While the calendar may say 2009 for the Republican party it's really 1976. The party and millions of angry and alienated former members of the GOP are faced with the same decision their deceased -- but very-much-alive -- titular leader Ronald Reagan faced then: leave and start a new party or join and transform the one that was closest to their beliefs.
To be sure, the GOP circa 2009 is far closer to the ideals held by Ronald Reagan than it was in 1976, but the real prospect of whether the conservative movement should bolt and start a new party or stay in the GOP tent is once again front and center 33 years later.
Reagan was sorely tempted by the idea of bolting and forming a third party and addressed it head on in a speech to fellow conservatives in which he noted:
"Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people? A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers. I do not believe I have proposed anything that is contrary to what has been considered Republican principle. It is at the same time the very basis of conservatism. It is time to reassert that principle and raise it to full view. And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these principles, then let them go their way.”
But today there may be another alternative to the temptation Reagan faced. It is this: Our fraying political system might best be served by the GOP renaming itself the Reagan Party, hewing closely to the principles outlined by Reagan in 1977 when he began what was in effect his government in exile, and allow its more liberal members to form a third party, which for now, we will call the Moderate Party. Such a move would allow our national politics to move in a direction more akin to a parliamentary/coalition style government.
The Moderate Party would attract both heretofore Democrats and Republicans and be an important player in American politics without which both the Democrats AND the Reagans might find it difficult to govern. Its stars would be players like Susan Collins, Joseph Lieberman, Colin Powell, Evan Bayh, Olympia Snowe and a horde of Blue Dog Democrats in the House -- in short a party where finally, after years in the political wilderness, Conservative Democrats and Liberal Republicans would find their voices amplified instead of drowned out.
If the recent Gallup polling on political ideology -- and Tuesday's race in New York's 23rd congressional district between Hoffman, Scozzafava and Owens is any indication, the Reagan Party would represent 40% of the electorate, the Democratic Party would represent 21% and the Moderate Party would represent 35%, meaning that seats in Congress would be allocated roughly along those lines and two of the parties would need to work together in order to achieve a working governing majority.
Ironically, the result of such a clear and accurate demarcation between ideologies might lead to a more concensus-oriented style of governing that would, in the long run, result in less shouting across ideological divides and more constructive engagement and principled compromises that would strengthen, not weaken, American democracy.
Mark Joseph is a producer, author and editor of Bullypulpit.com. He writes frequently for the Fox Forum.