How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: Tea party Republicans need to be stopped before they destroy our system of democratic governance

New Jersey recently lost one of our most important resources - Alan Rosenthal. Rosenthal, as he was affectionately known during his 40-year tenure at the Eagelton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, passed away July 10. He was the acknowledged national guru on state legislatures.

Rosenthal was a unique political scientist who was able to bridge the gap between the academic world and practical politics. He had far-reaching influence in government in New Jersey. A straight-shooting, call-it-as-I-see-it kind of a guy, he was twice selected to be the tie-breaking vote on the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission.

The New York Times obituary described him as “a political scientist whose ardent belief in representative democracy led him to help reshape and strengthen state legislatures across the country.” At a memorial ceremony held at Rutgers, two former U.S. senators, Democrat Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Republican Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, offered tributes. They emphasized that he both understood and respected the legislative process and recognized that democracy is a place where lawmakers will differ on their views on important issues.

On the first day of the recent government shutdown, I was e-mailed a video of a memorial celebration of Rosenthal’s life and career. After watching it, I sent an e-mail to one of his colleagues at Eagelton asking him what he thought Rosenthal’s reaction to the shutdown would be. He responded that “his punch line over the years had been something like: ‘but, you know what, the damn system works.’” He went on to note, however, that recently, Rosenthal had “struggled to keep his inherent optimism in the forefront... [and] that many of the older legislators with whom he was in regular contact had become increasingly depressed. You can hear that a bit from Sarbanes’ and Simpson’s comments at the memorial.”

I know Rosenthal was a strong believer in American democracy, respected legislatures and legislators and recognized that democracy is a place where people have different points of view. He also recognized that the legislative process, like sausage-making, is not always pretty. I suspect he would be more even-keeled and more optimistic than I am, but I think he would be concerned about the anti-democratic nature of tea party adherents’ machinations.

I’m absolutely livid that a bunch of zealots threatened the economic viability of our country by denying the Treasury the ability to borrow the money it needs to pay expenses that Congress had already authorized. Margaret Talbot got it right when she wrote the following in a recent column in The New Yorker: “To hold up a budget and shut down the government in order to sabotage a law you don’t like is not just nose-thumbing at the government; it’s flouting the will of the people. Obamacare passed both Houses of Congress nearly three years ago. In June 2012, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of its fundamental elements. In November 2012, Obama, who had devoted much of his political capital to the Affordable Care Act, … was handily re-elected.”

It is alarming that a small group of hard-liners was able to shut down the federal government because it did not like a particular law. That’s not the way the process is supposed to work. There is supposed to be give-and-take and compromise. By refusing to compromise, the zealots abdicated their responsibility to govern. (But if a group is opposed to government, then I suppose it wouldn’t see closing down the government as an abdication of its responsibility.)

Even to many Senate Republicans, the tea party’s position was mystifying. In a meeting of Senate Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) rose to ask how the party would respond if it controlled the White House and the Senate and a Democratic House insisted it would not finance the government unless Washington rolled back laws hampering unions.

There is no compromising with fanatics, or “lemmings with suicide vests,” as they were described by Rep. Devin Nuñes (R-Calif.). If the president had given in to these legislative extortionists, it would have been a continuing strategy.

Tea party Republicans need to be stopped before they destroy our system of democratic governance. The only real answer is to vote them out of office at the ballot box. I understand that the majority of them come from safe districts and the chances of Democrats defeating them are quite low.

In order to defeat tea party candidates, Democrats should consider forming alliances with moderate and, if necessary, right-of-center rational Republicans who acknowledge that there must be compromise. I’d even favor such radical campaign strategies as calling on Democrats who reside in certain tea party districts to change their Democratic Party registration in order to vote in Republican primaries.

The tea party was willing to threaten the good faith and credit of the United States and risk destroying the economic foundations of our nation to prevent the implementation of a program to which they are opposed. They must be defeated. This may be one of those very rare cases in which the means does justify the ends.