The final presidential election of the millennium is still more than a year away, but by last summer rumblings of discontent with the plastic dashboard figurines who are the leading candidates of the two major plastic dashboard political parties were already audible. The rumblings first attracted national notice when Pat Buchanan, in the course of his third campaign for the presidency, emitted a few rumbles himself about the possibility of leaving the Republican Party to which he has been attached for most of his life. Throughout the 1990’s, Mr. Buchanan has been among the first voices to define issues and point future political directions while most in his party and the (snicker) “conservative movement” have merely squealed in dismayed terror at his maverick positions. His dissent on the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 pointed toward the far larger and more generalized opposition to the recent Balkan war, and his support for economic nationalism contributed to an increased skepticism of the “global economy” and free-trade dogmas among congressmen in both parties in the last few years. When Pat started rumbling about leaving the GOP smack in the middle of his campaign for its nomination, therefore, pundits were well advised to pay attention.

But Mr. Buchanan soon distanced himself from his own remarks. On Meet the Press a few days after his reported threat of defection, he confirmed that “if the Republican Party walks away from life [i.e., a pro-life, anti-abortion position], it walks away from me.” He might leave the party or refuse to endorse its ticket, but he gave no firm indication that he would .start a new party or accept the nomination of one, and he did say that by the time the Republicans picked their ticket next year, it would probably be too late to start a new party anyway.

Nevertheless, the word had been spoken, and soon speculation about a third party was commonplace. Even after Mr. Buchanan’s demurrals, columnist Robert Novak insisted that he might actually bolt the GOP and run as an independent, while the New York Times a few days later carried a major front-page story recounting in some detail how Mr. Buchanan wasn’t the only Republican thinking of what he had called “a stampede for the Metroliner” out of the party.

In fact, the prospect of a “third party” of the right has been discussed in virtually every presidential election in my memory. Indeed, the very term “third party,” if taken literally, is rather grotesquely inaccurate, hi addition to such perennials as the Communist Party USA and its cheap imitations in World-Peace-and- Save-the-Silverfish crusades of the left, there are vehicles on the right that have become institutionalized despite their marginal political impact—the Libertarian Party, the U.S. Taxpayers Party, and, of course, the Reform Party, which has actually proved itself capable of electing Jesse Ventura to the governorship of Minnesota. In other words, whatever happens to the Republicans or the Democrats (speaking of cheap imitations of the communists), a new party built on their wreckage would not be a “third” but a fifth or sixth party at least.

Of course, that’s not what is meant when people talk about a “third party.” What they mean is a political part}’ with a real chance of winning national elections, and today, with the possible exception of the Reform Party, there is no such animal. The Reform Party might be able to win a national election only because of the strong and distinctive personalities of its leaders, the indefatigable Ross Perot and the refreshingly unconventional Mr. Ventura, probably the only political candidate in human history who has openly discussed his youthful visit to a house of ill repute and been elected anyway. Third parties have historically been successful in American history only because of their leaders—William Jennings Bryan and George Wallace come quickly to mind—or because the rest of the political establishment was so fractured that even mediocrities like Abraham Lincoln could creep into the White House while everyone else was fighting. When the personalities of the leaders fade and the establishment fractures are patched up, third parties usually begin to vanish.

Yet despite the interminable jabber about a new party, there is more reason in this election cycle than ever to take it seriously. Not only Mr. Buchanan but also New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, almost as firmly on the right as the former commentator and an actual elected officeholder, spoke openly about bolting the Republicans, and what he had to say represented precisely the feelings and thoughts of thousands, if not millions, of other Americans who have supported the GOP in recent years. “Right now we have one political party in America,” the senator told the New York Times a couple of weeks before he actually did leave the Republicans. “It’s run by moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, and conservatives are stuck. If you talk to conservative activists there’s a lot of frustration. I have no desire to see the demise of the party. But I’m not going to see our views compromised.”

Among the views that rank-and-file Republicans believe have already been compromised —if not entirely abandoned — by the party and its leadership, the Times itself mentioned not only abortion but also “taxes, gun control, military spending and gay rights.” Yet that’s only the icing on the cake. How about the party’s support of statehood for Puerto Rico, a brainchild of the now forgotten Newt Gingrich and his “Republican revolutionaries,” intended to “lure” the Hispanic vote into the party; the abandonment of efforts to abolish affirmative action (last year, the Republican House actually defeated a bill that would have abolished federal affirmative-action mandates for educational institutions); and the total sellout of the immigration issue, both with respect to reform of existing legal immigration procedures and of any serious attempt to control illegal immigration? As for gun control, the implosion of the congressional Republicans on this issue in the aftermath of the Littleton shootings last spring helped undermine the support of one of the key constituencies that gave the party a congressional majority in 1994. It was a Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, who caused the collapse of the gun-control package pushed by the Clinton White House and swallowed whole by the Republican leadership in both houses.

The Republicans no longer even pretend to be interested in such matters as reducing the size and scope of the federal leviathan or abolishing federal programs and departments, let alone reversing the damage to the Constitution inflicted by a generation of Supreme Court justices (the most dangerous of whom—Earl Warren, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, et al.—were all appointed by Republican presidents). On the major issues of the era—globalist foreign policy and recklessly aggressive military adventurism, free trade, the erosion of national sovereignty, and the Third-Worldization of America—the Republican Party is virtually indistinguishable from the party of Bill Clinton. As for Mr. Clinton himself, he and the assorted crooks, crackpots, perverts, and outright traitors that inhabit his administration have now managed to bamboozle and defeat the Republicans no fewer than four times—in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, the congressional elections of 1998, and the impeachment boondoggle of 1999, How many times does a political party get to strike out before it is hooted off the field by its own fans?

“The disenchantment” of conservative Republicans with their own party, reported the Times, “is so intense that more and more conservatives on the front lines are openly discussing whether to bolt from the party,” and they have every reason to bolt. A party that not only fails to represent the beliefs of its own members and supporters but also repeatedly proves itself unable to win in confrontations with its major political opponents neither deserves to win nor, in the long run, will be able to survive.

There are, however, two compelling reasons why a new party does not already exist and may have trouble coming into existence, hi the first place, any new party that is at all successful in attracting voters will quickly have its appeal emulated or stolen by one of the existing mainstream parties. In the second place, any new party of the right in the United States today would probably be merely the grassroots of the existing Republican Party minus its incompetent and dishonest leadership. What’s the point of founding a party when all you would be doing is simply changing the name of the Republican Party and kicking out the leaders? If you can do the latter, you don’t need to do the former.

The first reason, the problem of emulation by the existing parties, is what happened to George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968. Wallace’s crusading rhetoric against “forced busing” and similar federal efforts at racial and social engineering was emulated by Richard Nixon at somewhat lower decibels, and since the Republicans had a better chance than Wallace of winning the election, Nixon was able to walk off with votes that otherwise might well have made the Alabama governor and his new party a permanent fixture of the national political landscape. No sooner had Nixon won the election, of course, than he and his Justice Department started instituting affirmative action.

Any third party that is successful enough to invite emulation by an old party has to be prepared to meet this threat. It has to be able to articulate its own message in such a distinctive way that the older parties cannot emulate it without at the same time undermining and jeopardizing the support of their constituencies. In 1968, the Democrats could not emulate Wallace because they had become increasingly dependent on the black vote; the Republicans could emulate him because they had virtually no black support and could expect to win (and did win) by mobilizing the working and middle-class white voters who felt directly threatened by busing and other forms of forced integration.

The other objection to a new party of the right, that it would be merely the Republican Party under a new name, may well be true, although the vast support that George W. Bush appears to enjoy within the party suggests that it’s not only the COP leadership that needs to be purged. One of the major problems with the GOP in the last couple of decades is that its members and activists have actually had a taste of political victory and like it so much that they now want little else. Local patronage, federal jobs and appointments, government subsidies, privileged visits to the White House, favors from local congressmen that would not be possible if the party were not in the majority, and the sheer pleasure of thumping your chest in front of your friends and neighbors about winning elections and clambering into office all contribute to enticing rank-and-file Republicans into forgetting the issues and voters that put them into office in the first place. It is probably rank-and-filers such as these, at least as much as the less-than-stalwart postures of such leaders as Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, that pressure the party as a whole into defecting from its own principles and platform. If a new party does come into existence, its founders should have no illusion that it can be merely the Republican Party under a new name. Not only the present leadership of the COP but also a sizable number of its membership needs to be kicked out, and many Americans who now vote for the Democrats or the Reform Party or who don’t bother to vote at all need to be brought in. Unless a new party is able and willing to do both, it won’t be worth starting.

Finally, the most common, though not the most compelling, argument against a new party is that it just won’t be able to win and that, if it doesn’t, it will only enable the Democrats to win. It is not particularly compelling for at least two reasons. First, the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, as suggested above, is not so large as to make much of a difference to the nation anyway, and as long as the right wing of the party lets itself be gulled by its leaders into swallowing this appeal to fear, the leaders themselves will have nothing to fear from any revolt within their own ranks. It is actually an argument intended to quell any serious discussion of an alternative direction for the party. And second, those who advance this argument miss the whole point about a new party.

That point is that a new party should not expect to win, at least not for several years or election cycles, because the purpose of founding a new party is not so much to win (if winning is what you want, join the Democrats) but rather to sustain a certain set of ideas and principles that the other parties have abandoned or, in Senator Smith’s words, compromised. It is not just a matter of waving the torch, but of keeping the torch alight at a time when the established parties show no interest in doing so. If waving the torch is all that a new party is interested in doing, it won’t survive. But if it can bear the torch in a way that illuminates and leads the nation it seeks to persuade, then it will almost inevitably displace at least one of the older parties and will probably influence the direction of the other. The issue today is not whether the Republican Party will survive. The disenchantment with the Republican Party is now so intense that, at the end of this millennium or in the first years of the next one, it will almost certainly begin to evaporate. The issue now is what kind of party will replace it and whether those who want it to be born will be able to wave the right torch in a way that the nation will see and want to follow.