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Former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett stood Friday before a group and gleefully proclaimed that, because he will never again appear on a ballot in Utah, he can say anything he wants.

Then he did.

Bennett was the invited guest luncheon speaker at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City during the annual conference of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. He knew he was speaking to a few dozen folks who earn a living making fun of politicians like him. And he knew he was going to be quoted.

Then he gave a dismal prognosis for the future of his beloved Republican Party, comparing it to the train wreck of the Democratic Party in the 1970s brought on by the so-called McGovernites.

Those idealistic followers of 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern began their quest under the banner of the anti-Vietnam War movement. But Bennett said it morphed into what many perceived to be an anti-American movement and the passionate ideology presented at the time turned the Democrats into losers for the next 20 years.

The same thing is happening now, he said, to the Republican Party. And the counterpart to the McGovernite movement that destroyed the Democratic Party in the 1970s is the tea party movement that, he warns, is destroying the Republican Party in the same way.

The tea party was borne out of legitimate concerns about government overreach and incompetence, he said. But like the McGovernites in the Democratic Party, the movement's bullhorn was seized by uncompromising zealots whose extremism turns off the average American just as the ultra-liberal followers of McGovern did.

"We're a center-right nation," Bennett said. The further politicians move away from the center, the more alienating their party becomes.

Bennett, after 18 years as an effective senator from Utah known for his willingness to reach across party lines to find mutually beneficial solutions, was defeated at the Republican State Convention by the tea party tsunami of 2010.

His replacement is tea party favorite Mike Lee who, despite fist-pounding idolatry to some imagined fundamentalist truth, has been completely ineffective as a senator so far.

Bennett said the mistake of the tea party is the same as that made by the McGovernites. That is the failure to recognize one single nugget of wisdom: Don't ever compromise your principles but be willing to adjust your assumptions.

The uncompromising tea party, Bennett said, has cost the Republicans six seats in the U.S. Senate over the past two election cycles. Tea party candidates bumped out more electable Republicans in those six states and lost what should have been Republican Senate seats in red states.

He doesn't see things improving for the Republicans any time soon. When the tea party works to defeat Republicans for such sins as even speaking to Democrats or, heaven forbid, hugging Barack Obama, the basic principles of the Grand Old Party are lost.

As for bowing to the extremist element for the sake of a Republican primary victory, Bennett had this to say:

"Would I have voted on TARP, or immigration differently had I known that would cost me my Senate seat? No. Because there are things far more important than being a senator. And one is to be true to your own conscience."