Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-New York) comments on Wednesday about Democrats’ misguided focus on health care in President Barack Obama’s first term prompted backlash from top Democrats and left-leaning groups, who accused him of being politically craven.
At a speech before the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, Schumer said Democrats made a mistake by entering into a fight over health care after they passed the 2009 economic stimulus.
His reasoning: Democrats were targeting the uninsured, a population that he said makes up only about 5 percent of registered voters. Only about one-third of the uninsured, he said, are registered or eligible to vote.
The “mandate” voters had provided Democrats with their 2008 victories, Schumer said, was put on the wrong problem.
“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem – health care reform,” Schumer said.
“The plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships caused by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed,” he added. “But it wasn’t the change we were hired to make. Americans were crying out for an end to the recession, for better wages and more jobs — not for changes in their health care.”
It was a characterization with which top Democrats took issue, all the way up to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who was instrumental in getting the Affordable Care Act passed into law as the speaker of the House. Through a spokesman, Pelosi said there are “14 million reasons that’s wrong” — referring to 14 million Americans that have gained insurance coverage through various provisions of the law.
“We came here to do a job, not keep a job,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Schumer’s comments on Obamacare came as part of a larger criticism of the Democratic Party’s strategy since 2008 and a look forward to what he said the party needs to do to recapture momentum heading into 2016.
Multiple Republican and Democratic congressional aides speculated Schumer’s speech was an attempt to forge a break from Obama, who remains largely unpopular, ahead of the 2016 presidential election. But one Senate Democratic aide said the Affordable Care Act was the wrong piece of policy on which to focus.
“If your goal is to improve public appreciation of government (which is a very worthy effort), how do you do that by running away from arguably the most important government program to help families in the past decade?” the Senate Democratic aide told Fusion, requesting anonymity to speak frankly.
“Our goal should be to get candidates to run on it and explain it, and that's the path to showing government efficacy.”
Some of Obama’s former aides put it more bluntly on Twitter. Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said Schumer’s basic message was that Obama should have “cared more about helping Democrats than sick people.”
Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter, criticized Schumer for “confirming the public’s most cynical beliefs about the political process.” And Jon Lovett, another former speechwriter, went on an extended rant on Twitter that ended with him saying a test for prospective Democrats is whether they “listen to” or merely “tolerate” Schumer as a prominent voice within the party:
Meanwhile, top Republicans gloated over Schumer’s comments, pointedly saying they agreed with him that it was a mistake to pass the health care law. One top GOP strategist told Fusion he thought Schumer was finally expressing frustration over the fact Obamacare has been a political “disaster that has dogged his candidates for three cycles.”
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), told Fusion he hoped Schumer would join Republicans in working to roll back and repeal the law.
“I’m glad that Sen. Schumer agrees with the overwhelming majority of the American people that the President’s health care law was a bad idea right from the start — hopefully, he’ll now join our efforts to repeal it, and put in place real, patient-centered reforms that actually lower costs,” Steel said.
But if Schumer’s comments were meant to unite the more moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party — as he said his plan was supposed to do — the initial response suggests they failed.
Neil Sroka, the communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America, told Fusion that Schumer would be better spent focusing on some of the liberal wing’s priorities — breaking up big banks and student-loan reform — rather than attacking a “successful” piece of legislation.
“Any Democrat who thinks that tackling growing healthcare costs — one the largest drivers for the lack of middle class wage growth over the last 15+ years — was the wrong way to earn the support of middle-class, working families needs to have their head examined,” he said.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.