When Betsy DeVos got confirmed as education secretary, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had to find another Trump nomination to attack in his newfound role as leader of his party’s opposition to President Donald Trump.
Andy Puzder, the president’s pick for labor secretary, quickly emerged as Schumer’s best option. He proceeded to call on Trump to withdraw the nomination on February 9, even before confirmation hearings began — and by February 15, he’d achieved the symbolic victory denied him by DeVos’s confirmation. Puzder dropped out in the face of reports that at least four Republicans were committed to voting against him.
Schumer, of course, scooped up the credit, making a statement that very afternoon:
“No matter how you cut it, there is no worse pick for labor secretary than Andrew Puzder, and I’m encouraged my Republican colleagues are starting to agree,” the New York Democrat said. “He does not belong anywhere near the Labor Department, let alone at the head of it. Puzder’s disdain for the American worker, the very people he would be responsible for protecting, is second to none.”
Schumer is known for his bridge-building abilities, “but what has been needed in the first couple of weeks of the Trump administration is harder-edged, more confrontational” approach against Trump’s policies, said historian Bruce Dearstyne, an expert on New York politics and author of The New York History Blog.
With no apparent Democratic leader on the field, and under intense pressure from the his party’s left wing, Schumer has adapted handily, eclipsing his House colleague Nancy Pelosi, candidates vying for chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and former presidential hopefuls including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
The clearest sign of Schumer’s status came this week, when Time magazine put him on its cover, an honor given in recent weeks to President Trump and to his top strategist Steve Bannon.
The choice of Puzder, a fast food chain CEO, has proven to be problematic from the start and evolved into an easy target for Senate Democrats, seeking at least one symbolic victory in their battle against Trump’s cabinet nominations. Puzder had employed an undocumented worker as a housekeeper, his private holdings form a tangled web of potentially conflicting interests, he was accused of domestic abuse, and, perhaps most significant for a nominee to head the labor department, Puzder has a history of worker complaints filed against him due to employment practices in his company, CKE Restaurants.
With some Republicans already beginning to waver on Puzder and with his confirmation hearing being postponed time and again, Schumer felt well-positioned to attack.
Schumer, who had started off his tenure as minority leader with a pledge to find possible common ground with the Trump administration, quickly emerged as a tough opposition leader. His inauguration speech was a subtle repudiation of Trump that came close to comparing the America divided at the beginning of his administration to the country that fought the Civil War.
He declared war on most of the president’s cabinet nominees, focusing on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Schumer and the Democrats lost all these battles, although they came close with DeVos and won media attention with Sessions, after the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren.
More recently, he criticized Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch for his caginess during their meeting.
And he waxed poetic to a Vox reporter about the epiphany he experienced during the Super Bowl, inspired by the big game’s big ads: “After watching three or four of them, it hit me like a thunderbolt that they were celebrating diversity,” Schumer told Vox.
What made the veteran New York politician become so feisty, or, as a recent Slate headline suggested, “find his spine?”
The online magazine argued that it was a massive grassroots movement that of younger progressive Democrats who want to see their party fight back.
Indeed, Schumer’s more liberal supporters, especially those in New York City, are gleefully making sure he’s aware of their expectations.
There’s a private Facebook group titled “What the Fuck, Chuck?” that played a role in organizing a recent protest that marched right up to the senator’s Park Slope apartment building on January 31. The participants carried signs bearing the same slogan and chanted it, as well.
“Shut it down, shut it down, New York is an immigrant town,” they shouted, along with “Stay strong, Chuck!”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story has been updated to reflect Puzder’s withdrawl from the nomination process.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.