They could finish each other’s sentences if they wanted. They’ve known each other that long. Between them, they have 70 years of experience as legislators.
Charles Ellis (Chuck) Schumer was first elected to the House in 1980, then to the Senate in 1998. Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi won her House seat in a special election in 1987.
They were key allies in the gun safety fights of the 1990s, the Brady Bill, and the assault weapons ban. They were in the same social group in the 1980s, when Schumer lived with three other congressmen in a brownstone on Capitol Hill dubbed “Animal House,” which was owned by then California Rep. George Miller, another Pelosi pal.
Now Chuck and Nancy are directing the fight to align their party’s priorities to ensure a Democrat is elected to the White House in 2020. “So they’re very close, very tight,” says a House Democratic leadership aide. “They talk every day, they talk at night on their cell phones. They talk a lot.”
About what? “Anything, everything, all of it.”
Case in point was last week’s Oval Office meeting, where the two leaders got President Trump to take ownership of a “Trump shutdown” should it occur over Christmas. They met at 8 p.m. the night before in Pelosi’s office to decide who would say what. They agreed Pelosi would make the point that when she became Speaker, she would immediately move to reopen the government, basically telling Trump if he wouldn’t do it, she would, and she had the votes.
Schumer would go through the intricacies of the Democratic proposals. “It wasn’t bad cop/good cop,” says a Democratic aide. “It was bad cop/bad cop. They very quickly started pounding at him and pounding at him until he took ownership (of shutdown).”
Trump unexpectedly brought in the press, thinking that might throw off his interlocutors. Big mistake. The body language was telling. Pelosi sat up straight. Calm and measured, she spoke to the president directly. Schumer sat slumped over, more committed to eye contact with the media than with Trump. It’s long been said that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Schumer and a camera, and true to his reputation, Schumer turned away from Trump to address the media, infuriating Trump.
The publicity hungry Schumer is “the old Chuck,” says a friend. “The New Chuck is the leader of the Senate Democrats and defers to his colleagues quite a bit. Ask them who is their closest friend in the Senate, and 40 Democrats would say Schumer. His listening skills are underrated.”
Some Hill hands wonder how Schumer will deal with having to defer to Pelosi, who as Speaker will have the upper hand when it comes to setting the Democratic agenda. After all, she can deliver votes to pass legislation, where he can’t. The Chuck/Nancy relationship “can’t be as good as they’re pretending it to be,” says a former Senate chief of staff, “because she’ll be sending over all this progressive legislation which a lot of Democrats don’t want to vote for. What will they do? Hide behind [Mitch] McConnell?” In fact, they will, and they’ll be secretly happy on some matters on which McConnell won’t schedule votes.
The progressive onslaught may not happen. One of the reasons Pelosi is speaker is she can keep her left at bay. She and Schumer are quietly aligned on the goal of having a strong Democratic agenda that doesn’t hurt vulnerable Democrats or upset their chances for 2020 by going too far off the rails with progressive legislation.
“We’ll be defending a lot of tough House districts in 2020,” says Jim Kessler with Third Way. “We’re looking for a Democratic majority that spans several Congresses, not just one.” He points out that not a single Democrat who won in a red-to-blue district ran an ad on Medicare for All.
Holding the line in the House on legislation that not all Democrats want to vote on is Pelosi’s job. Rolling back Trump’s tax cut would top that list. It wouldn’t have a prayer of passing the Senate or getting signed by the president, but it would make a great 30-second ad for Republicans in 2020. While the tax bill is unpopular, anything that suggests taking away a tax break plays into the caricature of tax-and-spend Democrats.
Pelosi has already put out her marching orders. “It’s very clear every single Democrat knows what we ran on,” says a leadership aide, ticking off Infrastructure, election reform and health care, i.e. protecting Obamacare. There is unity on those three areas. Then there are three additional things Democrats called on Republicans to do: universal background checks for gun ownership, fixing the plight of the Dreamers, and passing the Equality Act to protect the LGBT community.
On the Senate side, Schumer will be herding a swarm of presidential candidates anxious to propose amendments to get noticed. Trying to out-flank rivals by seeing how far they can go to the left is a dynamic that can benefit the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, but may not be the key to 2020.
“Chuck and Nancy have known each other for a long, long time. She was one of the only people in the House who called him Charlie,” recalls Kessler, who worked for Schumer for eight years in the Senate. “Those two are used to talking to each other, their staffs are used to talking to each other. Neither has any difficulty being blunt with the other. Their relationship is long and deep.”
We’re living in an age when professionalism is discounted and fresh faces are extolled. But all those years of legislative and political maneuvering have made Chuck and Nancy a pretty wise and battle-hardened team heading into the 2020 cycle. Trump is only beginning to learn how outmatched he is.