Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. He is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.
Washington (CNN) -- A new CNN poll finds that about half of Republicans sympathize with the tea party movement. The other half either remain aloof or (5%) even express hostility.
That second group of Republicans has received remarkably little media attention this cycle. Yet their man -- Mitt Romney -- has held steady in first or second place for the past three years. Meanwhile tea party Republicans have bounced from Sarah Palin to Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to (now) Herman Cain, transfixing the media every time they lose faith in one messiah and search for another.
Yet sooner or later, the tea party Republicans must converge on a single choice. When they do, they will present the non-tea party Republicans with a troubling menu of possibilities.
Possibility 1: Romney is nominated, Romney is elected.
From the point of view of non-tea party Republicans, this is the ideal outcome of the 2012 election. Yet it is also an outcome that looks worryingly out of reach. As we enter the final 12 months of the election countdown, Romney still cannot rise above 30% support in his own party. Worse, while it's easy to imagine (say) Herman Cain's voters shifting to Rick Perry or vice versa, it is very hard to imagine where Mitt Romney will find the additional Republican votes he needs.
Possibility 2: Romney is nominated, Romney loses.
For non-tea party Republicans, this second outcome opens all kinds of ugly, ominous possibilities. If candidate Romney loses, tea party Republicans will claim that the GOP lost because it failed to nominate a "true conservative." That claim may fly in the face of political math (how would a more extreme candidate win more votes?), but it will pack a lot of emotional punch. Intense partisans are always ready to believe that the way to win is to be more intense and more partisan. Back-to-back losses under John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 will open the way to an ultra-conservative nominee in 2016 -- and a true party debacle.
Possibility 3: A tea party Republican is nominated and loses.
From the point of view of a non-tea party Republican, the third possibility is the most tragic waste. A winnable election will be thrown away on an ideological adventure. Yet within the disaster might lurk a silver lining. At least the GOP will get the ideological adventure out of its system. For three years, Republican activists have lived in a fantasy world in which fringe characters like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain somehow "speak for the common sense of the common people." It seems incredible that anybody could believe such a thing. It seems crazy that anyone would actually need a presidential election to disabuse them of such notions. But as Benjamin Franklin said: "Experience is a hard teacher, but fools will have no other."
Possibility 4: A tea party Republican is nominated and wins.
This possibility has to be reckoned the most unlikely. But it cannot be excluded as utterly impossible, on two conditions:
If the U.S. economy continues as weak and sick as it is today, and;
If tea party Republicans revert from the utterly unelectable Herman Cain to Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas possesses at least the paper qualifications for the presidency.
Then - who knows? - anything might happen.
Perry would be a much weaker candidate than Romney, but if the voters are determined to fire the incumbent, then even a weak challenger can prevail. (See Barack Hussein Obama, 2008 candidacy of.)
In which case, not only tea party Republicans but all Republicans and all Americans will confront the problem: what next?
The tea party stands for a series of propositions that don't meet the reality test: that deficits matter more than jobs, that cutting deficits and tightening credit will accelerate economic growth, that high taxes and over-regulation are the most important reasons that growth has not revived, and that America still offers the world's best opportunity for the poor to rise. Tea party plans call for a radical shift in the burden of taxation from the rich to the poor -- and promise big reductions in government spending without touching any of the benefits of current retirees.
If put into practice, the tea party platform is a formula for political and economic crisis.
Fortunately, it remains a long-shot outcome. If you're betting the odds, you want to put your money on possibility three. As for possibility one -- that's just good government. And nobody seems to get much excited about that these days.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.