WASHINGTON. — Washington -- No doubt you felt the earth tremble the other day when strategists of the National Organization for Women called for creation of a new party more responsive to the concerns of women and minorities.
NOW has a Commission for Responsive Democracy, which includes Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority. Prodded by Ms. Smeal, this commission voted 26 to 4 to recommend that women set up a third party to get away from the ''massive, unprecedented corruption, greed and hypocrisy'' of the Big Two.
Though I'm sure that Ms. Smeal and comrades would fairly burst at the suggestion, it seems reasonable to ask whether this venture would be financed by the Republican National Committee or the Bush re-election campaign.
Should such a third party materialize, and if it should draw any votes at all, it could only help Mr. Bush to another term. That is clearly understood by Democrats, Republicans and indeed by the people making this proposal.
And since Mr. Bush opposes almost all of NOW's agenda, particularly including choice on abortion, the whole idea makes very little sense to any bystander.
This is a trait it shares with most other third-party efforts in American history. Some have meant to deny an electoral majority to the party that opposes their political interests. But most have damaged or defeated the party closest to their own outlook.
Note that we are talking third parties here, not fourth, fifth or fifteenth, not Socialist Labor, Socialist Workers, Single-Tax, Courage, Know-Nothing, Anti-Monopoly, Greenback or any of the other also-also-rans.
The GOP, in fact, began as a third party in 1856, as an alternative to the Democrats and Whigs. After victory with Lincoln in 1860, it went on to win the next five elections and has taken 21 of 34 since its founding.
In our century, the first third party to make a difference was the Bull Moose, the National Progressives who followed Teddy Roosevelt out of the GOP to defeat Republican William Howard Taft and elect Woodrow Wilson in 1912.
The Socialists, Communists and Jobless drew Depression votes against Franklin Roosevelt when he was doing his damnedest for the down-and-out. But the first noticeable threat to a modern president was when Henry Wallace's Progressives and Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats unsuccessfully attacked Harry Truman in 1948.
The only outrider to flip a presidential election since Teddy Roosevelt may have been George Wallace, whose segregationist, send-'em-a-message appeal won five states and tilted enough others to give Richard Nixon his hairbreadth win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Since then, Gene McCarthy has run to try to get even with the Democrats for resisting his charms, and GOP maverick John Anderson won almost 6 million voters who could stomach neither Ronald Reagan nor Jimmy Carter in 1980.
The net of third-party politics has been negative; those parties have been spoilers, driven by pique as much as principle. The possibility of a NOW party next year seems to fit that pattern. The NOW spokeswoman said the new party would stand for ''equality, social and economic justice, demilitarization and a healthy environment.'' She conceded that the Republican platform was ''overtly hostile to women.'' Yet when former New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya tried to persuade the commission to work within the Democratic Party, it refused.
This third-party proposal, like many in the past, amounts to political blackmail. NOW is unhappy that at least some of the Democrats running this time are trending toward the center. It is miffed that special-interest caucuses have been largely ignored by the most recent party chairmen and conventions.
It plans to act on the third-party recommendation next June, after the primary season. Between now and then it will use that as a bludgeon to demand pledges from both parties, though not expecting any serious response from the GOP. Since the main advantage the national Democrats now hold is among women and minorities, the threat of losing even the feminist fringe is enough to bluff any contender who scares easily.
For the voter who stands nearer the center than the fringe, watching how candidates respond to such pressure is a better way to judge them than watching their sound-bite commercials.