Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s career has always illustrated the truth of the cliché that all politics are local. Though his influence is now national, from his earliest days as a state assemblyman through his time in the House of Representatives and the last 19 years in the U.S. Senate, Schumer has always been a man who understands where he is from and what his constituents want from him.
One of those things the people of Brooklyn and then New York State wanted was someone who played the role of the Jewish state’s best friend in Washington. One of Schumer’s standard speech lines when addressing Jewish and pro-Israel audiences was to remind listeners that his name is a form of the Hebrew word “shomer,” which means guard or watcher. He then would go on to say that God gave him that name so that he could be the “shomer Yisrael,” or the guardian of Israel in the U.S. Senate.
The Democrats’ Evolution On Israel
That’s why Schumer’s stand on the Iran nuclear deal and his effort to distract New Yorkers from that position by grandstanding on other issues tells us everything we need to know about the Democratic Party’s evolution on Israel. If even Israel’s self-proclaimed guardian is AWOL on a life and death issue like Iran because of other strictly partisan concerns, it’s clear that the party’s drift to the left on the Jewish state has reached a tipping point.
Schumer has managed to fly under the radar on Iran recently. But last week, President Donald Trump’s announced that he was de-certifying the nuclear deal concluded with Tehran by his predecessor, and that he wanted Congress to come up with a formula for triggering future sanctions.
Rather than indicating a willingness to join Republicans in hopefully correcting the Iran Deal’s flaws, Schumer is having none of it. He made it clear to Trump that he will be opposing any new Iran legislation prompting the president to unload on the senator on Twitter. During a public exchange with the Minority Leader on tax policy, Trump reminded Schumer that he was being a hypocrite on Iran:
Dem Senator Schumer hated the Iran deal made by President Obama, but now that I am involved, he is OK with it. Tell that to Israel, Chuck!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2017
Trump Is Right About Schumer’s Hypocrisy
Of course, opposition to the Iran Deal is as much a matter of defending U.S. security and other Arab states as it is about defending Israel. But Trump was correct about Schumer’s hypocrisy. Just as important, the senator’s position is an ominous development for those who have watched with concern as the Democratic Party drifts away from what was once a united pro-Israel stand.
Prior to Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to try détente with the Tehran regime, opposition to Iran was one of the few issues on which there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress. Prior to Kerry’s announcement of the agreement to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2014, Democrats competed with Republicans to propose sanctions on Iran. Then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez was a tough critic of Obama’s desire for a rapprochement with Tehran. Schumer never missed a chance to weigh in against any suggestion that the U.S. would acquiesce to it retaining a nuclear program, let alone a deal whose loose inspections program and limitations on their ambitions would begin to expire with in a decade.
Most members of the House and Senate fell meekly in line when the president demanded support for the deal as a litmus test of party loyalty. But Schumer was sufficiently aware of the local repercussions of such an about-face, and spent much of 2015 openly dithering about whether to back Obama. In the end, with weeks to go before the Senate voted on the measure, he finally announced his opposition to the JCPOA, though he promised not to lobby any fellow Democrats who might be inclined to join him.
That promise was significant since it made it easy for Obama to dismiss Schumer’s stand as merely a local exemption to his demand for partisan loyalty on what he considered his signature foreign policy achievement. With Schumer on the sidelines, Obama easily amassed the votes he needed to filibuster a vote on the deal. Schumer thus deserves some of the blame for the pact gaining Congressional acceptance via a back door, rather than via the two-thirds vote it should have been required to get for a foreign treaty.
Schumer Won’t Vote His Conscience On Iran
Two years later, Obama is no longer able to put the whip to Democrats, thus potentially freeing Schumer to vote his conscience on Iran. But rather than fulfilling his “guardian” vows, the Minority Leader now claims to have seen the light on the deal and wants to give it a chance to work, even though the only hope for correcting its fatal flaws requires working with Trump.
Schumer has a new master in place of Obama these days: the anti-Trump resistance. Though Schumer talks at times of wanting to work with the president, he knows that his party base wants him to oppose the White House on every possible front. Just as important, defending the Iran deal is also seen as a proxy issue to contrast the supposed wisdom of Obama with Trump’s irrational approach to foreign affairs.
This means that, although he still portrays himself as a defender of a Jewish state which is marked for extermination by Tehran, Schumer thinks bowing to the demands of the resistance is a smarter play than cooperating with the GOP. Even if that cooperation could end the sunset provisions in the JCOPA, and ensure that an Iran that has been enriched and empowered by the pact gives up its support for terrorism and an ominous missile-building program.
To Democrats, Opposing Trump Matters Most
The context for this flip-flop isn’t Schumer’s Twitter feud with Trump, but the way the Democratic Party has changed places with Republicans with respect to Israel. A half-century ago, the Democrats were the lockstep pro-Israel party, while Republicans were divided about it. Today, it is the GOP that is nearly unanimous about its position as the stalwart defender of the Jewish state.
How does Schumer defend his flip flop to his constituents? He’s downplaying the issue, but has sought to make up for it by criticizing Trump for not yet moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But Schumer knows that, like all his predecessors, Trump is unlikely to risk war and violence to keep his embassy pledge, and so this effort to change the subject is blatantly insincere.
Schumer is signaling that Democrats regard opposing Trump as far more important than worrying about Tehran’s quest for regional hegemony, or its eventual acquisition of a bomb. Seen in that light, Trump’s accusation barely scratches the surface of Schumer’s hypocrisy.