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Sen. Charles Schumer gave Democrats a talking-to about their obligation to stand up for government’s role in helping struggling middle-income Americans — and his message got swallowed up by a few paragraphs on health care.

If you heard anything about his speech late last month at the National Press Club, you know he said Democrats “blew the opportunity the American people gave them” in the 2008 election by putting “all of our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform.”

The New York Democrat noted that the Affordable Care Act “was aimed at the 36 million Americans who are not covered” and asserted that “to aim a huge change in mandate at such a small percentage of the electorate made no political sense.”

Schumer says he was surprised that nine paragraphs in a 6,600-word speech got all the attention. He shouldn’t have been.

Many supporters of the ACA — I’m one — were upset that one of the most important Democrats in Washington seemed to discount one of the party’s greatest achievements, especially since the ACA is still under relentless attack. Progressives insisted for decades that leaving so many of our fellow citizens without health insurance was both dysfunctional and immoral. To seize an opportunity to close that gap was the right thing to do.

So what was Schumer up to? I have known him for a long time and he called me this week to explain his intentions. He wanted to call attention to what he, if not the media and his critics, considered the central point: that Democrats could win in 2016 “if and only if we can convince people that government can work and help restore the middle class to prosperity.”

On health care, he avowed: “I was glad we did it, and I will be defending it tooth and nail in this Congress.” His point was that health care should have been “third and fourth” on his party’s priority list, behind additional measures to deal with a sagging economy and to offer concrete benefits to a wide swath of struggling middle- and working-class citizens.

Schumer’s list was progressive. It included a bigger and more focused economic stimulus, a minimum-wage increase, the Employee Free Choice Act to ease unionization and strengthen workers’ bargaining power, and the Equal Pay Act to end wage disparities between men and women.

Both in our conversation and in his speech, Schumer stressed what liberal economists have said for years: that because only three Senate Republicans even considered voting for the 2009 stimulus and demanded that it be reduced in size, “Democrats were unable to pass as large a stimulus as the economy required.” That’s true.

All this is about the past. It’s the core of Schumer’s argument that ought to provoke some soul-searching and action among Democrats — and Republicans, too, if they want to win the White House. Going through “another 10 years of middle-class decline” could make us “a sour, angry country.”

Here’s the heart of Schumernomics: “As technology continues to advance, automation supplants employment across a number of different industries; low-skilled and even high-skilled wage and salary workers lose their jobs to machines. Globalization, enabled by technology, allows businesses and employers to relocate to low-wage markets halfway around the globe — putting downward pressure on wages. While overall, technology has many good effects — making markets more efficient — it cannot be denied it puts a downward pressure on wages.”

The result? “Adjusted for inflation, the median income is actually $3,600 lower than in 2001.”

The other part of Schumer’s argument is that only government can take the steps needed to expand the bargaining power of the middle class and help it to “adapt to these new forces.” Schumer is unabashed in telling Democrats that they shouldn’t “run away” from a defense of government. By my count, he used the word “government” 136 times in the speech, probably a record of some kind.

Oh yes, and Americans won’t believe in government’s ability to solve these problems until they believe in its competence and see that it’s been freed from “the grips of special interests.” (The favors inserted in last week’s budget bill, by the way, won’t help on this front.)

It would be useful if supporters of the health care law called a truce on gratuitous attacks against it. But Schumer is right in identifying the biggest problem facing our country. Restoring broadly shared prosperity is not just a good political issue. It’s the cause on which every other cause depends.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected]. Twitter: @EJDionne.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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