It is rare as a Fox News commentator that you have the benefit of feedback from high ranking elected officials. And it is particularly rare as a Fox News Democrat to get feedback from high ranking Democrats, who typically either ignore Fox or make it their business not to comment on the substance of its programming. But I did have such an opportunity this weekend when I ran across Chuck Schumer at a party, appropriately enough, in Southampton, New York recently.
Senator Schumer offered a comprehensive critique of Fox News Democrats and what he believes their responsibilities and obligations are.
The New York senator argued with great passion that Democrats on Fox News have an obligation, and indeed a responsibility, to stick to the Party line as outlined and articulated by himself and his colleagues, otherwise, in his view, they no longer should be called "Democrats" and should not identify themselves as members of the Party either.
Specifically, Senator Schumer said that since Fox News, in his opinion, has as one of its principle objectives, building support for the Republican Party, anyone who appears on the air as a Democrat, particularly in the political debates Fox News organizes, has an obligation (in his mind) to articulate Democratic talking points. It was his considered opinion that Democrats who do not do this, who speak their minds, as I try to do, were not only not "Democrats" anymore, per se but should also not be identified as such by Fox News Channel.
When I personally suggested to Senator Schumer that I had an affirmative obligation to offer my own personal view point, whether it be consistent with or not consistent with Democratic orthodoxy, the senator said given what Fox News does and given what their mission is, it is absolutely essential that any so called "Democratic" contributor take the party line as articulated by himself and leading Democrats.
And his point, personally, was that myself and my colleague and friend [Democratic strategist and former Jimmy Carter pollster] Pat Caddell, who have criticized the Democrats where we felt it reasonable and necessary, and criticized the Republicans where we felt it was reasonable and appropriate, were no longer "Democrats" because we did not repeat Democratic talking points.
I also made the point to Mr. Schumer that I felt that saying things you did not believe was not appropriate and not right.
He said that under the circumstances, (ie: appearing as a Democrat on Fox News) there was no choice if one wanted to be a Democrat--either mouth the party line or cease and desist from identifying yourself as a Democrat. -- And at the very least, make sure that Fox News does not characterize you as a Democrat.
Senator Schumer was heartfelt and sincere in his comments to me. He was passionate in articulating his view. Compelling in his commitment to the Democratic Party and its world view.
He is undoubtedly one of the most successful Democrats in America today. He has never lost an election, to my knowledge. He engineered the successful nomination and election of the junior Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand. And as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee he helped win the Democratic majority in the Senate-- a majority that persists to this day.
So it is hard to dismiss Senator Schumer as just an angry or mindlessly dogmatic man. In fact, he is clearly one of the smartest, most effective advocates the Democratic party has. And one could not help but be impressed by the zealousness of his appeal, if not the substance of his argument.
But that being said, I found his argument at the very least, disturbing, and as I thought it through, ultimately bone chilling, both for me and for the Democratic party.
First, the Democratic party, when it has been at its strongest, has done best as an conglomeration of a diverse group of interests, ranging from the left to the center. The Democratic party has traditionally been a broad based coalition of urban interests, rural interests, Northern interests, Midwestern and Southern interests. Right now, because Democratic liberals have effectively taken over the party and marginalized centrists such as myself, the base has been narrowed to effectively both coasts of the United States.
Moreover, as somebody who has been for the better part of 20 some odd years, a moderate Democrat, the idea that myself, Pat Caddell, or any other Fox News Democrat or any Democrat for that matter, would have to take orders or instructions from the party leadership to maintain membership of the party in good standing, strikes me as counterproductive and just plain wrong.
More generally, the idea that politics would be seen as an enduring battle between talking points goes against everything I believe, everything I think is right, and everything I think the Democratic party needs to build the kind of broad based coalition that in the 1990s gave President Clinton control of the White House and strength in South and Southeastern states where the Democratic Party has lost support in recent years.
On a certain level though, I do believe that on a day-to-day basis, Democrats do need to refute Republican talking points which are particularly well organized and well articulated. Will Rogers's aphorism "I don't belong to any organized political party, I'm a Democrat" comes to mind because the Republicans themselves are very well organized and well disciplined. But refuting Republican talking points does not mean to me mindlessly articulating talking points articulated by the Congressional leadership or by political elites in Washington which are designed to score debating points, not to advance the substantive debate present alternative policy prescriptive.
But that being said, I think the whole reason why I, and I suspect others like Pat Caddell as well, are happy and comfortable appearing on Fox News, is that we have the freedom to speak our minds, to articulate a different view from Democratic orthodoxy as outlined by the president, the Senate majority leader, and House minority leader. And I would like to feel that this contributes to the greater good for the country and for the Democratic arty-- Senator Schumer notwithstanding.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.