They had a panel last night in New York about what to do about Hillary Clinton. The panel wasn't called "What Should We Do About Hillary?" It was called "A Third Party That Rules: Impossible Dream? Or Idea Whose Time Has Come?" I personally believe that all panels should have slightly shorter titles and only one question mark, and I also believe (as a general rule) that the moderator of a panel should never call on a questioner over the age of sixty wearing a baseball hat, but no one ever asks me.
The panel was moderated by Kurt Andersen and John Heilemann, both of whom wrote articles this week in New York Magazine suggesting that a third party was in fact an idea whose time has come. They even gave the third party a name - they called it the Purple Party - which was probably a mistake. But I understand where they're coming from -- they're desperate, we're all desperate; so I went to the panel hoping that someone on it would come up with a candidate. I don't know why I keep thinking someone is going to come up with a candidate but I do. It's pathetic on my part. The New York Magazine takeout mentions the usual romantic suspects - Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Jon Stewart - but it mostly focuses on the idea of a third party in general, which seems to be beside the point. I mean, who's the candidate?
Anyway, everyone on the panel talked about whether there's more polarization in America than there used to be (there is), whether the time was ripe for a third party (maybe yes, maybe no) and whether the public has turned away from both political parties (they have). There was a huge amount of concern about a group of voters called self-identified moderates, whom Democrats now need 66 per cent of the votes of in order to overcome the new Republican consensus. (Statistic of the night: Tom Daschle got 63 per cent of the self-identified moderate votes in South Dakota in 2004 and still lost his Senate seat.) There was a lot of talk of authenticity, although there were precious few examples of it, with the exception of a few wistful references to John-McCain-two-weeks-ago, before he went into the tank on Meet the Press.
"The real problem," said former press secretary Joe Lockhart, "is not that people have turned away, but how to get them engaged again."
"With a candidate!" I want to shout. "But who is it? Tell me! Tell me!"
Democratic pollster Doug Schoen was perfectly happy with his candidate , by the way, who happens to be Hillary Clinton. He said she was going to get the nomination and had a fifty-fifty chance of winning. I kept waiting for someone on the panel to point out that Senator Clinton currently has as much authenticity as Naugahyde, but everyone on the panel was polite and just let it go.
Interestingly, Jesse Ventura was mentioned as the perfect example of a third-party candidate who had authenticity. The evidence for this, and it was depressing indeed, was offered by his former marketer, panelist Bill Hillsman, who said that self-identified moderates in Minnesota fell in love with Ventura the night he appeared at his gubernatorial debate wearing workout clothes and answered most of the questions put to him during the debate with the words, "I don't know."
Anyway, just as I was starting to despair that I was going to go home with the same feeling of hopelessness I'd arrived with, something happened. It wasn't much, but it was something. One of the panelists, Judith Hope, former state chairman of the New York Democratic Party, had reminded us that a third-party candidate named Ralph Nader had cost the Democrats the election in 2000. "Third parties always pull votes," she said, "thereby creating mischief."
"But it cuts both ways," political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell said, referring to 1992 when Bill Clinton was elected thanks to Ross Perot's candidacy. "Ross Perot was the spoiler, and you didn't hear anyone complaining about that." What's more, O'Donnell went on, Perot, who's regarded by the media as a humiliated nut, was the most successful candidate of recent years: He forced deficit-cutting and balanced-budget mania onto Clinton, who would never have gone in that direction otherwise. "How do we get the Perot voter?" O'Donnell asked. "Perot got eighteen per cent of the vote. And they were all willing to vote for him knowing he was crazy. They were willing to vote for him knowing he was out of his fucking mind.
"You're going to get a Perot-like billionaire," O'Donnell said. "There are too many of these Corzine guys out there, bored, looking for something to do. You've got a mayor in this town who's a mayor out of boredom. Billionaires' boredom - that creates candidates."
So there it is. A bored billionaire is going to save us from Hillary Clinton. But who is it? Tell me. We've got to cast this part and get started.