Ralph Nader, America’s indomitable public citizen, is the one great man in this presidential election. He has inspired more, done more and stood for more over the past decades than the other candidates put together. And his searing indictment of our corporate-dominated, money-drenched politics is surely a message people need to hear. But the Nader presidential campaign rests on strategic assumptions that are wrongheaded. And liberals and progressives should think twice before casting a vote for Nader in any state that is contested this fall.
A Nader vote assumes that there is no significant difference between the two major parties. Nader says he’s not a spoiler because “you can’t spoil a system that’s spoiled to the core.” With Gore against Bush, two sons of privilege, the stiff and the smirk, the presidential race can easily be painted as a choice, in Jim Hightower’s words, between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. But what appear to be insignificant choices can have dramatic consequences. In fact, as conservative columnist Paul Gigot has argued, this may be the most determining ideological contest since Reagan’s election in 1980. With the House up for grabs in a handful of closely contested seats, routine presidential coattails make this virtually a winner-take-all election. If Bush wins the presidency, Republicans are also likely to control both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court for a generation. If Gore wins, Democrats are odds-on favorites to take back control of the House, if not the Senate, and gain a moderate majority on the Court.
Beneath the happy talk, Bush seeks a mandate for the radical reforms left on the conservative agenda: partial privatization of Social Security, which would cut guaranteed benefits to younger workers; turning Medicare into a voucher program, which also masks a cut in guarantees; using public school funds for vouchers to private schools. He stumps for a large tax cut, primarily for the wealthy, crippling the opportunity to deal with cities, poverty, the environment. These would shred much of what is left of the social contract, while proclaiming the magic of markets. Other than the tax cuts, these proposals are far more radical than anything Reagan dared to propose.
If elected, Bush will have a mandate and a majority to enact the reforms. Worse, he’ll get bipartisan cover from the New Democrats, the money wing of the Democratic Party. He’s also for negating the minimum wage, leaving it to the states; dismantling environmental regulation; repealing affirmative action; limiting a woman’s right to choose; and generally fronting for the corporate leveraged buyout of government. Think of the Gingrich Congress without Clinton’s veto. That’s why corporations are flooding the Republican Party with record contributions. They know who is the better buy.
Gore is hardly a tribune of the working man and Lieberman has endorsed much of the Bush agenda. But they will campaign against it, and for greater investment in education, health care, children. Assuming the Democrats retake the House, liberal committee chairs in the House will challenge Gore’s timidity–and fight to stiffen his backbone. Progressive movements for the working poor, the environment and economic justice will have receptive allies who can hold hearings, move legislation and force votes–even in a Congress that still has an operating conservative majority. And on globalization, there is a difference between a Congress led by Hastert and DeLay and one led by Gephardt and Bonior. The lesser evil is less.