WASHINGTON (AP) — The tea party movement succeeded in convincing many Americans that government is the problem and Democrats have been ineffective in persuading them otherwise, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, said Thursday in calling for a "robust defense of government."
In a nearly hourlong speech, the New York lawmaker promised an election-year focus on government-driven economic changes such as raising the minimum wage, spending more money on infrastructure and equal pay for women, arguing that it will renew Americans' faith in government as an institution capable of doing good.
Schumer compared the tea party to the temperance movement that forced prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. He said tea partiers pushed the idea that the deficit caused all of the nation's financial and economic problems and cutting government programs was the only solution.
"It was a superficial but very believable theory with an easy scapegoat: Those Washington politicians and bureaucrats who created all this government to benefit themselves are to blame for all of your ills and anxieties," Schumer said. "It allowed the tea party to fill the vacuum and capture the anger that was bubbling in the land. Democrats and most of America didn't respond forcefully to their argument. We were otherwise occupied and let this premise take deep hold, virtually unanswered."
Schumer faulted Democrats for doing a poor job in explaining the financial crisis and the benefits of President Barack Obama's stimulus package and later being preoccupied with overhauling health care.
"There was no effective defense of government. When the tea party elite came in and said 'government is your problem,' we didn't say: 'No, it isn't. It's part of your solution,'" Schumer said in a speech at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress.
Outlining an agenda for the Senate Democratic leadership, Schumer said the party over the next 10 months will discuss and vote on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, programs to pay for college, infrastructure and trade.
"The times are now ripe for a renewed and robust defense of government. For the near future, the deficit, in good part, has been tamed," Schumer said.
Republicans argue otherwise, insisting that excessive government regulation hampers private enterprise. The GOP's major focus this election year are the difficulties with Obama's health care law and government changes they maintain will hurt Americans looking to keep their insurance and doctors.
Schumer said he wasn't ready to fully commit to one electoral change, but did say it was worth exploring — primaries open to all parties.
"The way to lessen the grip of the tea party on the electoral process would be to do what a handful have done and have a primary where all voters, members of every party, can vote and the top two vote-getters then enter a runoff," Schumer said. "This would prevent a hard-right candidate from winning with 22 percent of the vote and force even the most extreme candidates to move further to the middle to pick up more moderate Republicans and independents in order to get into the top two."
California, Washington state and Louisiana have this type of open primary.
In past elections, however, Democrats have capitalized when Republicans nominated hard-right or tea party-backed candidates, winning Senate races in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.