Ido hope that both Elizabeth Warren and James Webb join Bernie Sanders to challenge Hillary Clinton. Why? Because America has transformed its presidential elections into two years of "showtime." In order to keep ratings up, we need more than one cast member — we need heroes and villains, a gripping story line, plus a kind of Clint Eastwood "make my day" ending. And of course we need time for all those commercials.
Sad but true. Like it or not — and I don't — it is what it is. The very worst thing you can do, as a producer, is bore your audience. A bored audience is a dwindling audience. If your audience dwindles too much? You're canceled.
If Hillary were to have little or no competition in the presidential race? For the next 18 months? Boring!
What's much more important is the debate the country needs to hear. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who surprisingly might just turn out to be a most interesting candidate, has already used his new status to make a dent, associating Hillary's foundation problems with the broader issue of so much corporate money. This issue needs to be confronted, and it isn't clear that Hillary Clinton will go there. We know that Republicans won't.
Instead, Republicans are ramping up their latest production of a play they premiered more than 60 years ago. Joe McCarthy and friends called it "Who Lost China?" Then came Nixon's "Southern Strategy." The template was then picked up by the Karl Rove Production Company. Historian Richard Hofstadter saw these kinds of productions as reflecting "the paranoid style in American politics." I call it "McCarthyism Redux."
Some might say that the latest performance with Hillary as the target is just about the Clintons, who for three decades have been the villains in the GOP's play. But if this were true, Barack Obama would not have been subjected to the same treatment — yet from day one, he was. What's worse, Obama has also been the target of racist slurs. Week after week we heard from "the birthers." And then came the Muslim charge, and we learned that in addition to "pallin' around with terrorists," Obama had been influenced by a radical (Saul Alinsky), so he was a socialist, and on and on. Obama has even been called "the Antichrist" by fundamentalist ministers — from their pulpit.
All this despite the fact that what we have here is a First Family from central casting. I mean, if you were a producer making a movie of the ideal, accomplished American family, you would call down and say, "Get me the Obamas."
Discredited but unbowed, and without missing a beat, the right wing now denounces Obama for his diplomatic efforts with Iran. They charge that he is selling out both Israel and America. (Netanyahu told them so.)
The knowledgeable Jessica Mathews, writing for the New York Review of Books, takes a different view: "If Congress takes steps to reject the nuclear deal before it is completed, or it undermines U.S. negotiators by raising doubts in Tehran that Washington will ever meet its commitments to lift sanctions, it will have done significant damage to U.S. power that no amount of military strength can offset."
Now, with Hillary, the GOP script has shifted again, this time to the Benghazi frenzy — an issue that the Department of Defense has concluded was really not an issue. Clearly, the "McCarthyism Redux" strategy knows no bounds.
Why are we seeing this passion play performed again? My guess is the Republican leadership knows that Jeb Bush's money situation, once exposed, will make Hillary's look minor league by comparison. Christie is a goner, Ted Cruz a joke, Rand Paul a nonstarter. And Scott Walker, the Koch brothers' candidate of choice? Does the term "John Birch Society" ring a bell?
Republican leaders look over all of this and realize that voter suppression alone won't do the job; unless they can destroy Hillary before the election, they will lose again — for the sixth time in seven contests. (Gore won the popular vote in 2000.)
Were Webb and Warren to join the campaign along with Sanders, the smear campaign would become diluted; more people would tune in to hear what these candidates have to say about themselves, about Hillary, about the Republicans, about the state of the country and the world. Then — presto! — ratings go up, sponsors line up and more voters show up.
More important, without a clear candidate of destiny, as Obama was in 2008, who knows what might happen? Webb and Warren, even Sanders, might actually become serious challengers. And that would be a good thing — maybe the best our flawed "showtime" process can hope to produce. ♦