Here is one of the more baffling aspects of the modern Democratic Party:
It is a largely urban, multi-ethnic and gender-diverse coalition.
But for half a century, the party’s leadership in the Senate has been made up exclusively of white men from rural states, where the Democratic agenda is increasingly unpopular.
The two standard-bearers for this tradition are Tom Daschle and Harry Reid.
Despite being one of the most powerful men in Washington, Daschle was voted out of office by voters in South Dakota in 2004.
Reid flirts with the same fate currently in Nevada.
Before them, the Democratic Party’s leadership in the Senate came from Maine, West Virginia, and Montana.
There are historic reasons for this “small state” dominance of a “big state” party — but the logic for a Reid-Daschle style of leadership is fading fast.
Once upon a time, some small states sported serious progressive movements, especially in places like the Dakotas.
Grange-style activists could still support a serious center-left candidate who was generally in sync with his party’s national agenda.
What’s more, thirty years ago, the cultural and political divide between urban and much of rural America wasn’t quote so powerful.
In those days, small-state Senators also simply had to do far less to get re-elected.
Sitting Senators were rarely challenged and rarely unseated, especially when they had only a few hundred thousand voters to keep happy through pork-and-constituent programs.
Finally, the weird structure of the Senate has meant that there have traditionally been a lot of rural Democrats.
Those small-staters don’t represent many actual people. Harry Reid’s entire state population could fit within a single borough of New York City.
But because they get equal voting power even within their party caucus, the rural bloc could often sway the pick of the Democratic Party’s minority- or majority-leader.
What’s clear is that this approach no longer works.
The Democratic agenda is toxic in most of rural America. And no Democratic Senator is ever secure in a state where there is a significant pool of small-town voters.
This year, even Russ Feingold is vulnerable in Wisconsin.
By choosing small-town politicians to lead their Senate caucus, Democrats by definition are putting some of their weakest, most vulnerable members out front.
That’s a hard way to advance an agenda.
It’s worth noting that the Republicans learned this trick a long time ago: They choose leaders from the safe and cozy heart of their geographic base, which means (in the case of the GOP) going Southern.
As a consequence, their leaders are free to campaign, raise cash, and work on policy — without spending months and years fighting for their political lives, the way Daschle and Reid have been forced to do.
Even if Reid survives in November, it’s difficult to imagine him re-emerging as a strong, confident leader capable of shepherding a national agenda.
Which means that it’s time for a big-state urban Senator like New York’s Charles Schumer to make a serious, pull-no-punches bid for leadership.
Obviously, this kind of additional clout would be good for New York.
But Schumer is also a logical national candidate for majority- or minority-leader.
First, because his seat is absolutely 100% secure. Barring scandal, Chuck Schumer will be Senator as long as he wants to be Senator.
Secondly, he shepherded the national push to rebuild the Democrats’ majority.
That means he has strong ties to state party organizations across the country and knows the sensitivities of politicians and voters outside the Northeast.
Because Schumer’s own state includes huge swaths of small towns Upstate — indeed, our rural population in New York is much bigger than the rural population in Nevada or South Dakota — he’s learned how to communicate with that culture.
Schumer has emerged as one of the most knowledgeable Democratic lawmakers on farm- and rural-development policy.
He’s also far more media- and message-savvy than Reid, who seems to lose ground even when his party is passing major legislation.
What’s certain is that a politician like Schumer would be far more in sync with the message, the policies, and the demographics of the modern Democratic Party.