In his new book, Positively American: Winning Back the American Middle Class One Family at a Time, Senator Charles Schumer reveals the imaginary constituents that have long informed his political career: Joe and Eileen Bailey. The Baileys live in a suburb of Long Island with their three kids, they both work, and they earn about $75,000 annually. They worry about terrorism, health care, property taxes, college tuition, outsourcing, elderly care and retirement. They believe in charity but also that "people who work hard and play by the rules will do fine in America.... They don't follow politics particularly closely and are not ideological, but they always vote.... In 2006, they crossed back to the Democratic side for the first time in years." Schumer says that the Baileys are in towns across the nation, with different names and backgrounds, but common interests and the feeling that the government too often focuses on the "very rich or very poor" while overlooking their needs.
Schumer says he wrote this book because he believes that in 2008 a long-term majority is there for the taking, and that only by creating a platform that appeals to the Baileys will the Democrats be successful in doing that. He offers a plan that he calls " The 50% Solution," which he says is "our kitchen table compact" with "all the Baileys in America." It includes some smart ideas such as tripling federal education spending and putting an end to an inequitable system that relies on property taxes to fund our public schools; committing $10 billion a year "to create a Manhattan Project for new energy"; guaranteeing all Americans access to early-detection screenings for high-risk cancers (though Schumer tellingly avoids proposing universal health care other than to write that it's "a Democratic worldview, but it doesn't tie to a specific policy that we are ready to implement"); and restoring Pell Grants and federal loans and adjusting them as average tuition costs increase in the future.
Schumer describes this moment as one when Democrats need to be "clearer, bolder, broader." But ironically, while many of the new Senate leaders Schumer helped to elect as Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee--like Sherrod Brown, Jim Webb, and Jon Tester--are all speaking in bold populist terms that capture a growing majority of Americans' frustration with the free trade/corporate agenda, Schumer has been promoting a go-slow approach that might tamp down the very boldness he claims to stand for in Positively American. Indeed, at a recent book discussion in Washington, DC, Schumer said that he believes presidential candidate John Edwards' populist stance on trade is "a mistake" politically and policy-wise.
As I read this book, I repeatedly thought of another fictitious, decidedly middle-class Bailey: the great American icon George Bailey, of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. I would imagine that Schumer's Baileys--like most Americans--love George Bailey. And why do we love him (aside from Jimmy Stewart's charm, charisma, good looks, etc.)? Because George Bailey fights and sacrifices for the welfare of ordinary Americans. He is dedicated to keeping the Potters of the world from buying influence and taking over people's lives, neighborhoods and communities.
In Positively American, Senator Schumer would do well to extend his circle of imaginary constituents to include one more Bailey.