Schumer Suggests 'Electoral Reform' As Way to 'Lessen the Grip of the Tea Party'

By Susan Jones | January 24, 2014 | 9:54am EST

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) AP Photo

( - Although the tea party's influence is "undeniable," it is not inevitable -- and it must be crushed for the good of the nation, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued in a long political speech on Thursday.

"They've won elections, stymied Democratic priorities and taken a sledgehammer to programs that are important to tens of millions of Americans," he complained.

Among other recommendations, Schumer suggested an IRS crackdown on funding for tea party groups. "We have to look at electoral reform," he said.

"Our very electoral structure has been rigged to favor tea party candidates in Republican primaries, even when the district or the state may not be that red."

Schumer said "the tea party machine" has a particularly strong influence on Republican primaries, partly because the far right turns out to vote; and partly because of gerrymandering -- "where Republicans have learned to capture state legislatures and then use innovative technology to draw districts where a Democrat could never be elected.

"Hence, the Republican House member only has to look over his right shoulder and moves much further to the right than the average voter in his or her district would want."

The same thing can happen in Democratic primaries, Schumer admitted -- "but at the moment, it is far more exaggerated on the Republican side."

Schumer said one way to "lessen the grip of the tea party on the electoral process" is to have a primary where voters of every party can vote, leading the top two vote-getters, regardless of their party affiliation, into a run-off.

"This would prevent a hard-right candidate from gaining office with only 22 percent of the vote. It would force the most extreme candidates in Republican districts to move closer to the middle to pick up more moderate Republicans and independents in order to be one of the top two vote-getters and enter the run off," he added.

Government is good

Schumer faulted Democrats for failing to counter tea party attempts "to make government the boogeyman."

Instead, Schumer made "tea party elites" the boogeyman, portraying them as "wealthy, hard right, selfish, narrow" and fearful of "an America that's not reflective of themselves." He said these "elites" have manipulated their millions of grass-roots followers into believing that "government is the explanation for their ills."

"Their mantra -- 'dramatically shrink government and our problems will end' -- is the fundamentally false, but not effectively challenged premise, that is the core weakness of the Tea Party, and one we can exploit to turn American politics around to the benefit of our nation."

Schumer said the best way to deal with the tea party's "obsessive anti-government mania" is to "confront it directly" and show people that they really do need government "to help them out of their morass."

Health care reform a mistake?

Schumer offered a number of examples where Democrats have failed to provide an "antidote" to the tea party's "quack medicine."

For instance, he said Democrats didn't do a good enough job explaining the nature, causes, severity of the financial crisis, nor did they "explain how the stimulus and government spending would help ameliorate the problem."

And after the financial crisis, Democrats turned to health care reform instead of income inequality: While healthcare reform "was a worthy goal," it wasn't a concern for most Americans, he admitted -- "they weren't focused on it because they weren't unhappy with the health care they had."

Schumer said Democrats must make the case that government helps Americans. "The average Tea Party member, like the average American, likes government-run Medicare, likes government-built highways, and likes government support for education, both higher and lower."

He said there are four ways that Democrats can "answer the Tea Party" and convince its followers that government is not always the problem and is "often the solution to middle-class woes."

-- First, Democrats must "stop playing defense and go on offense when it comes to the need for government. We must state loudly and repeatedly that we believe government is often a necessary force for good."

-- Second, Democrats in 2014 -- an election  year -- must focus "on four or five simple but compelling examples of where government can help the average family. (He mentioned raising the minimum wage, paying for college with a "simple, concerete government-funded program," increasing aid for K-12 education,infrastructure spending, equal pay for women, and fair trade.)

-- The third way to "constructively channel frustrations," Schumer said, "is to address the damage done by the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision," which created "huge holes in our campaign finance laws. ...Obviously, the Tea Party elites gained extraordinary influence by being able to funnel millions of dollars into campaigns with ads that distort the truth and attack government."

Schumer said although the House is controlled by Republicans, "there are many things that can be done administratively by the IRS and other government agencies -- we must redouble those efforts immediately."

-- His fourth recommendation, already discussed, is electoral reform.

"By proudly and repeatedly voicing a generalized philosophy that government is a force for good and highlighting specific issues which demonstrate how government can be part of the solution, not the problem, we can take America back to a place where gridlock fades, smart government-oriented solutions pass, and the middle class can reclaim the American Dream," Schumer concluded.

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