WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Democrats' top message man is urging the party leftward in the wake of crushing midterm election losses, saying working Americans want a robust government that will promote education access, labor bargaining rights, progressive taxes and more.
At a Washington news conference, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said his party erred five years ago by putting health care reform ahead of jobs and economic priorities. The vast majority of Americans were relatively happy with their employer-provided health insurance in 2009, he said, and the health care overhaul's message was aimed at about 5 percent of the electorate: those who lacked insurance and who voted.
"To aim a huge change in mandate at such a small percentage of the electorate made no political sense," Schumer said. "Unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform."
He said he expressed such concerns at the time. His office later said he "expressed those concerns privately to fellow Democrats."
Schumer's remarks came a few weeks after Republicans won control of the Senate and boosted their House majority in the midterm elections. He said the way back to influence on Capitol Hill is to appeal to voters who support "an active and forceful government" to help them cope with globalization, technology and other forces keeping middle incomes stagnant.
Schumer said Democrats made it easier for Republicans to paint government as bloated and inept with "the rollout of the Obamacare exchanges, the mishandling of the surge in border crossers, ineptitude at the VA (Veterans' Administration) and the government's initial handling of the Ebola threat."
Schumer is one of the Senate's most senior and ambitious Democrats. He oversaw the party's campaign efforts in two highly successful elections, 2006 and 2008, and he now chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. Some see him as a potential successor to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
His comments Tuesday could upset those who say it was wise to make the health care overhaul the first major legislative initiative after President Barack Obama's 2008 election. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters the administration is happy to revisit the health care law "because we believe strongly that the Affordable Care Act is working."
Republicans ridiculed Schumer's call for a more robust federal government. "The failure of big-government liberalism is why liberals were overwhelmingly rebuked at the polls this month," said the conservative group YG Network.
Schumer repeatedly said Democrats must not run away from an active government.
"The 2014 election was not a repudiation of government in general," he said, but "just another sign of a deep frustration that government is not doing enough to fix our country's problems."
Schumer said he and other Democrats will propose specific policies later, but he hinted at several likely areas. He called for making college more affordable; making taxes progressive, or proportionately higher on upper incomes; spending more on infrastructure such as roads and bridges; and "changing labor laws so workers can demand more pay."
Schumer reflected Democratic divisions over expanded trade agreements. He called for "negotiating good trade policies that prevent jobs from going overseas." He said most voters feel "trade has hurt wages significantly" by encouraging imports from low-income countries.
Schumer isn't the only Democrat calling for a more robust agenda for education spending, a higher minimum wage and an end to some corporate tax breaks.
"We did a horrible job as progressives with connecting with voters on these issues because we are too tentative," Seattle-based entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said at a recent post-election forum sponsored by the Center for American Progress.
Associated Press researcher Barbara Sambriski and writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.