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Democrats erred by pursuing health reform too soon, senator says

Top Democrat Sen. Charles E. Schumer: Healthcare was 'wrong problem' to tackle in 2009

In a speech diagnosing his party's political missteps in 2014, a top Senate Democrat reached back to the decision to pursue an overhaul of the health system in late 2009 as an example of how the party took its focus off middle-class priorities, saying healthcare was "the wrong problem" to address at the time.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who leads Senate Democrats' policy and messaging efforts, argued in a speech Tuesday that when Americans were "crying out" for additional steps to combat the economic crisis at the time, "not for changes in healthcare."

"After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus, but unfortunately Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them," he said. "We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem."

Americans turned to the GOP in the 2010 elections as a result of that decision, but the GOP -- fueled by the tea party -- overreached and paved the way for President Obama's reelection two years later, Schumer said. When the government shutdown of 2013 put Democrats in position to regain the political upper hand, the party was felled by a "cascade of issues," including the Obamacare website debacle, treatment delays at  Veterans Administration hospitals, a border crisis and the Ebola outbreak -- all of which Schumer said "served to illustrate the inability of government to solve problems."

"Each time a party appears to be in charge, but is unable to convince the public they have the solution for easing middle-class decline, the electorate picks the other party -- creating a sort of electoral whiplash," Schumer said. But by focusing narrowly on policies that promote the middle class and embracing government as a force to achieve that end, Schumer said, the Democrats can secure their position as a majority party for the next generation.

Schumer's assessment that Democrats should have waited before pursuing an overhaul of the healthcare system is not a new one for him. But revisiting the issue -- particularly when it seemed the issue of Obamacare had been largely neutralized by the 2014 elections -- hints at a debate simmering between Capitol Hill Democrats and the Obama administration over who bears the most blame for the recent election losses.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, said she intended to have House Democrats take a more prominent role in shaping their own message, noting that congressional candidates suffered because top-of-the-ticket candidates seemed to run away from the party label.

When the issue of healthcare resurfaced in a Q&A session Tuesday, Schumer said he understood the feeling of some that there was a narrow political window in which Democrats could pass reform that they needed to seize.

"We should have done it," he said. "We just shouldn't have done it first. We were in the middle of a recession, people were hurting and said, ‘What about me?'"

Schumer was one of the architects of the party's 2014 "Fair Shot" agenda that was designed to help keep Democrats in the Senate majority. The platform called for votes on issues like the minimum wage, equal pay for women in the workplace and student loan affordability. Schumer insisted that the strategy was a sound one, even though Democrats lost the Senate majority in the midterm election earlier this month.

"The greatest success our candidates had in the deepest of red states was on that agenda," he said. "It just has to be bigger, broader, more prominent and more across the whole Democratic party."

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