Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bruce Maiman: Is it time for tea party to start a third party?

Last week, John Chase, a reader, emailed: “I quit the GOP after being a registered Republican for 30-plus years. They no longer represent me or even their own words. I expect and require more.”

The Rocklin resident and graphics designer told me, “It’s hard to support the GOP when, prior to the government shutdown, I hadn’t seen any reasonable alternatives from them.”

What if the tea party broke away and formed its own political party? Would that be a more reasonable alternative?

For John, now registered “declined to state,” he’d consider supporting it.

Not Bruce Miller, a financial services consultant from Antelope: Believing the tea party has “hijacked my Republican Party,” if they broke away and formed their own party, “then the remaining Republicans and their party would become a reasonable alternative again.”

Sound familiar? Two factions, each repelling the other, neither seemingly helping the other, each grudgingly tolerating one another. Why bother? Why not go separate ways?

“I would challenge your premise a little bit,” said Sal Russo, who runs the Tea Party Express out of his Sacramento-based firm. It dubs itself as the nation’s largest tea party organization.

“The gap between moderate Republicans and tea partiers is miniscule,” Russo said.

Russo’s conclusion is drawn from comparisons to the deep schism that existed in 1964, as entrenched Republican moderates battled conservative insurgents. “In an era in which a national consensus seemed to have coalesced around advancing civil rights, containing Communism and expanding government,” wrote Rick Perlstein for the Smithsonian Magazine, “the moderates believed they had to win to preserve the Republican Party. The conservatives – who wanted to contain the role of the federal government and roll back Communism – believed they were saving not just the party but Western civilization.”

Sound familiar? Republicans survived.

Ann Coll, founder of the Santa Ana Tea Party and a member of the newly formed Tea Party Caucus, sees no need for a breakup. “There’s a broad spectrum within the tea party from moderate conservatives to libertarians,” she tells me, but “we would rather work within the party and move it a little more to the right.”

Pragmatically, she notes, “We realize the danger in a third party movement: It would give any election to the Democrats.”

Not according to Sen. Ted Cruz.

Despite six polls over the last two weeks, including Fox News and last Thursday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, showing plummeting approval numbers for Republicans, tea partiers, and even him, the Texas firebrand and current tea party darling insists those numbers are “not reflective of where this country is.” He maintains those polls are skewed because they sought out liberal Obama supporters.

Fox News and the Wall Street Journal seeking out “liberal Obama supporters”?

Who’s right here? Russo? Coll, cautioning that Democrats would benefit from a split of Republicans and tea partiers? Or Ted Cruz, who insists the polls are wrong, that his side speaks for “the American people”?

The only way to be sure: Put your money where your mouth is, form a third party and test your ideas across the electoral landscape. Cut the B.S. and act or spare us all the drama.

It’s like the arena vote in Sacramento. Tussles over signatures and secrecy aside, let’s test the waters, let people vote, and however the numbers fare, let the devil take the hindmost. Can we not do likewise with the tea party? Stand by the courage of your convictions and let voters decide the fate of your own party, ideas and values.

It’s not like money and organizational forces aren’t there. A bouillabaisse of longtime political animals, powerful special interest groups, conservative PACs and billionaire corporatists have conjoined to finance, establish and maintain the tea party movement since its infancy. And that power has cowed many a moderate Republican who might otherwise compromise with Democrats.

Does that make traditional Republicans weak and rudderless? So what? Wouldn’t tea partiers thus be the ones surviving a split? Fine. Leave traditional Republicans behind and let tea partiers rise as a viable second party.

Or are tea partiers simply afraid to become their own entity, afraid to find out they’re far smaller and far less representative of the American electorate than they claim?

Actually, a tea party departure might bode well for the GOP. Bill Middendorf, Barry Goldwater’s treasurer for that 1964 campaign, noted in his memoir of that year, “A Glorious Disaster,” that from the ashes of Goldwater extremism emerged a Republican Party “surer of its identity and better positioned to harvest the bounty” of an electorate seeking a voice, Perlstein wrote in his Smithsonian piece.

“I would love it if they left Republicans alone and started their own party,” Miller says. “I might even send them flowers.”

Save your flowers, Bruce. I don’t think they have the guts to do it.