“I feel better with my feet up,” Senator Charles Schumer said when we sat down in his spacious Washington office. His knees are bad, he explained. He tries to put as little weight on them as possible. But if Schumer’s informality can be striking in a senior senator, it becomes almost disorienting when mixed with his famous energy and intensity. Though voluble in his answers, he was never warm. And bum knees notwithstanding, he rarely kept still, going back and forth between sitting with his legs propped on a coffee table and reclining on one of his office’s several plush couches, taking his shoes off and putting them back on as his posture called for. At one point, Schumer asked whether I wanted some water. After I told him that I did, he rifled a bottle at me from across the room.
Ideologically, it’s not easy to categorize Schumer. He is a populist champion of the middle class who is also a protector and patron of Wall Street, from which he has raised scads of money. He’s a fan of Elizabeth Warren, whom he credits with influencing his economic thinking back when she was still a relatively unknown Harvard professor. At the same time, he is an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton. The balancing act has made Schumer a consummate deal-broker, and among the things we discussed over the course of two conversations was how he has been adjusting to a political environment that has little use for his brand of legislating.
Isaac Chotiner: When you think about some of the bills you helped get passed, and then look at how much craziness there is in Congress now—does it ever make you sort of miss George W. Bush?
Chuck Schumer: No. But I miss the old days when we legislated on bill after bill. When you could come up with interesting amendments and maybe get them added. Conference committees used to be some of the most exciting places to be a legislator, and we barely have those anymore. It’s a hard one to get the parties to work together, particularly now that they’re so dug in. I think, generally, most of the changes that are going to have to occur will have to be done by the executive branch.
IC: It seems as if it has taken President Obama a while to learn that lesson.
CS: Yeah, I think the president’s instincts have always been that we can reason together like adults. And it took him a little while to figure out—or come to the conclusion is a better way to put it—that you just can’t do that with the Tea Party.
IC: Do you think Ted Cruz is sort of brilliantly playing a game, or do you think he’s on another planet?
CS: I think he’s in his own world. When he gets up and speaks, he thinks he’s really speaking for the American people.
IC: He believes it all?
CS: Yes, he believes it. He has a filter, and everyone who doesn’t agree with him gets filtered out.
IC: What are your personal interactions with Cruz like?
CS: Formal, but not nasty in any way. Reserved, I would say.
IC: What about Rand Paul?
CS: With Rand Paul, it is very cordial.
IC: So is it back to government shutdowns and debt-ceiling ransoms when the deal that reopened the government in October expires in two months?
CS: The Tea Party people are ideologues. They are right, and no one can change their minds. There is no reason for compromise.
[Takes phone call] Hi, I’m in an interview, can it wait? Yeah, what’s up? OK, bye. [Ends phone call]
Now, the other thing the Tea Party does is threaten their fellow Republicans. They actually threaten them. If you punched in—I used to do this—“Marco Rubio” when we were doing immigration reform, nine out of ten hard-right blogs were negative on him: attack after attack after attack.
The Tea Party has been using these strategies since they gained dominance after the 2010 elections. However, until this recent shutdown, it was hidden. Hidden in this sense:The general attitude of not only the public, but even the media, was: Why can’t you two get together and settle? Well, it’s very hard to settle with somebody who doesn’t want to talk to you,who says,Unless I get my way, we’ll hurt innocent people.
IC: So is it going to—
CS: And my prediction is—I just want to finish—the House will move more in the direction the Senate is going than the other way around.
IC: So even though there are people like Cruz, who you say are not operating with a completely rational—
CS: Those are your words.
IC: You’re saying there’s a larger group of Republicans who you think—
CS: Who sees the costs, are tired of being threatened themselves.
IC: The average middle-class voter, as you know, has an incredibly negative view of Washington right now.
CS: Yeah, for sure.
IC: Do you think that makes it hard for someone like Hillary Clinton if she runs for president again, just because she's been part of Washington for so long?
CS: I think people want, when they’re angry at Washington and giving it a ten percent rating—number one, they’re angry about gridlock. They don’t say that we should have no Medicare. They don’t say we should have no NIH investment. They don’t say we should have no highway investment, no education investment. They are saying, Get something done!
IC: People always look back on previous eras when “things got done.” Nostalgia.
CS: Nostalgia. I was watching “Morning Joe” and Joe Scarborough said he was talking to Bill Clinton. And he says: “Oh, I remember the old days, when both sides would sit down and negotiate! We got along so well, and it was great!”
IC: Is that your Bill Clinton impersonation, or is that Scarborough?
CS: That was Scarborough. It wasn’t an impersonation. I was in the gym at the time. And a conservative Republican on the bike next to me said: “Oh, we got along great. We impeached you. And Joe Scarborough voted for it.”
IC: One of the people you say has shaped your outlook is Elizabeth Warren. And obviously, she’s someone who has a lot of support from the grassroots of the Democratic Party—
CS: You know I helped persuade her to run. There is a good little story. [Looks to aide] I can tell this. I went to Scott Brown and said, “If you give us the sixtieth vote for the Citizens United rollback,1 we won’t go after you.” I spent a lot of time lobbying him, and met some of his friends and had them lobby him. He said yes. Then he said no. So I wanted to recruit the strongest candidate against him, and I thought that was Elizabeth Warren.
Before that, I had gotten to know her when she was the first person who really highlighted that median income had declined over the past decade. From 2001 to 2007, it went down, like, four or five percent.2 Everybody looked at average income—which had been going up! But you remember your old mathematics...
CS: So if you made ten million dollars in 2001 and you made twenty million dollars in 2007, you’d pull the average way up, but the median could still go down.
IC: Well, I want to ask you just—
CS: So, Elizabeth. I got to know her. And I believe in a broad Democratic Party. I don’t agree with her on everything. But it’s great she’s here.
IC: You and Mayor Bloomberg, in 2007, said that reregulating Wall Street would cause people to flee overseas to London. That is very different than Warren.
CS: It has got to be, to me, a careful balance, OK? Wall Street excesses helped lead to the Great Recession. And to sit there and do nothing, or do what the Republicans want—repeal Dodd-Frank—makes no sense. But on the other hand, I think that you just don’t attack Wall Street because they’re successful or rich.
I just unsuccessfully, with Bloomberg, supported raising the building height in midtown Manhattan, so we could build more office buildings. Office buildings are our factories—imagine the people of Michigan saying, “We don’t want to build a new auto factory, because the Ford family will get richer, or the person who builds the factory will make money.” You’ve got to look at the effect on average folks. The vast majority of the people employed by Wall Street are the secretary who goes in to work on the Long Island Rail Road, who makes fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollars a year. I’m not saying Elizabeth does this, but there are some on the far left who just have a visceral hatred of Wall Street. It’s counterproductive.
IC: You don’t think Elizabeth Warren makes a villain out of Wall Street?
CS: I am just going to leave it at what I said.
IC: Forget Warren then. Is this a problem for your party?
CS: You don’t want to go after them for the sake of going after them. The left-wing blogs want you to be completely and always anti–Wall Street. It’s not the right way to be.
IC: So are the left-wing blogs as bad as the Tea Party ones in this case?
CS: Left-wing blogs are the mirror image. They just have less credibility and less clout.
IC: When you look back—
CS: And I’m pretty happy with Dodd-Frank. I think that did thread the needle quite well.
IC: When you look back on the—
CS: It’s sort of funny. People on Wall Street think I haven’t done enough for them, and people on the left think I’ve done too much for Wall Street. On this one, I go by my internal gyroscope, and I’m pretty happy about where I’ve come down.
IC: Do you think, pre-2008, the internal gyroscope was out of whack? I don’t know if I’m mixing metaphors there.
CS: All the people now, all the editorial boards—I didn’t see them writing that the housing markets were out of control in 2007. No one knew! There was this mantra that mortgages are a safe, vanilla investment. They weren’t. Everyone was wrong. To me, the biggest lesson here—and Wall Street doesn’t like this—is, since it’s hard for us to predict where the next crisis will occur—but it will—is to have adequate capital standards, a cushion. So when Wall Street makes mistakes, they pay the price: their shareholders, their employees, the company, the CEO.
IC: Are you worried that your old colleague John Kerry has gotten ahead of himself with these Iran negotiations?
CS: I hope the negotiations succeed. They’re important. I worry that what we’re giving is not proportional to what we’re getting. I worry about a diminution of sanctions. It’s sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table. They are effective by all accounts. Part of sanctions is the actual economic bite that occurs. But another part is the psychological fear that they will get worse. So if you reduce them even by five or ten percent, that fear dissipates, and that’s a bad thing.
IC: Kerry had some pretty harsh comments on Israel the other day.4
CS: Yeah, I saw that. I thought that was a mistake.
IC: When you’re in New York, do you ever run into the Koch brothers?
CS: I’ve met David Koch a few times through charitable things—Lincoln Center, stuff like that. I tried to lobby him to be for immigration reform at one of those events. And I sent him a paper on why he should be for it but didn’t get an answer one way or another.
IC: You’d think, deep down, he and his brother must be pro-immigration.
CS: I think they probably are.
IC: You pride yourself on being able to read people. Could we just go through a couple names—
CS: I’m not going to do that. You aren’t going to get far on that one. [Laughs] Good try.
IC: Who’s the most underrated senator?
CS: It’s hard to pick one.
IC: There has been a lot about Chris Christie—his victory and running for president. And some people have said that he’s just too abrasive to win. You know your image in Washington. How hard is it to run for president with that sort of personality?
CS: If you asked the average citizen, “What is Chris Christie’s view on health care reform, and what is Ted Cruz’s, and what is Marco Rubio’s, and what is Rand Paul’s?” they wouldn’t know. But what the public has a really good nose for is genuineness. Chris Christie is Chris Christie. Here’s what I’d say about me: I’m from Brooklyn. Sometimes it helps me, sometimes it hurts me. But if I tried not to be from Brooklyn, I’d be worse than whatever I am.
IC: Is that why you don’t run for president?
CS: Hmm. I’ve never had one of those plans.
IC: But I still want to know how you feel about your own image. You know, the jokes people make, about how often you go on the Sunday shows.
CS: You know what I find about that? When Bob Dole said that, that old quote?
IC: About the TV cameras?5
CS: You know what had happened? I’d just beaten him on the Brady gun-control law. I’d take the bad quote and pass the Brady law in a minute.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. This interview has been edited and condensed.