04/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Third Parties, Invisible Senators and Why Conservatism Is Still Dead

Whether it comes from Lincoln Chafee, Michael Bloomberg or (speculation about) Evan Bayh, all this 'What America Really Needs Is a Third Party' talk of late is hooey. Absolute hooey.

The polarization of Washington has not come about because moderates and centrists have no place to go. In fact, moderates are doing just as well as anyone else in today's politics.

Of course, the Tea Party puritans dominating the GOP would sooner die than allow a Chafee, a Bloomberg or a Bayh to carry their banner in even a statewide election. But while those three are not completely in sync with the Democratic base either, they would certainly find themselves welcome there. In fact, there are many office-holding, high-ranking Democrats to their right.

Don't believe the base would buy it? Just this morning, Markos Moulitsas tweeted that he would support Charlie Crist switching parties to run as a Democrat in Florida's Senate race. So just because the Republicans take no moderates doesn't mean the Democrats don't either.

Nor is the gridlock in Washington a two party-problem. America has a 59-vote Senate at the moment, meaning only 59 senators are interested in actually legislating. Tonight's jobs bill is an exception, but there are dozens of silent Republican filibusters taking place not because of the motions themselves, but because it shuts down the government. As Tom Coburn recently said, "I love gridlock."

And so, 41 members of the Senate are obstinately absent from their duties, but they might as well be considered invisible. They've been motionless for so long that people have forgotten they're still alive. A few weeks back, President Obama declared that if the Republicans were so determined to hold everything up, they better be prepared to start taking some of the responsibility for the government's failure to act.

Fat chance, Mr. President. The Republicans are no sooner to accept any consequential public blame for the gridlock than they are to reexamine why the Bush administration left the country in such peril.

Take the recent Conservative Political Action Conference -- CPAC -- where Benjamin Sarlin observed, "If last year's CPAC was Bush's funeral, then this year's is Easter." But the clamor was nothing more than sound bites; no sound analysis of the Bush administration's supposed success was offered.

And that lack of introspection is what leaves the Republican Party so imperiled. Sam Tanenhaus was right in February 2009, and he's right now: they have no real direction, and thus no pulse. Paul Krugman said their ideas are so dead, they're subsisting on a "zombie doctrine... even though it should be dead, it keeps on coming."

The only pulse Republican hopefuls want to take is that of their base. As Rachel Maddow excellently highlighted, these are men (all of CPAC's 2012-ers were men) who are mainlining the radicalization of the old and venerable Party of Lincoln. Why wouldn't Chafee and Bloomberg be looking for a new political home?

The Washington Independent's Dave Weigel had the best observation, though, with his post on the John Birch Society booth at CPAC. Let me repeat that: CPAC LET THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY SPONSOR THEIR PROGRAM. The organizers of CPAC, of all people, should know that Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr., conspired to steer the GOP away from the radical conspiracies put forward by the group, like the one arguing that President Eisenhower was a Communist agent.

What happens next? Only time will tell. The Tea Party wave has swelled and absorbed the GOP completely, leaving no room whatsoever for moderates. But it has yet to crest and crash. Given how low-key the obstruction in the Senate has been -- no Mr. Smith's standing hoarse on the floor -- their radicalization might go unnoticed. Or not.

After all, one of the celebrated centrists of the day, Evan Bayh, is pushing hard for the Senate to throw cold water on the invisible filibuster. Soon, the public might have a better handle on why even the smallest items are held up, where all the moderates have gone, and where the Republican Party hasn't.

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