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Back Channels | Getting creative, winning elections

Sen. Schumer, a Democrat, found that heeding the values and concerns of the middle class helps.

Chuck Schumer gets kidded about his imaginary friends, Joe and Eileen Bailey, but he brushes it off.

With good reason. The Baileys are the New York senator's lodestar as he crafts policies and designs campaign messages. They are fictitious, a composite middle-class couple whose name and ethnicity change depending on the community Schumer is talking about. Even though they're made up, the values and concerns they represent are real.

Schumer long ago figured out that Democratic boilerplate - abortion, affirmative action, welfare - didn't cut it with middle-class voters. They wanted to hear about safer neighborhoods and basic pocketbook issues. As Schumer put it, Democrats were good at talking to the middle-class, but not so good at listening.

So he's listened. And, in return, the Bailey voters have been very good to him.

They helped guide Schumer to upset victories in 1998, both in the Democratic primary and later against Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Once elected senator, he kept the Baileys' concerns in mind, enough to win reelection in 2004 with 71 percent of the vote.

During that time, other Democrats weren't so creative. Republicans won Congress and the White House - often with the votes of the middle-class.

But then there was last year, when Schumer led the Democrats' successful fight to retake the Senate. The keys to victory?

"We recruited great candidates, spoke to the middle class, and drew a sharp contrast with Bush's failures," Schumer writes in Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time.

With the needs of his imaginary friends in mind, Schumer pushed candidates who could connect with real-world middle-class voters in places like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Montana.

Next up: 2008, and Schumer once again runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. While the goal is to win the White House and hold onto congressional majorities, Schumer wants more.

"I would like the base of the Democratic Party to expand so we can govern at 60 or 65 percent," he writes. Not for one election cycle, but for a generation, to put an end to rule by what he calls the "theocrats" and "economic royalists" of the Republican Party.

That will require reaching out, while keeping a lock on the base, particularly the minority groups who have been so overwhelmingly supportive. Democrats can't assume the inroads of '06 are enough for a long-term majority. Some of those gains, Schumer points out, were from anti-Bush votes, not pro-Democratic ones. He wants the party thinking beyond the president's term.

He sees a pivotal political moment, a time when the middle class is up for grabs. And he naturally prefers that his party seize the moment, just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did for Democrats in 1932 and Ronald Reagan did for Republicans in 1980.

If much of Schumer's argument sounds familiar, it's because Democrats and pundits have been warning for decades that a narrow liberal agenda and a message of class warfare prevent the rebuilding of a governing coalition.

The Democratic Leadership Council started making that case after Reagan's 1984 landslide victory and seemed to have won the debate, at least temporarily, with the election of two of its founding members, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia issued a scathing reminder about the party's narrow, self-destructive ways with his 2003 book, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat.

But where Miller was throwing up his hands in disgust, Schumer, with similar concerns, is willing - and clearly able - to take his party by the hand and lead it down a new path.

It will be a crowded path in '08. Even some in the GOP, dubbed "Sam's Club Republicans," are seeking ways to address the same issues Schumer writes about: providing access to health care, improving K-12 education, making college more affordable, reducing the tax burden, and, of course, fighting terrorism.

The more creative the better. As Schumer showed, real results - real change - require imagination.