Harry Reid’s surprise retirement announcement has left a wide-open race to succeed him back home in Nevada, but his replacement as Democratic Senate leader looks a lot clearer. Reid quickly endorsed New York Sen. Chuck Schumer for the post, while Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Schumer’s chief rival for the top job, reportedly has told colleagues he would not seek a promotion. (Durbin is currently number two in the Democratic caucus, Schumer number three.)
A couple of other names—Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet—surfaced as early possibilities, but with Schumer consolidating support, they’re unlikely to challenge him. (If anything, Murray, the fourth-ranking member of the caucus, might go after Durbin’s job as chief whip.) For good measure, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive favorite, has said that she, too, would not run.
Assuming Schumer does indeed take over for Reid, what does this mean for the Democratic Party? Matt Yglesias makes a convincing argument that the answer is “not a whole lot“:
Legislative leaders are important people. But especially in the US Senate, leadership is more like being captain of a rec league basketball team than like being a coach in the NCAA tournament. You can only lead the caucus in directions the members are willing to follow, and the imperatives of doing the job often mean the leader’s priorities change as much—if not more so—than the party’s. […]
There are real differences between Schumer and Reid. As a New York legislator, Schumer takes a kinder view of Wall Street as something of a hometown industry. He also is a genuinely passionate and fired-up hawk on Israel-related issues. But it would be a mistake to think his ascension would lead to a massive Democratic Party reorientation in favor of Bibi Netanyahu and Jamie Dimon. If anything, the opposite. If he becomes leader, Schumer will have to sand down the edges of his personal approach to politics in order to better fit the posture of generic Democratic leader. This is one reason the Warren idea is so ridiculous—if your passion in life is picking intra-party fights, a leadership job would be a disaster.
Yglesias offers a good illustration of how this exact process worked on Reid, who began his career declaring he was “pro-life.” But in his time in charge, he operated as a loyally partisan pro-choice leader because that’s where his caucus stood. This isn’t to say that Schumer will transform into a progressive hero overnight, but he’ll be beholden to his fellow Democrats—and in this case, that’s a good thing.
There’s also one definite positive here: Unlike Reid, Schumer will never have to worry about re-election, since he represents safely blue New York. Reid always faced difficult campaigns, and his role as party leader made him more vulnerable, perhaps to the point that he felt it necessary to shy away from some national battles in order to preserve his chances of victory back home.