This presidential race leaves an odd sensation among those of us not having a television. Like the much-cited Kennedy-Nixon race, in which the camera was generally thought to have given Kennedy the visual edge, the Gore-Bush debates played very differently with the visuals suppressed. Listening to them, Gore sounded stilted, yes, and Bush sounded unbelievably evasive, no surprises there.
What’s more interesting, however, is that the day after the first debate, I found myself unable to understand any of the follow-up commentary in the rest of the media. Matching suits? Jerking? Smirking? Orange lighting? Had Al Gore really been made up to look like Ronald Reagan? Even the now-famous sigh was mostly a visual event–a camera angle, a gesture of exasperation; it hadn’t come across at all on radio.
I felt as though I’d missed out on some weird national Halloween party. Who had the best costume? Who won the monster mash dance contest? And who in the world was all this playing to?
I suppose that’s why the candidates ended their campaign playing to undecided Missourians. You can’t get more middle than that. No one in Harlem, where Gore started his campaign, is undecided. No one at Bob Jones University, where Bush began his, is undecided. And so the race ended with the contestants sashaying down the runway in a mock Mr. America contest, attired like the Blues Brothers in identical suits and ties, each spouting platitudes about education and the moral fortress that is marriage, each playing down differences so as to appeal to the kind of centrist whose taste runs no further to the right or left than boiled as opposed to mashed potatoes.
But as someone who listened rather than watched, I am really shaken by how little attention has been paid to what substantive disagreements there are between Gore and Bush. There was, for example, that revealing moment when Bush was pushed about affirmative action–not the right-wing version that equates affirmative action with quotas, but the actual, conservative version permitted by the Supreme Court. Bush responded with some nonsense about what he called “affirmative access,” which as Gore pointed out, has no legal or political meaning. When Bush was asked directly whether he would support affirmative action without quotas, he retorted, “If affirmative action means what I just described, what I’m for, then I’m for it.” This was the kind of repeated evasion at which Bush is very practiced, but the kind of evasion that in fact speaks volumes. There are, I repeat, big differences between Bush and Gore when it comes to the issues about which most people are rarely undecided: race, gender, labor and environmental issues.
I suppose that most everyone except undecided Missourians understood that such games were being played in the debates. What worries me is the degree to which the recognition of this as masquerade has made some forget that it is also a game with high stakes. Impatience with the game-playing leads some to want to opt for someone who speaks passionately. But let’s face it: Neither Nader nor Buchanan nor any other third party candidate has a prayer of winning this election. That’s a mathematical certainty, folks. It’s not the world I like–I wanted Bradley. But for now there are two choices given, and one will rule our lives.
We are choosing the world’s most powerful leader. It is not an opinion poll, it is not a popularity contest and it is unlikely ever to be the vehicle for launching a progressive revolution. I find it distressing to see polls predicting that Nader voters will help Bush take Washington and Oregon. And I think voters in New York and Massachusetts are naïtve when they say they will vote for Nader because they feel their states are overwhelmingly Democratic anyway, so nothing will be lost if they register a protest vote for Nader. This is an election, not a market survey.
I get alarmed when I hear people say that maybe it will be better for progressives if Bush is elected. What kind of progressive wants a Bush appointee heading up the Office of Civil Rights? A Bush appointee deciding the fate of habeas corpus? A Bush appointee delivering the FDA to biotech companies? And will the progressive revolution occur before or after Bush hands over the last American wilderness to loggers and oil companies?
None of this means that I don’t wish we had a wider range of pragmatic options. But I’ll express that dissatisfaction by working for campaign finance reform. I’ll work to see the infamous case of Buckley v. Valeo reversed (that’s the decision that equated speech with money, thus making campaign spending a form of expression protected by the First Amendment). I’ll work to see the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates. (And speaking of barring third party candidates from the debates, wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have given Missourians who support Nader and Buchanan the chance to grill Gore and Bush?)
I wish all kinds of things were different–that we had more cumulative voting in the United States, that we entertained adopting certain features of parliamentary systems. I too find this offend-no-one, appeal-to-the-middle of a race infuriating. But it’s also true that this campaign has been waged like the Gulf War. We the citizenry watch a big screen filled with talking heads holed up in the Baghdad Hilton–or a school auditorium in Iowa–but we must know that real missiles are exploding on the Rush Limbaugh Show or in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post or through the Christian Coalition’s televangelized appeals. Within those forums, Republicans are not at all evasive, but mounting a frontal assault that equates public service with corruption, diversity with lowered standards, public schools with race wars, private schools with free enterprise, free enterprise with civil liberty, choice with self-segregation and the segregation of whites from blacks with opportunity. In the end, Pat Buchanan represents very little threat to George Bush because the right is smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered on. This is one heck of a moment for what’s left of the left to allow itself to be divided and conquered by wasting a vote.