s border efforts was already giving up too much.

Schumer’s staff clarified exactly what he was referring to in his statements, but the outcry points to a bigger dissatisfaction with the minority leader that’s cropped up on other occasions as well.

It illustrates just how peeved liberals have become at Schumer, whom they see as operating in the outdated politics of good faith against a party that has none to give.

Schumer’s office, meanwhile, emphasizes that the minority leader has compelled Democrats to take a stand on plenty of issues, including a recent judicial nominee who supported a notably discriminatory North Carolina voter ID law.

“Senate Democrats have been united in holding President Trump accountable and fighting for the middle class,” a Schumer spokesperson told me. “Just [Wednesday], every Senate Democrat voted to oppose the nomination of Thomas Farr to the federal bench and voted to send a message to the Trump administration that their policy toward Saudi Arabia is unacceptable.”

The emerging blowback against Chuck Schumer, explained

The scuffle over border security is far from the first time Schumer has garnered backlash for how he’s handled opposition to the Trump administration.

In this case, some of that outcry was based on a muddled interpretation of his remarks, but in the past, it’s been rooted in his repeated willingness to support or compromise with Republicans on issues as varied as judicial nominees and Cabinet positions.

Earlier this year, progressive activists slammed Schumer after he approved the fast-tracking of two sets of Trump’s judicial nominees in August and October — moves he made in order to allow red-state Democrats to go home and campaign. At the time, groups including Demand Justice — which was a key prong of the opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation — argued that such efforts made Democratic leadership look weak.

“Mitch McConnell is in the middle of stealing the federal courts for conservatives, and Democrats continue to bring a butter knife to a gunfight,” Demand Justice’s Brian Fallon said after the first deal in August. “It is hard to think of a more pathetic surrender heading into the Kavanaugh hearings.”

It didn’t help that most of the endangered red-state Democratic incumbents including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill ended up losing in the midterms — making the deals seem largely pointless. Six other incumbents wound up winning in states that Trump took in 2016 including Sens. Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, Sherrod Brown, Debbie Stabenow, Tammy Baldwin and Bob Casey.

Schumer’s backing of judicial nominees is one of several moves he’s made that have prompted Democrats to question whether he has what it takes to effectively stymie Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as they barrel forward with their agenda.

As ThinkProgress’s Frank Dale writes, the list of liberals’ grievances is quickly getting longer and longer:

In addition to clearing the way for numerous Trump judicial nominations, Schumer has condemned fellow Democrats while calling for more “civility” in politics, enabled the repeal of financial regulations put in place after the Great Recession, praised Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), praised the president for moving the U.S. embassy in Israel, backed the confirmations of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, FBI director Christopher Wray, CIA director Mike Pompeo, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Veteran Affairs Secretaries David Shulkin and Robert Wilkie, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

On top of all this, the recent Kavanaugh loss still hangs heavy.

Progressive activists stormed a Schumer town hall in New York City in July, calling on him to unite the Democratic caucus and “whip the vote!” Yet Manchin ended up breaking with Democrats to back the historically unpopular nominee. (Republicans had enough votes to confirm Kavanaugh even without Manchin.)

This outcry hasn’t exactly crystallized — for now

This discontent toward Schumer has not resulted in a concrete effort to challenge his leadership in the same way that it has against aspiring Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House.

Just a few weeks ago, Schumer was heartily reelected to his role as Senate minority leader, and even Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, who had said she planned to oppose him, ended up caving. At the time, she said there wasn’t a viable alternative. And this dynamic might just be what keeps Schumer in his perch, at least for the foreseeable future.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed among lefties following politics, including prominent tennis player Martina Navratilova.

The growing pushback on Schumer could encourage him to take a more aggressive position on liberal policy in the months to come — including any potential deals on Trump nominees.

Whether he actually does so could play a key role in how Democrats perceive — and support — his leadership moving forward.

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