The trauma of the shutdown and default crisis is over — for a few months — but its lingering aftertaste has given rise to a call for the formation of a third party. Polls show that 60 percent of Americans are open to the idea.
Some say, "There has been too much devotion to ideology. A truly moderate third party would elect a president and a Congress that would stop the fighting and get things done by creating a place where traditional Republicans and discouraged Democrats could unite to bring the nation back to sanity."
And others insist, "There has not been enough devotion to ideology. A truly conservative third party would elect a president and a Congress that will stop the drift towards socialism by attracting those that have dropped out of political participation because they are turned off by 'go along to get along' ideas."
I think any attempt to create a third party, regardless of its purpose, would fail. The only successful third party movement in our history, the Republican Party, was formed to oppose slavery when that was the nation's dominating issue and the Whig Party was dying. For all their troubles, neither of our present parties is anywhere near Whig status.
I suggest that voters disgusted with where we are should concentrate instead on expressing strong support for existing politicians who, between now and the next deadline, are willing to act like former Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), the Republican leader during the Kennedy and Johnson years.
Dirksen was strongly conservative and badly outnumbered. When he came to the Senate, there were only 34 Republicans; Democrats held all the levers of power. He never abandoned his conservative views — he backed Taft over Eisenhower and Goldwater over Rockefeller — but when he was chosen as the Republican leader, he was not apologetic about being perfectly willing to make a deal. He said, "I am a man of principle, and one of my principles is flexibility."
He became a force to be reckoned with, a man who was able to leverage Republican influence far beyond that which their meager numbers would suggest. He constantly looked for opportunities to get good end results, not to back hopeless crusades. He didn't waste his time or his power on such efforts, telling a group of ministers, "I am not a moralist. I am a legislator."
Many who have been at the center of the fiscal negotiations that were stalled until the very last moment said, in effect, "I am a man of principle, and one of my principles is rigidity." Rigidity can be comforting. It provides one with a sense of certainty, which is appealing. My father said, "Some people would rather be certain than right." Often, however, as we have seen over the past months, it prevents the kind of deal-making that gets things done.
As they wrestled with the difficulties of writing a Constitution that was both good policy and capable of ratification, the majority of the delegates in Philadelphia found occasions when they had to be flexible. As he wrestled with the challenge of saving the Union, so did Lincoln. As he confronted the Soviet Union, so did Reagan.
I hope that Alcoholics Anonymous will not be offended if I take a few liberties with "The Alchoholic's Prayer" and suggest that it be the motto for those who will negotiate our financial status between now and next year:
May we have the courage to stand firm when that is required,
the humility to be flexible when that would be helpful,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.