Skip to main content

A tea party exit would be a blessing for GOP

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
October 14, 2013 -- Updated 2158 GMT (0558 HKT)
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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT