Opinion: Tom Kean — Moderate, Bipartisan, Tea Party Ideologue?

R. William Potter | May 17, 2011 | Opinion
Republican Party's elder statesman supports Gov. Christie's "option" to defy the state Supreme Court

What’s happened to the Republican Party? Captured, it seems, by Tea Party ideologues who would shutter the government and see it default on trillions of dollars of national debt, unless Democrats agree to slice the budget where it will hurt most — the poor, elderly, women, children and the jobless.

And where are the Republican Party’s elder statesmen, politicians from an era of bipartisanship, when moderate Republicans and Democrats compromised in the national interest? Why don’t they speak up to help their party regain its fading reputation for probity and moderation?

One such party elder who made bipartisanship his namesake is former Gov. Tom Kean, perhaps the best — certainly the most popular — politician in modern New Jersey history. But in a recent Star Ledger conversation with former Gov. Brendan Byrne (May 9, 2011), Kean showed that he, too, is not immune to the Tea Party virus that has infected his party.

The topic was Gov. Christie’s statement that he reserves the “option” to defy a state Supreme Court order should the justices compel full funding for Abbott school districts, where mostly minorities and urban poor are concentrated.

To the obvious surprise of Byrne, Kean said the governor would be justified in defying the Court “to protect the people of the state. If the court is going to do something like that” — order full funding of Abbott based on the law — “the governor has to defend the people he represents. You have to look at the consequences of taking a billion dollars out of an already tight budget.”

Kean called defiance of the Court “an option — a nuclear option” and added he hopes the Governor “never has to use it, but it’s there… if the court makes a decision costing over a billion dollars, as it means you have to close institutions, schools and the governor can’t allow that.”

This is Tea Party talk of the worst kind, coming at a time when wise counsel from a respected senior leader of his party is most needed. Like the governor, Kean seems to assume that the only way to plug a yawning budget gap is to slice and dice essential government services for the most vulnerable in society. And never, but never, increase any taxes on the wealthiest, such as the “millionaire’s tax” that Christie vetoed.

Kean’s comments echo the recent speech by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), threatening default of U.S. debts unless President Obama surrenders to Republican demands for trillions of dollars of nonmilitary budget cuts, which may “mean you have to close institutions.” Doubtless, many would be Medicaid and Medicare facilities serving the poor and elderly.

Let’s hope that Kean, an admired mentor of mine from years past, regains his footing and stops the lurch to the extreme right. As for Byrne, he could not have been clearer in his rebuttal: “Tom, it’s not an option,” referring to the governor’s defiance of the high court.

We’d do well to remember that much as Tea Party icon Pres. Ronald Reagan signed a slew of tax increases to ward off deficits in the 1980’s, then Kean raised the income tax and gas tax to prevent the same types of draconian budget cuts he now suggests justify Christie’s disobeying a Supreme Court ruling he doesn’t like.

We’d also do well to remember the upshot of those 1980’s tax increases. Elected in 1981 with the smallest margin in state history, Kean was reelected four years later with the largest voter margin in New Jersey history.

Moral: Raising taxes targeting big money and gasoline sales (which hit interstate travelers) leads to budget-fixing stability and is the option of choice — not the nuclear option of defying the Supreme Court.

Tom, your party needs you.