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POLITICS: PennAve

Chuck Schumer reveals new strategy for subduing the Tea Party

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Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., offered a new strategy for dividing and conquering the Tea Party in a speech Thursday.

Schumer, a top strategist among Senate Democrats, said he believes there is a “glaring weakness, one very weak link in the Tea Party's armor” that Democrats can exploit to reduce the political influence of the group.

Schumer acknowledged that Democrats failed to address the rise of the Tea Party over the past four years, with the result that top conservative donors' “quack medicine” was allowed to “fill the vacuum and capture the anger that was bubbling in the land.” He said that the Tea Party was motivated by a “fear of a changing America” and compared it with the Temperance Movement.

But Democrats’ mistake in allowing the Tea Party’s rise is reversible, according to Schumer.

"The fundamental weakness in the Tea Party machine is the stark difference between what the leaders of the Tea Party elite, plutocrats like the Koch brothers, want and what the average grassroots Tea Party follower wants," Schumer said. By driving a wedge between wealthy conservative businessmen and the rank and file, Democrats can tame the Tea Party, Schumer suggested.

Americans who identify as Tea Partiers are whiter, older, wealthier and better educated that the average public, a 2012 CBS News/New York Times poll found. Most said their main goal is reducing the influence of the federal government.

Since the 2010 elections, some of Schumer's fellow senators, such as Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have gained prominence in the upper chamber while allying themselves with the Tea Party.

But Schumer believes that Democrats can ward off future officeholders like Paul and Lee by convincing Tea Partiers that top political donors like the Koch brothers do not share their priorities. In particular, Schumer claimed that the average Tea Partier supports Medicare and government spending on infrastructure and education. Their conservatism, he said, came about because “Tea Party elites swooped in and sold many Americans a simple nostrum: that ‘government' was to blame for all their problems.”

Schumer’s plan for dividing the group includes focusing on pro-government messaging on issues such as the minimum wage, college aid, infrastructure and equal pay for women. He also recommended electoral reforms, including taking steps to counteract the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and favoring open primaries.

Polls do show high approval among Tea Partiers for entitlement programs like Medicare. Anti-government sentiment, however, is still strong, despite the receding of the group's rallies: Gallup reported on Wednesday that 65 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the government, the highest mark since 2001.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing advocacy group founded by David Koch, dismissed Schumer’s new strategy, saying that donors and the grassroots were in “broad agreement” on a number of issues such as Obamacare, taxes and the debt, even if there is disagreement on smaller items.

Phillips pointed to the broad approval among Tea Party members, both rank-and-file activists and donors, for the Paul Ryan-authored budget that passed the House twice that would have dramatically overhauled Medicare. The widespread support among Tea Partiers for that plan, Phillips said, is evidence that the movement is united on entitlement reform despite the polling.

Schumer spoke at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

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