Skip to main content

A tea party exit would be a blessing for GOP

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 5:58 PM EDT, Mon October 14, 2013
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at a rally Sunday regarding the government shutdown.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at a rally Sunday regarding the government shutdown.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Tea party extremism contaminates the Republican brand
  • He cites a Gallup poll saying that 60% of Americans favor creation of a third party
  • Most of the time, third parties are formed by the extreme wings of the parties, he says
  • Frum: If the tea party bolts the GOP, it would be a positive sign for Republicans

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- "Do the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, or do they do such a poor job that a third major party is required?"

A record 60% of Americans now yearn for a third major party, according to Gallup. Independents, unsurprisingly, are most likely to favor a third party, but a majority of self-described Republicans say yes, too. But what do they mean by that "yes"?

Obviously, they mean many different things. Some yearn for a third party representing the Michael Bloomberg center: fiscally conservative and socially liberal like the New York City mayor.

David Frum
David Frum

But here's a caution about third parties in American history: They are much more likely to arise on the fringes of the political system, not the center. America has seen third-party efforts by socialists and segregationists; by right-to-lifers and libertarians.

This is why you now hear so much "third party" talk coming from tea party Republicans rather than (as you might expect) the party's subordinated pragmatists. The sensible center is much more likely to exert itself inside existing parties, as Dwight Eisenhower did for Republicans in the 1950s and as Bill Clinton did for the Democrats in the 1990s.

Pragmatists want to change the GOP so that it can win elections and govern effectively. Tea party Republicans prefer to express their principles regardless of consequences, which is why the Pew survey in September found that 71% of them favored a government shutdown even though nearly 40% of them expected that shutdown to have a "major" impact on the economy.

Third-party threats frighten Republican leaders. They remember that Ross Perot's independent challenge badly hurt George H.W. Bush's re-election campaign in 1992.

Canadian conservatives were locked out of power for nearly 15 years by a party split in the 1990s. British Conservatives fear that a rise in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party could drain support from Britain's Conservative-Liberal governing coalition.

Yet politics is a complicated business, and it's not always true that a party is weakened by the departure of its most extreme supporters.

Consider, for example, the case of the Democratic Party in the election of 1948. That year, the Democrats faced two groups that bolted.

To protest President Harry Truman's turn to support civil rights, southern Democrats coalesced as a "States' Rights" party and nominated South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond for president.

Williamson on the nature of Tea Party
Defunding Obamacare a 'fool's errand'
Was the Tea Party pushed out?

Left-liberal Democrats angered by Truman's tough Cold War foreign policy created an "American Labor" party and nominated former vice president Henry Wallace.

Together, Thurmond and Wallace took almost 5% of the vote in 1948. Thurmond carried four Deep South states and 7% of the Electoral College.

Yet Truman survived. In fact, there's a reasonable argument that Truman was actually helped by these third- and fourth-party challenges.

In 1948, African-Americans remained very much a swing constituency. Hundreds of thousands of black Americans had moved north and gained voting rights in the 30 years between 1917 and 1948. As a group, they tended to prefer the New Deal policies of the Democratic Party, but they deeply distrusted that party's Southern white supremacist wing.

Truman was a card-carrying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who had adopted the civil rights cause late in his career. Could he really be trusted? Truman's willingness to face down Thurmond convinced many Northern blacks that he could be. He carried an estimated 77% of the black vote in the North, and those votes provided the margin of victory in the three crucial states of California, Illinois and Ohio. Those three states provided 73 electoral votes in total, and they were each won by Truman with a margin of less than 1%.

Meanwhile, the Wallace challenge helped Truman with more conservative voters. Truman had initiated the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift, yet some questioned whether the Democrats were tough enough on communism -- an important question among voters of eastern European origin in states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

With Wallace vehemently denouncing Truman as too tough on the Soviet Union -- sometimes in speeches that echoed the editorials of the newspaper of the American Communist Party -- Truman gained the same kind of political cover on his right flank that Thurmond had provided him on his left.

The result, everybody knows.

Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand. It's a very interesting question whether a tea party bolt from the GOP might not just liberate the party to slide back to the political center -- and liberate Republicans from identification with the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles.

It's worth repeating over and over again. Add Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska -- and you have half a dozen Senate races lost to the GOP by extremist nominations.

Maybe the right answer to the threat, "Shut down the government or we quit" is: "So sad you feel that way. Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT