Did majority leader dreams force Schumer's hand?

Schumer was for Joe Lieberman's plan to strip accused terrorists of their citizenship before he was against it

Published May 5, 2010 9:29PM (EDT)

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Funny what a pending Senate leadership fight that no one wants to talk about can do. Earlier today, Greg Sargent picked up on an interesting about-face from Chuck Schumer, who plainly aspires to succeed the probably-doomed Harry Reid as the Democrats' Senate leader.

Initially, Schumer had indicated that he supports Joe Lieberman's plan (soon to be introduced as legislation) to strip accused terrorists of their American citizenship. But as word of his position spread, Schumer's spokesman told Sargent this afternoon that his boss hadn't really known much about Lieberman's idea when he'd commented.

"Having learned about the proposal," the spokesman said, "he believes it would be found unconstitutional in this context and would also be ineffective."

Needless to say, this is good news for civil libertarians. Given Schumer's clout in the Senate, his position on Lieberman's bill will be very consequential. But there are two ways to read his apparent change-of-heart.

The first is to take his spokesman at his word. It was all a misunderstanding. Schumer had been approached "abruptly" by an anxious reporter, said something without thinking, and then immediately sought to correct the record upon learning the specifics of the Lieberman plan.

But if you've followed Schumer closely, that's a tough line to swallow. First, he's rarely blindsided by anything. Lieberman began pushing the revoke-terrorists'-citizenship idea early yesterday -- on national television. Surely, Schumer was aware of the basics.

Moreover, it’s not exactly hard to imagine Schumer supporting this kind of plan. His record is generally liberal, but he also tries hard to present himself as "tough" on terrorism and national security, a topic of supreme importance the New York electorate. Signing on to the Lieberman plan in the aftermath of the Shahzad arrest -- a proactive-seeming response to a story that has put many New Yorkers on edge -- would play well with the New York tabloids and with "the Baileys," the made-up middle class Long Island couple Schumer sometimes uses as a litmus test. Don't forget, Schumer had no trouble using the proposed KSM trial to score points with this same audience -- at the expense of the Obama administration.

In this context, a second explanation for Schumer's walk-back may be more credible: He realized that his New York instincts were at-odds with his majority leader aspirations. No credible head count yet exists for Schumer's race against Richard Durbin, but it's clear that Schumer will need support from some senators who care deeply about civil liberties issues -- and who will be deeply offended by Lieberman's plan. Russ Feingold comes to mind. In taking a firm stand against Lieberman's plan, Schumer probably helped himself with this target audience.

This isn't the first time Schumer's New York political instincts may have conflicted with his leadership pursuit. Just last week, the New York Times provided a fascinating look at Schumer's support for bank reform legislation -- a significant shift for a New York politician who's always made it a priority to be on good terms with Wall Street (and whose Wall Street connections have helped raise a fortune for the party).

Schumer, of course, won't even admit that he's pursuing Reid's slot (nor will Durbin, for that matter). But it could be that the race is already seems to be affecting his decision-making -- in a way that progressives probably like.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

MORE FROM Steve Kornacki

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chuck Schumer D-n.y. Joe Lieberman U.s. Senate