Chuck Schumer was not expecting an in-person interview. Towards the end of a quintessentially boiling Washington D.C. day, the affable and intense New York Democrat was reclining in his office in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, shoes off, blue socks with yellow tips resting atop a tan wooded desk.
"I thought this was supposed to be over the phone," he tells the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press secretary, upon my entrance. There is a slight tinge of surprise in his voice but Schumer doesn't move. "You don't mind, do you?" he asks. I don't.
Schumer is, without doubt or footwear, not easily distracted. Notorious for message control, political diligence and a brutal work ethic, he has meticulously overseen his vision for the United States Senate. Since taking over the DSCC in November 2004, Schumer has raised prodigious amounts of money, recruited candidates who could compete and win in traditionally Republican states, and watched as the Democratic Party has gone from a 44-seat minority to a tenuous 51-seat majority. Heading into the 2008 election, that number seems likely to rise to 56 or 57; a dozen seat swing in just four years. Dreamers within the party -- spurred on by recent talk from Schumer himself -- have begun entertaining the idea of a filibuster proof 60.
But before we get to even those topics, our interview veers off topic ever so slightly.
"You know, the last Sam Stein I knew," Schumer tells me, "was my accordion teacher. He had an eye patch, and would make me practice this song..." The Senator, imitating and accordion player, starts humming a tune that sounds vaguely like "Jingle Bells." "I hated it," he goes on. "I think my mother made me do it because I told her I wanted to play the drums and she certainly didn't want that."
It may be the one of the few things Schumer failed to make work. The Senator, a Harvard Law grad with a perfect SAT score, has certain maxims with which he is defining Democratic politics. The first, and perhaps most predictable, is the 24-hour rule: "They hit you, you have to hit back with the same speed and strength."
The second is to be on the offensive, if possible at all times. When we spoke, Barack Obama was not heeding this advice, having been painted by John McCain as something akin to a publicity-craving troop hater. And Schumer, after praising the presumptive Democratic nominee's trip abroad -- "one of the great tour de forces I have seen in my life" -- dispensed with some Godfather-like advice.
"Go right after them, it is such bull," he said. "These are the types of little tactical games they play. And if you just ignore them or be afraid of them you can lose. You go right after them. Say that is disgraceful of Sen. McCain. I have been with the troops, here, here, and here. And to try and make this a political issue, shame on him. That's what I say."
The third rule, and perhaps the most understated, is to not let the perfect get in the way of the good. "Before I took over the policy was that you don't mix in primaries," Schumer recalled. "And oftentimes the person to win the primary was not the best person for the general or the best Senator. Now we actively try to persuade people to run."
As such, Schumer has occasionally butted heads with others over which candidate should receive establishment backing. Sherrod Brown's primary win over Iraq vet Paul Hackett is illustrative of this tension. But for Democrats, it is hard to argue with his return on success.
"He understands the political environment like a medical doctor with a patient," said longtime party strategist Donna Brazile, whose firm has consulted the DSCC. "All he is doing is helping to prescribe the right formula. The rest is up to the Democrats who are running and the voters who desire a new direction."
Indeed, Schumer's assessment of the various Senate races can be surgeon-like in detail (if coated in a healthy does of spin). "Bob Schaffer [the Republican candidate in Colorado] is the gift that keeps on giving," he says, before referencing the registration balance that portends a difficult path for Democratic candidate Mark Udall. "Susan Collins [the Republican candidate in Maine] on every major vote has sided with George Bush," he argues, before adding that Maine Democratic voting numbers will be buoyed by Obama. "Al Franken [the Democratic candidate in Minnesota] had his difficulties with taxes and his statements from his previous careers," Schumer says, before turning to the news that Norm Coleman had paid significantly reduced rent for an apartment owned by a political friend and patron. "We think we are right in the ballpark."
And yet, for all the overtly political rhetoric that Schumer deploys when discussing Senate races, politics for him remains a highly personal proposition. Months before our interview, an aide to the Senator told me that his boss makes it a point to visit every one of his state's 62 counties after Al D'Amato, the Republican incumbent he beat for the seat, once proclaimed he would never branch outside of New York City. In January 2007, Schumer authored the book "Positively American," a broad outline of methods for winning over the middle class voter that revolved around a fictional family: the Baileys, suburban Long Islanders that just want their lot in life.
Indeed, it is through this lens -- the belief that Democratic success will come on the backs of an expanded, middle-class dominated coalition -- that the Senator views much of the current landscape.
The pipe dream of a 60-seat majority in the Senate, for example, is achievable not because of Bush-backlash or a favorable map. On the contrary, Schumer argues that "this is far and away the toughest map" since he took over the DSCC. Rather, it's because "the big tectonic plates are shifting," and working class voters no longer have faith in the "Reagan mantra." Likewise, when critiquing John McCain, Schumer doesn't start with the Iraq war, economics, energy policies, or age -- an issue he says should be "off the table." Rather, it's the Arizona Republican's lack of "real empathy for people" that the New York Democrat predicts will be his undoing.
"I think McCain is not an attractive candidate," he says. "Give him credit for what he did for his country, but right now voters are asking: 'Do you understand my plight and can you help make it a little better? And I don't think McCain wins on either answer."
Cognizant that a discussion on personality politics could extend well beyond the time limits of our interview, I tried quickly to shift the topic of conversation. But my interjection is interrupted by a Schumer reassurance.
"You can keep going," he says, his feet now below the desk. After all, "you taught me the accordion."