NY senator Chuck Schumer says healthcare ‘not top of most Americans’ to-do lists’ and party better off tackling economic inequality
By Paul Lewis in Washington
Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, has questioned whether his party was right to focus on introducing a new healthcare law, saying that Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement will have struck many Americans as “beside the point”.
In remarks that risk the wrath of the White House, which is battling to salvage the reputation of the Affordable Care Act, Schumer said healthcare reforms were not a priority for most Americans, and the party would have been better off focusing on economic inequality.
He said that in 2009 and 2010, after using its majority in both houses to tackle the financial crisis, Democrats “turned our attention towards healthcare reform instead of the growing problem of income inequality”.
“It was a worthy goal but it wasn’t at the top of most Americans’ to-do lists,” he said. “It’s not that they were against reforming our healthcare system, but for the 90% who had employer-sponsored healthcare or government healthcare – Medicare or Medicaid – it seemed beside the point.”
Schumer added that voters had other worries. “Their income and their lives were declining. Healthcare didn’t address most of their immediate issues; they weren’t focused on it because they weren’t unhappy with the healthcare they had.”
The remarks were made on Thursday at the Center for American Progress, a liberal thinktank, during a speech that was ostensibly about finding strategies to outmanoeuvre the Tea Party, which he said had a stranglehold over politics in Washington.
His decision to question the focus on Obama’s flagship healthcare reforms could anger the president. It comes after Schumer repeatedly and publicly undermined the administration’s interim nuclear agreement with Iran, which he rubbished as soon as it was forged in November.
The senior senator from New York has been behind bipartisan plans to ratchet up sanctions against Iran, which have infuriated the White House, which believes they are at risk of sabotaging a potentially historic breakthrough with Tehran.
Schumer took only two questions after his speech, saying he had a flight to catch. Asked if he was saying Democrats had been mistaken to focus on the healthcare law, known as Obamacare, he replied: “My criticism was not in doing it [passing the Affordable Care Act] but in … ignoring the other issues, which are more important to the average American.”
He said Democrats should now settle on a progressive slate of issues in the runup to November’s midterm elections.
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“The important thing is that they be simple and easily explained, that they show almost intuitively the need for government and the contrast between the Tea Party/Republican thinking and ours, that they be talked about by Democrats repeatedly,” he said.
Schumer said the Senate should hold votes that would raise the minimum wage, make college more affordable, invest in infrastructure , give equal pay to women and prevent jobs from being lost to China.
Legislation regarding all of those issues are is unlikely to gain much, if any, traction in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. However, Schumer said that ensuring such bills are voted on “several times between now and November” could pay dividends for Democrats in the elections.
He did not dwell for long on why those issues should matter, or their prospects for becoming law. Instead, the focus of Schumer’s speech was on finding ways to combat the Tea Party movement, which he said was divided between Washington-based donors and grassroots activists.
“The fundamental weakness in the Tea Party machine is the stark difference between what the leaders of the Tea Party elite, plutocrats like the Koch brothers, want and what the average grassroots Tea Party follower wants,” he said.
The Koch brothers are deeply conservative donors who bankroll rightwing groups that seek to influence the Republican party. Schumer said well-funded advocacy groups had the hijacked the Tea Party, which began a grassroots-led movement.
“The best way to deal with the Tea Party’s obsessive anti-government mania is to confront it directly, by showing the people the need for government to help them out of their morass,” he added.
“Let’s remind people that the reason they’re frustrated with Washington and government is not that government is doing too much, but that it is gridlocked and not doing enough for them.”
The senator also said there should be a discussion about reform of electoral rules for primary contests, which he said gave disproportionate voice to the radical wings of the parties, particularly Republicans.
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