A THIRD PARTY?

Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- It may not get much done, but the first session of the 112th Congress, convening in January, will be fun to watch. The most interesting commentary on the 2010 midterm elections was from Republican partisans and their Tea Party cousins as they rhetorically, warily circled each other on the morning after.

The man who managed Senator-elect Rand Paul's primary campaign in Kentucky, David Adams, had this to say:

"I'm hoping for a lot of fireworks in Washington over who takes control of who. If Republican leaders think for a minute they're going to suck us in and continue business as usual, they're wrong. ... We've changed the shape of the debate."

His candidate, meanwhile, was saying he's going to Washington "to take our government back!" To when? The early 20th century, I'd guess. The other interesting question is, are they going to continue to try to take it back from both Democrats and Republicans?

A Republican who's been there, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said the other day that his party must "co-opt" the new Tea Party lawmakers, all of them nominally Republican, "as soon as they get to Washington." He continued: "We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples."

South Carolina Sen. DeMint seems be the man in the middle (or the center) of the fireworks soon to be lit in the Capitol. He is a Republican, of course, but he was one of the few establishment figures supporting Tea Party heroes against his fellow Republicans. This is what he had to say to the victors last Wednesday morning:

"The establishment is more likely to try to buy off your votes than to buy into your limited-government philosophy. ... Tea Party Republicans were elected to go to Washington to save the country -- not be co-opted by the club. So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today."

DeMint was urging the newcomers not to seek earmarks or fancy committee assignments in return for loyalty to Republican leadership. No compromise!

Tea Party strategists, if anyone can call them that, already have a list of future Republican targets, including Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. If they go after those three or others, they will likely do it again by putting candidates in Republican primaries. Harsh.

No one knows where the Tea Party is headed. Hell, few understand what the Tea Party is.

I would guess they have three choices:

1. Fold themselves into the Republican Party.

2. Try to take over the Republican Party.

3. Try to form a real third party.

They all say they will never sell out, but the temptations are great and will become greater when the new Congress organizes. They are not strong enough (yet) or disciplined enough to knock out the Grand Old Party. And third party formation is exceedingly difficult in the United States. The two "major" parties survive by adopting the issues of potential rivals and because election laws, state by state, are really contracts between the Republicans and the Democrats to preserve each other and strangle third parties by keeping them off the ballot with arcane laws about everything from voter petitions to candidates' eligibility.

But still ... A recent poll of 10 key congressional districts by The Hill newspaper indicated that 54 percent of voters would like to see a third party. And exit polling on Election Day showed, surprisingly, that four out of 10 voters said they identified with the goals of the Tea Party, which seem to be deconstructing government, eliminating taxes and giving everyone a gun.

I think it will be fun to watch and not good for the country. But that's only one man's opinion. Democracy, with all its imperfections, is better and more important than me. I woke up the morning after remembering the concession speech years ago of a friend named Dick Tuck, who lost a state legislative election in California and said: "The people have spoken -- the bastards!"

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