The Magazine

The Full Schumer

The senator from New York and his imaginary friends.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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"The book is divided into two parts," Schumer is saying to the crowd at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. He is pacing back and forth on the stage. Sometimes he leans against the lectern. He has been talking for at least 35 minutes. Carla Cohen is looking anxious. Her plans have been upset. "The first part traces the political history of a family, and my political history," Schumer says. "The family is fictional. I call them Joe and Eileen Bailey. They are fictional in the book, but they are real to me. I have known them for 15 or 20 years. I talk to them, all my ideas I bounce off them; in fact, one of my press secretaries once got me in a little trouble because he told the press I had imaginary friends. But basically, whatever success I've had in my political career is because I talk to the Baileys. And I try to do things that matter to them. I wrote a law that made part of tuition tax-deductible 'cause I know the Baileys have trouble paying tuition. I wrote a law that made generic drugs available, because I know the Baileys have trouble paying for the high cost of drugs.

"And when I don't agree with them--I wouldn't agree with them, say, on affirmative action or the gay marriage amendment--I tell them why. I don't tell the New York Times editorial board--even though I get great support from them. I talk to the Baileys. And the first part of the book--let me tell you a little bit about the Baileys, so you get an understanding. He's an insurance adjuster, he makes about $50,000 a year. She works in a medical office in the neighborhood, she makes about $20,000. So, in New York they make $70,000 and in Mississippi they might make $50,000, but they're the same people. They are--they have three kids. They live in Massapequa, which is a suburb on Long Island, a middle class suburb, and . . . they're very good people. I like them. I admire them. I grew up with them. They're the salt of the earth."

They must also be in the Federal Witness Protection Program, because when Schumer first started talking about the Baileys last summer, they were named the O'Reillys. The slip is revealing, in its own way. Like their name, the very idea of the Baileys is elastic; Schumer's imaginary friends are able to fit any location, ethnicity, or social circumstance. In his book Schumer writes that the Baileys are also "the Hancocks of Cazenovia, the Thompsons of Laurelton, the Ramirezes of Port Chester, the Pachinskis of Cheektowaga or the Shapiros of Riverdale . . ." In other words, the Baileys are everybody--which is to say, nobody. Nonetheless, Schumer constantly wonders what all of these nobodies are thinking. And whadda ya know? With a few exceptions, they think exactly like he does!

One is tempted to conclude that, in its own fashion, Schumer's book serves as a metaphor for our federal government: After all, in it he finds ways to spend real money--yours--to satisfy the imaginary needs of people who do not actually exist. But that would do a disservice to Schumer's larger project, which is real and, if he would just stop talking long enough for people to realize it, important. The Democratic party, in Schumer's analysis, is paralyzed by the special interests that compose it. This paralysis extends from electoral politics--where feminist, labor, and racial grievance groups apply litmus tests that filter out heterodox candidates--to governance, where those same groups, and petty regional constituencies, inhibit legislators from crafting laws for the common good.

This is the sort of stuff that gets the Baileys upset. So, as Schumer recruited candidates to run for the Senate in 2006, he was unafraid to take on the major interest groups. He supported the pro-life Bob Casey Jr. over the objections of NARAL. Jon Tester in Montana and James Webb in Virginia both had positions on guns vastly different from those of the gun control lobby (and Schumer). All three candidates won. For Schumer, the lesson is that the party should stretch out to the center rather than cater to the activists who talk only to each other. It's a lesson that seems to have worked for the Democrats in 2006, and may work in the future--provided, of course, that the public doesn't tune them out altogether.

Which can easily happen when Schumer is doing the talking. "Here's something else about the Baileys," he tells the audience at the synagogue. "They dislike very much the people at Enron who stole all that money. But they hate the people who burn the flag even more. Most liberals don't understand that. They say, 'Why does burning the flag hurt you?' Here's what they think: They say the people who did Enron were in excess of something that isn't bad--which is working hard, making a lot of money, building up a company. They just crossed the line--they don't like them, they should be punished, they're hurting me.

"But the people who are burning the flag are telling the Baileys I dislike you and everything you stand for. Because the Baileys identify with America. And they identify with all the things America stands for. And they can't understand why someone would take the freedom that we have in America to step on America.

"One other thing about the Baileys, this more fundamental than the other two--but we have like a 10-page description of them which I think you'll enjoy reading. . . ."

A Schumer aide holds up five fingers, signaling to her boss that it's time to wrap up.

". . . They believe in their gut in both capitalism and democracy," Schumer goes on. "And what do I mean by that? If you think about it, capitalism and democracy have a similar credo: which is, do something to benefit yourself, and the greater good prevails. Democracy--you're not supposed to vote someone else's interest, your supposed to vote your own self-interest. That's how democracy started. . . ." He looks at Carla Cohen. "I'm going to take a little more than the 20 minutes if you don't mind."

Carla is silent. The aide slumps in her seat and checks her BlackBerry.

Schumer has been talking for almost the full hour. "And . . . um . . . I even told the candidates who the Baileys were, and I said pick the Baileys of your state and talk to them. Don't talk to the special interest groups--the Baileys, by the way, feel most of government never talks to them. And they're right. They're tired of people talking to special interest groups, to lobbyists, to the media, to one another--talk to me! That's what I've tried to do in my political career, at least, I think, more than many." He starts talking about his policy proposals, then turns once more to Carla. "Let's see how long I'm going."

"Long," Carla says, shaking her head.

"Long. Okay, Miss Candor. I just called her Miss Candor. Carla Cohen says I'm going too long. First goal: raising math and reading scores by 50 percent. . . ."

Audience members with copies of Positively American on their laps flip to the table of contents. They study the pages before them. A look of horror spreads across their faces. Because this is only the beginning. The senator has ten more goals to go.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.