I’m not sure there’s a better possible illustration of “not up to the challenges of the political moment” than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer standing outside a Washington filling station demanding that President Trump lower gas prices.
Last week, one day after Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unveiled a good and necessary proposal to increase federal funding for teacher pay and public school resources in a USA Today op-ed, Schumer summoned the cameras for... this, instead.
At the Wednesday press conference, Schumer blamed the high price of gas on President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Chuck Schumer opposed the Iran nuclear deal.
Schumer also held this press conference as Republicans in California prepared to deliver the signatures necessary to place on the November ballot a repeal of California’s new, Democrat-supported 12-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, a measure they hope will increase GOP turnout in the midterm elections. The gas tax increase is meant to help fund necessary infrastructure repairs and mass transit expansion.
One reason Schumer thought this was a good idea is because Democrats also did it to George W. Bush. In fact, the photo at the top of this post is not from Wednesday’s press conference. It is from April 2006. I couldn’t find a wire photo of this most recent press conference, because no one cared about it. (Roll Call and The Hill sent photographers and the New York Post wrote 150 words. The New York Times mentioned the press conference deep in the middle of a story about how oil prices are now falling.)
Here’s a photo of Senator Schumer with then-Senator Barbara Boxer in 2004:
Here Chuck in 2005:
Gas prices are the perfect “bread-and-butter” issue for a politician like Schumer, who has some sense that economic issues dictate voter behavior, but who is far too captured by finance to support the sort of sweeping measures that would make most people significantly better off —at the expense of Chuck Schumer donors. The price of gas is also “nonpartisan,” in that no party supports higher gas prices, except that sometimes Democrats do, for good reasons, making it extra “nonpartisan” to be a Democrat who opposes high gas prices, for political expediency. (The fact that presidents are only remotely, barely, indirectly responsible for trends in oil prices also doesn’t matter, because politics is not supposed to be about making persuasive and true arguments, it is supposed to be about standing in front of a gas station blaming the president for how much it costs to fill up the family Silverado.)
To understand why Minority Leader Schumer—who failed to get a deal for DACA recipients; who gave multiple Democrats his tacit blessing to endorse Trump’s efforts to install a torturer as the head of the CIA and deregulate the banks; who announced his public support for Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, making any peaceful and democratic resolution to the occupation even more remote and unlikely—took The Resistance to the pumps, you have to understand that everything he does as a politician is aimed at appealing to a well-off white suburban Boomer couple that only exists in his imagination.
That is not a joke or insult. It’s a fact, as he explained to The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert last year.
The Baileys live in Massapequa, a town on the South Shore, across the bay from Jones Beach. Joe works for an insurance company; Eileen is an administrative assistant in a physician’s office. The couple have three children, two of whom are grown. Economically, the Baileys are doing O.K., but they worry about rising property taxes and what the future holds for their kids. They’re not strong partisans. They feel that politicians of both parties sometimes condescend to them, something they hate. The Baileys voted for Bill Clinton twice, then, in 2000, after much agonizing, pulled the lever for George W. Bush.
“To Schumer,” Kolbert says, “the Baileys represent the sort of voters that the Democratic Party too often neglects, and that it needs to reach in order to survive.” Again, they are not real. Schumer made this couple up, you will not be surprised to learn, in 1998, when he was running for the Senate seat he still occupies. Nothing in the political landscape since then has caused him to question if perhaps The Baileys should still be not just his electoral priority, but the priority of the party he now helps to run.
The federal gasoline tax, by the way, hasn’t risen since 1993, which means, adjusted for inflation, it’s fallen to its lowest level in nearly 30 years. Transportation recently overtook energy as America’s largest source of carbon emissions. After dropping off in the wake of the financial crisis and recession, U.S. transportation emissions have been steadily on the rise, due largely to increased air travel and sales of large trucks and SUVs, which become more popular when gasoline is cheap. The current goal of the Paris climate agreement is try to halt the rise in global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Climate Action Tracker, in its analysis of the U.S.’s projected future emissions, says, “if all countries were to follow the US’s approach, warming could reach over 3°C and up to 4°C..” Four degrees of warming would be catastrophic for humanity and the planet.
But weigh all that against the Baileys, who obviously care about the price of a gallon of gas, because, in Schumer’s imagination, they were all getting ready to drive out to Orient Point for Memorial Day Weekend. Gas prices certainly matter more to them than exempting certain banks and credit unions from requirements to report data about potential discriminatory lending practices.
The Baileys also, existing as they do in the mind of a 67-year-old politician with a local news producer’s nose for a fresh moral panic, probably care about teens vaping, and e-cigarettes being marketed to them with “cool” candy flavors. That is why Schumer held an anti-Juul press conference on Friday, in which he called on the FDA to “ban the kid-friendly e-cig flavors.” It’s not clear if he, while standing outside a high school, surrounded by cameras, brought up his new and important proposal to raise teacher pay. (The Baileys aren’t teachers, and Massapequa schools are quite well-funded anyway.)
This is Chuck Schumer’s political playbook, and he has not updated it since he invented the Baileys in 1998. It guided him as Democrats failed to provide any meaningful check on George W. Bush, up until Bush’s overwhelming incompetence and his administration’s corruption finally exhausted the goodwill he received for having had 9/11 happen on his watch and then using it to whip up support for an unrelated war and endless occupation, several bloody years into which an angry nation finally elected some Democrats on the platform of “not being Republicans.”
Or it was the gas prices, maybe, if you’re Chuck Schumer, and that was your big idea back then, and also now. If the Democratic Party ever manages to win back the U.S. Senate, it’ll be in spite of Chuck Schumer’s political instincts.