News and Features
Show-off argumentation or dime-store vision? It's too close to call.
The plane crash that took the life of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan on October 16 appears to have been a disaster for the Democrats, not only in the Show Me state but nationally. "It means we lose any chance of winning the Senate," laments Russell Hemenway, who runs the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), the nation's oldest and most effective liberal PAC. Here's why:
Carnahan was running against GOP Senator John Ashcroft, one of the four Republican incumbents rated as highly vulnerable (the others: Minnesota's Rod Grams, Delaware's Bill Roth and Washington's Slade Gorton). The NCEC expects Democratic losses in Virginia--incumbent Chuck Robb--and Nevada, which has an open Democratic seat. Even if the Democrats hold on to their open seats in New Jersey (a lock), New York and Nebraska (less certain) and pick up the open GOP seat in Florida, without Carnahan that means "we lose two and pick up four, max," Hemenway says. Should Joe Lieberman be elevated to the vice presidency, Connecticut's Republican governor would fill his vacancy--probably with popular GOP moderate Congressman Chris Shays, who'll be hard to dislodge--further reducing the chances of a Democratic majority.
Carnahan was, by all accounts, a pretty straight shooter as politicians go. A Southern Baptist from a small rural town, he was a relentlessly driven officeseeker as he climbed the greasy pole to the Statehouse but not overly gluttonous of publicity once in power, an effective administrator and a cautious centrist--but with flashes of heart. He picked his fights carefully, vetoing a ban on "partial birth" abortions (a veto that the Democratic-controlled legislature, including many Dixiecrats, overrode) and leading a successful campaign to defeat an NRA-backed referendum to permit the carrying of concealed handguns. But Carnahan walked away from this year's Fair Elections referendum to provide 100 percent public funding on the Maine model (while raking in nearly as much soft money for his Senate campaign as Ashcroft). And he refused to meet with representatives of the gay community for most of his tenure as governor.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, is a hard-core cultural and political conservative from Springfield, in the southwestern part of the state (known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt). His father was president of Evangel University there, run by the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal sect known as "holy rollers" for their practice of writhing on the floor while speaking in tongues. A popular governor before becoming senator, Ashcroft was so straitlaced that he banned liquor and dancing from the Statehouse. In 1997 Ashcroft tried to parlay his religiosity into a presidential candidacy, positioning himself as the candidate of the religious right. "He really damaged himself here, because in running for President, he showed just how extremist he really is," says Grant Williams of the state's Service Employees International Union. In a state with 350,000 union members and a rich labor history, Ashcroft has a viciously antilabor record: As governor he tried to pass a right-to-work referendum, and as senator he sponsored a bill that would have gutted the Fair Labor Standards Act by permitting employers to work their wage slaves sixty hours a week with no overtime pay. The darling of business lobbies, Ashcroft has been a master of the cash-for-votes trade: For example, he sponsored legislation to extend for five years the patent on the anti-allergy drug Claritin--a measure worth billions in profits to its maker, Schering-Plough--and two months later pocketed a $50,000 campaign contribution from the company, which earned him a tart St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial branding him "the Senator from Claritin." All this, plus Carnahan's popularity as governor, had made the Senate race a dead heat.
But with Ashcroft now unopposed by a live candidate (it's too late to get Carnahan's name off the ballot), Democrats are scared to death about turnout. To counter the GOP's expected majorities in rural Missouri, especially in the southwest, they'd been counting not only on energized union voters but on a better-than-usual black vote. Ashcroft is perceived, as a leading black state legislator, Rita Days, puts it, "as a racist." Ashcroft led the Senate fight against confirmation for a federal judgeship of Ronnie White, the first African-American member of the state's Supreme Court. In his abortive presidential campaign Ashcroft gave an interview to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, praising "Southern patriots" like Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson and adding, "We've all got to stand up and speak in [defense of their memories] or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda." Last May, he gave the commencement address at and received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University.
But with no possibility of defeating Ashcroft, there's not much to motivate an expanded black turnout. The Democrats have a white-bread ticket for other statewide offices, headed by gubernatorial candidate Bob Holden, the state treasurer, a centrist with a charisma bypass and little visibility in the black community.
Even before Carnahan's death, senior Democrats were describing the party's get-out-the-vote drive as "OK, but not great." Toby Paone, a veteran political op who now works for the state's NEA, explains: "We've been in power eight years--we've gotten too comfortable, there's some apathy. And don't forget that Carnahan had virtually no race four years ago." The liberal former mayor of St. Louis, Vince Schoemehl, says, "Carnahan was the Democrats' firewall--he was going to run 3-4 points ahead of Gore, and Democrats do better downticket when people start splitting their ticket at the top." With Carnahan out, the Democrats could even lose one or both houses of the state legislature, where their majorities are slim (two in the Senate, seven in the House), endangering the party's control over future redistricting.
Moreover, says a veteran Democratic politician, "here the party apparatus is controlled by the governor--they're all Carnahan's people. Now they've lost their leader, they're in mourning, discombobulated." Magnifying this body blow to the party's campaign just three weeks before the election was Gore's aggressive performance in the St. Louis presidential debate. Even though Carnahan and Ashcroft despised each other, in their one televised debate just one day before the plane crash they were very gentlemanly. "I just don't think Gore's debate performance played well at all with Missourians," opines State Representative Steve McKluckie, a leader of the legislature's progressive caucus.
Carnahan was the motor driving the Democrats' Missouri campaign. With that motor now silenced, Gore, too, has much to worry about. And Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election this century save one.
Impeachment trials have notably lacked drama or even importance. Often, they have been an anticlimax to the convulsive events that precipitated them. Andrew Johnson's trial extended over several months and was a tepid sideshow to the profound political and legal struggles that marked Reconstruction. The British Parliament considered Warren Hastings's fate sporadically for eight years after he was impeached for his mismanagement of India policies, a subject heatedly debated for decades. The constitutional stakes sometimes appear high, but impeachment is essentially a quasi-legal extension of politics.
The impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton followed form. Here was a proceeding whose remarkable moments seem in retrospect to be Robert Byrd's bombastic oratory, Arlen Specter's idiosyncratic attempt to import Scottish law by rendering a verdict of "Not Proven," Henry Hyde's ongoing fits of pique toward the Senate and misguided media speculations about "concessions" and "compromise" after one of the House managers of the proceeding, Lindsey Graham, lightened up and said "reasonable people can disagree." Most senators even followed a script for their questions, asking ones planted by the lawyers or the leadership. The affair had all the spontaneity of a Pointillist painting.
Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President treat impeachment briefly as a mere coda to earlier stories of alleged presidential wrongdoing. Both books recognize that the interesting and important political story centered on the assault against Clinton, which had gathered momentum after his election in 1992. That story was unscripted and owed more to accident and inadvertence than to design. The President and his wife were accused, among other things, of crooked land deals, suspected insider commodity trading, drug-running and complicity in the murder of a presidential-assistant-cum-alleged-paramour, Vincent Foster. Finally, we had the National Dirty Joke. The Toobin and Conason/Lyons books essentially tell the same story, and tell it rather well.
Peter Baker, a Washington Post reporter, set out to write "an authoritative and straightforward history" of the impeachment and trial. This subject pales by contrast to the earlier story, for it has little drama, mystery or subtlety. Baker is apparently determined to give us everything he accumulated in his reporter's notebook. His details are numbing; we have an abundance of trivia, rumor and anecdote, leaving him (and us) short on analysis and insight. But publishing publicity departments love this stuff. Press releases for the book emphasize the President's request to attorney David Kendall to tell Hillary that "something had obviously gone on" between her husband and Monica Lewinsky. It was the "longest walk" of Kendall's life, but he "laid the foundation" for Clinton to tell his wife. Certainly Clinton's modus operandi was nothing new or startling.
Typically, such books rest upon the usual unnamed sources. "I wish I could name them all," Baker writes. But it is not difficult to dope out his sources, and their obvious, self-fulfilling purposes. Representative Asa Hutchinson, one of the House managers, talked with Baker at length. Baker apparently found him the most interesting of the prosecutors (Hutchinson could mute his sanctimoniousness and stick to the legal issues), or at least the one most willing to speak. Baker can tell you at length what Hutchinson was thinking and what motivated him. Needless to say, Hutchinson comes off better than his colleagues.
Baker seems to have chronicled the recollections of every participant and weighted them equally. We hear about the origins of Joe Lieberman's famous speech, from its inception on the laptop to the incremental additions made before delivery. We are reminded of that very forgettable, very carefully planted rumor that Bob Woodward would report a second Clinton affair, with another intern. Remember Larry King panting over that one?
We learn that Senator Strom Thurmond flirted like a silly old man with the President's female lawyers. Baker finds a few themes and uses them repeatedly. Thus, the Democrats would consistently expose Republican partisanship and "win by losing." Then we had the "don't irritate Byrd" strategy, meaning that the Democrats decided to pander to their silly old man.
Baker even reveals how Washington really works. At one point, Representative Robert Livingston, on the verge of gaining the speakership, apparently decided to scuttle the case, but his chief aide--an unsung Beltway hero--persuaded him that Tom DeLay's secret room of evidence would prove the President was a rapist. "So what you're saying," Livingston said to the aide, "is we have to impeach the bastard?" Comes the breathless answer from the aide, eager to be immortalized: "Yes, I'm saying we have to impeach the bastard." Finally, Baker performs a useful service by identifying Lisa Myers of NBC as a "key player." And here we thought she was a working journalist.
Baker implicitly acknowledges the widely held notion that Tom DeLay steamrollered the House impeachment process. DeLay made mincemeat out of Peter King, the New York conservative who tried to form a bloc of Republicans opposed to impeachment. Finally, despairing, King informed Clinton, "There are people in my party who just hate you." Livingston's staff described DeLay as "the godfather." He made Livingston, he threatened him and he unmade him. But Baker leaves DeLay in the shadows, with no explanation of the sources of his power or how he held the House in his sway.
David Schippers, chief investigative counsel for the impeachment inquiry, Chicago Democrat (of a sort) and Hyde's fellow Knight of the Catholic Church's Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, has given us a book as comical and over the top as himself. Remember: This is the man who called up fifteen generations of fighting Americans from their graves to judge the House Judiciary Committee's action. His ready audience, which has shot the book to near the top of the bestseller list, gets plenty of red meat. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report is treated as gospel; never mind that Starr acknowledged that without Monica Lewinsky's falling into his lap, he had no other case against the President.
Schippers's thesis is simple, and in part quite right: The Senate Republicans had no intention of seriously trying the case and sold out their House counterparts. Unfortunately, he explains this with scathing denunciations of "compromise" and "bipartisanship," when in fact a significant number of Senate Republicans simply did not believe that Schippers's case amounted to high crimes and misdemeanors, or that the President deserved to be thrown out of office.
The Senate treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the managers' dismay and scorn. The senators even refused to provide partisan cover for the managers when they failed to mount a majority in favor of either of the two articles of impeachment. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose Appropriations Committee chairmanship gave him enormous clout and who is no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the perjury charge but voted him guilty on the obstruction count--the latter a mere "courtesy" to the managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he forcefully said he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would be decisive to the outcome. With remarkable candor, he said that Clinton had "not brought that level of danger to the nation which...is necessary to justify such an action." Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; this trial simply was not serious.
Stevens had hinted at this from the outset, infuriating Schippers. Yet Schippers was, inadvertently, right about bipartisanship. Current wisdom has it that the Clinton trial was a bitter, partisan affair and, as such, was doomed to failure. But just as bipartisanship worked to bring down Richard Nixon a quarter-century earlier, it may well have tarred and discredited Clinton's accusers. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 had rejected impeachment as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects--Phil Gramm, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum et al.--followed in lockstep. But Republican defections denied the impeachers any semblance of respectability and gave Clinton some measure of satisfaction.
There was no chance of removing the President once he had the support of his fellow Democrats. At that point, Republicans faced a choice: They could maintain party orthodoxy and vote for Clinton's removal, or they could freely vote to hold the bar high enough to reject his removal from office. Enough Republicans were persuaded that the President did not merit extreme sanction--and they exposed the whole affair as a meaningless, vindictive exercise.
Impeachment and removal belonged, then, to the Bob Barr set within the Republican Party. Most Republicans preferred resignation; impeachment proved to be a grasping, last-ditch effort to humiliate Clinton. Resignation would not only satisfy the hatred for him but provide payback for the Nixon affair a quarter-century earlier. When Livingston dramatically announced his own resignation (after it was publicly revealed that he'd also had an affair), he called upon the President to do the same. "Sir, you have done great damage to this nation.... I say that you have the power to terminate that damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign from your post," Livingston pleaded.
Resignation had seemed a viable possibility months earlier, in the immediate wake of the Lewinsky revelations. Clinton's real moment of danger came when Democrats, many of whom dislike him, briefly flirted with the idea of abandoning him. But that effort ended for several reasons, not the least of which turned out to be polls showing public apathy or outright support for Clinton. Democrats decided to resist Republican attempts to force out the President, by resignation or later by impeachment. Even as the Senate went through the last-minute ritual of its vote, Phil Gramm said that a leader with honor "would fall on your own sword." But Gramm had (for him) a startling revelation: Richard Nixon had a sense of shame; Clinton had the hide of an elephant.
For Tom DeLay and his cohorts, who had known removal was unlikely but turned to impeachment to embarrass the President and tarnish his legacy, irony abounds. Not for the first or last time did Republicans underestimate Clinton; and not for the last time was he so blessed by his enemies. Prosperity and other Democrats proved indispensable allies.
There are no heroes in this tale, no redeeming moral or social virtue to offer in rendering American history. It is a smarmy story of petty politics, propelled by out-of-control media coverage. The constant theme is that the perpetrators remained wholly disconnected from that amorphous thing we call "the people." We are neither puritans nor prudes--probably the real subject here was infidelity, and that is a subject too many have had to contend with firsthand, or have preferred not to. In the end, the American people saved Bill Clinton--almost in spite of him.
After Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, regret quickly took hold and impeachment was discredited for more than a century. Watergate and Nixon revived it in 1974. Now, our choices seem plain. Either impeachment will be used readily as a partisan weapon or it will become moribund once again. Neither result is healthy for the American constitutional system.
Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Conason and Lyons's The Hunting of the President knew the real story lay prior to impeachment.
"The death penalty's very serious business, Leo," Governor Bush condescendingly told a questioner in the third presidential debate. "There've been some tough cases come across my desk. Some of the hardest moments since I've been governor of the State of Texas is to deal with those cases.... But my job is to ask two questions, sir. Is the person guilty of the crime? And did the person have full access to the courts of law? And I can tell you, looking at you right now, in all cases those answers were affirmative."
On camera Leo Anderson, the questioner, didn't seem to buy the governor's oft-repeated assertion, and he certainly wouldn't have if he had been privy to a recently released confidential memorandum on one of the toughest of those cases.
The memo went from Bush's then-general counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to Bush at 10:30 on the morning of April 3, 1997, only hours before David Wayne Spence was to be executed. Although the document was his first detailed look at the case and although the governor was Spence's only hope for a reprieve--the courts and Board of Pardons and Paroles having turned him down--this "very serious business" took Bush, according to his schedule for the day, all of half an hour at most.
I obtained the memo through the Public Information Act, Texas's FOIA. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration vigorously resisted its release. The document that went fleetingly across the governor's desk that morning is seven single-spaced pages, and although it works overtime to be unequivocal, it can't disguise or resolve the "tough questions" concerning Spence's guilt. The memo's author, Stuart Bowen, the deputy counsel charged with investigating the case, uses distortion, omissions, outright lies and an inappropriate adversarial bent to reach what must have been a preordained conclusion to deny a reprieve.
Writing several months after the execution and using the same information Bowen used, Bob Herbert in the New York Times concluded that Spence was "almost certainly innocent" and the case against him a "travesty." Many others, including Alan Berlow in Salon and a team of Chicago Tribune reporters, have agreed. But Bowen had been in the execution business with Bush long enough to know that the governor, preparing for a re-election campaign and in the starting blocks for a run for the presidency, would never go for a reprieve in the Spence case. And certainly not on the day of the execution, with families of the teenage victims of the crime for which Spence was about to die--a triple murder at a lake near Waco in 1982--in a motel in Huntsville ready to scream their heads off if the execution didn't go through. So Bowen did the following in the memorandum:
§ He opened by reciting the "facts" of the case as if he were a prosecutor giving a closing statement to a jury, brushing over developments favorable to Spence's claim that had surfaced in the fifteen years since the crime.
§ He bought the state's illogical theory of the case, that Spence was hired to kill a girl and mistook one of the teens for that girl (even though Spence knew the girl well and, according to testimony, hung out with the teens for hours before the killings), and ameliorates the illogic by dropping a crucial detail (he doesn't mention the testimony about hanging out for hours).
§ He put all the problems with the case under the heading "Publicity." This invidious rubric was intended in part to deprecate a Waco businessman, a conservative Republican, who had tried to get the execution stopped; he came to Bowen a week before the execution and laid out a detailed case for Spence's innocence.
§ He lied. For instance, he said the prosecutor turned over all the evidence in his possession to the defense, although the prosecutor explicitly told him he hadn't. He says the first lead detective on the case, Ramon Salinas, who sat in Bowen's office and told him without qualification that he believed Spence to be innocent, was fired for "incompetence," which is not true.
§ He relegated Spence's claim that he was railroaded by an unscrupulous sheriff's deputy and DA to three sentences in the conclusion, ignored voluminous testimony documenting this frame-up and swept away the allegations as "tertiary issues."
§ He rubber-stamped the courts' judgments (saying in a letter to me that those rulings are "the bottom line"), in effect negating the clemency procedure.
"Yet making decisions is what governors and chief executives do," the governor has written about that clemency procedure. "I try to do so thoroughly, thoughtfully, and fairly. I have assembled a top-quality staff that gets me accurate information and comprehensive briefings. I base my decisions on principles that do not change." Thoroughly? In thirty minutes? As to his top-quality staff and their accurate information, the memo supports the former (they are adept at distortion, etc.) and puts the lie to the latter. And principles? Let's just say they are very different from those of his honorary Illinois campaign chairman, Governor George Ryan, who has halted all executions in his state because he believes the execution of an innocent is truly a nightmare.
With its dissembling and obfuscation, the memorandum makes clear that when he denied Spence a reprieve, George W. Bush and his aides didn't know whether the man was guilty or innocent. A year after Spence's execution, Bush granted clemency to Henry Lee Lucas, the alleged serial killer, because, he says in his book, A Charge to Keep, he didn't know whether Lucas was guilty. But the politics of the Lucas case were different from those of the Spence case, and politics, Leo--unlike the life of David Spence--is very serious business indeed.
NO MIRTH IN THE BALANCE
"Al Gore distills in his single person the disrepair of liberalism in America today, and almost every unalluring feature of the Democratic Party. He did not attain this distinction by accident but by sedulous study from the cradle forward." Thus unambiguously do Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and frequent collaborator Jeffrey St. Clair stake out the terrain in opening their brief against the Vice President. Political handbook rather than full-blown biography, it effectively paints Gore as a walking sandwich board for Democratic Leadership Council values, tapped for higher office because Bill and Hillary saw in him "a kindred soul in political philosophy, hewing to the pro-corporate, anti-union positions...which together they had founded and nurtured." From his family connections to Occidental Petroleum to his education partly under Martin Peretz (from Peretz's pulpit at Harvard, not The New Republic), Gore's background is shown with no mirth in the balance but his "propensity to boast excessively" demonstrated at every turn. The authors, wearing their hearts on their pens, chronicle Gore's role in fighting against graphic rock lyrics but for NAFTA, his boardroom brand of environmentalism, his evolution from "centrist realism" to (stretcher alert) "pragmatic progressivism." He's "never been a political Boy Scout," they write. On their honor.
Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign for the presidency has evolved
into a dangerous game. On one hand, the candidate insists it doesn't
matter if George W. Bush beats Al Gore. Yet we also are assured that
Nader doesn't pull votes from Gore in closely contested states. Both
positions are patently false.
With very few exceptions, most states are up for grabs, including
California, where the once huge gap between Bush and Gore has narrowed.
Nader now is poised to cost Gore an electoral majority. There is no
comparable threat to siphon conservative voters from Bush by the
floundering Reform Party campaign of Pat Buchanan.
Nader's supporters are potential Gore, not Bush, voters. "The Nader
campaign talks about its appeal to disaffected [John] McCain, [Jesse]
Ventura and [Ross] Perot voters, but I have rarely met one at a Nader
rally," says reporter Matt Welsh, who has been covering the Nader
campaign for the online journal http://www.newsforchange.com. Welsh
added: "The biggest applause lines are those that appeal to the
progressive wing of the Democratic Party."
Those Nader supporters have an obligation to vote for Gore because a
Republican sweep of the White House and Congress would spell disaster for
environmental protection and for efforts to increase the minimum wage and
the earned income tax credit, not to mention the hard-won gains made by
women and minorities. Nader knows better than anyone that there has been
a huge difference between the Clinton Administration and the Republican
Congress on those issues.
Nor should Nader be downplaying the consequences for the Supreme Court
if Bush is elected. On the campaign trail, he muddies the issue by
observing that some Republican Presidents have appointed moderates to the
Court, ignoring Bush's pledge to Pat Robertson and the rest of the GOP's
right wing that he would name judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas. As it is, the Court in the past five years has struck
down twenty-five progressive laws that Clinton managed to get through Congress,
including parts of the Brady gun control bill and the Violence Against
That is why leading progressives like Sen. Paul D. Wellstone
(D-Minn.), Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem have taken to the hustings to
convince Naderites to vote for Gore. It is not their intention, or mine,
to deny Nader credit as the most consistent and effective crusader for
consumer interests in the history of this nation. It is also true that
Nader deserves thanks for raising basic issues arising from the corporate
dominance of our political process, which the major candidates have
And, yes, it does mock democracy to have denied Nader and Buchanan a
place in the debates, particularly given moderator Jim Lehrer's apparent
indifference to the role of big money in undermining representative
democracy. Let me also add that I feel betrayed by a Democratic candidate
who is so gutless as to not even utter the name of the President, whose
enormously successful administration is the source of Gore's credibility.
So Gore's not perfect--what else is new? Most often, the majority of
voters end up siding with the electable candidate who comes closest to
their political thinking. For progressives in this election, that is
clearly Gore. Certainly, Robertson and his allies on the Republican right
now justify their support of Bush as a vote for the lesser evil. They get
nervous when Bush talks about "compassionate conservatism" and plays to
the center, but they hold their noses and rally around his candidacy
because that is the best they've got.
It is time for progressive Democrats to be equally practical. Gore is
a centrist Democrat, and he will not likely do much to rein in corporate
power, pass much-needed universal health care or reverse the travesty of
welfare "reform," which will prove a disaster in the next recession.
But Gore is on record as supporting the McCain-Feingold campaign
reform measure, affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. He
would protect Social Security and Medicare from Bush's irresponsible
privatization schemes. He has an expansive view of civil rights
protection for minorities and gays. And he has as consistent a record in
support of the environment as any major politician.
Finally, from my experience interviewing Gore and observing him in
action, he is far better than his media notices. Like Clinton, but in
sharp contrast with Bush, Gore is very bright, has seriously worked the
issues and sincerely believes that an effective federal government is
necessary for the well-being of the populace.
That may not make for a green revolution, but it's a lot better deal
than a Bush White House with the doors thrown open for Trent Lott, Jesse
Helms, Pat Robertson and Charlton Heston to run amok.
What a deal! Elect George W. Bush President and you get government
lite--eat all you want without gaining a pound. Bush promises to cut
taxes for all, dramatically increase military spending, finance a
trillion-dollar private Social Security system and eliminate the national
debt. And Bush claims he will put you, not some Washington bureaucrat, in
charge of your life (unless, of course, it concerns your right to
Just to state the main themes of Bush's campaign is to demonstrate
their inherent absurdity. But there's method to the madness. Make no
mistake: A Bush presidency, abetted by a Republican sweep of Congress and
increasing right-wing control of the courts, portends frightening
consequences for our lives.
Anyone who's been awake these past eight years should know that it's
the Republicans, dominated by their right wing, who tried to block every
measure to make government more responsive to the health, environmental
and educational interests of ordinary Americans. At the same time, these
false prophets of smaller government were pawns of the Christian right's
crusade to intrude the federal government into our most personal
decisions, beginning with a woman's control of her body. At no point has
Bush disowned that Republican agenda.
So why are so many otherwise reasonable people planning to vote for a
candidate selling them this ludicrous bill of goods? It's because the guy
comes on as a moderate with a disarming smile that could make him the
impish star of a sitcom. Just when you realize he's conning you and the
bleary face of Newt Gingrich hyping his "contract with America" starts to
come into focus, reminding us that we've been through this destructive
drill, Bush turns on the all-inclusive charm.
The great deceit of the Bush campaign, beginning with the GOP
convention last summer, has been to get voters to forget that it's been
the Republican Congress that has threatened America with gridlock and
political chaos unless we bend federal government to its skewed
agenda--an agenda that Bush has assured the right wing he endorses. The
religious right has gone along with the charade, muting its criticisms
while Bush plays to the center. Let him fake the moderate for now, they
say, knowing that is what it takes to win. For example, Pat Robertson
told reporters that he refrained from criticizing the Federal Drug
Administration's approval of the abortion pill RU-486 for fear of costing
Bush the election. Bush also avoided the issue. The payoff for the
right's reserve in the campaign, as Bush has made amply clear, is that he
will deliver to them on the judiciary. If the Republicans maintain
control of the Senate, which now seems highly likely, a Bush victory
would guarantee judicial appointees from the Supreme Court on down who
are drawn from Jesse Helms's wish list.
For all of his talk of bipartisanship, Bush, in citing Antonin Scalia
and Clarence Thomas as his ideal models for future Supreme Court picks,
has promised to mold what should be the most independent branch of
government in the ideological image of the far right. Indeed, the
oft-repeated promise of the Bush campaign to the religious right is that
Bush would never repeat the "disaster" that his father made in appointing
moderate David Souter to the court.
With the court divided by one vote on most environmental and consumer
regulatory matters as well as affirmative action, with only two votes
needed to overturn Roe v. Wade and with at least three or four of its
members likely to leave the court, the next President will have enormous
power through his judicial appointments to shape the future of our
government as we know it.
The "strict constructionists" Bush prefers are people who believe the
federal government should be crippled as a regulator of big business, as
an advocate for racial and economic justice and as a protector of the
environment. On the other hand, they would weaken constitutional
protection of individual rights and blur the separation of church and
The Republican right wing is concerned about personal freedom only
when it comes to indulging the National Rifle Association or corporate greed by
savaging government regulation. But in matters of individual freedom, be
it reproductive rights, protection from job discrimination or hate crimes
because of sexual orientation or racism, the Republican leadership,
including George W. Bush, is eager to intrude a narrow religious and
ideological bias into the most important decisions of our lives.
That's why this election is of crucial importance. What we're facing
is the possibility of right-wing control of the presidency, Congress and
the courts. And with that will go the saving grace of our system of
checks and balances.
We dare to be optimistic. Presidential elections are mile markers on a very long road. Our side does not expect to win according to conventional measures; it could hardly be otherwise, since our political objective is the radical reconstruction of US society. This election may shift governing power to new hands, though within a narrowing band of the possible. The returns may reveal something about the nation, though that information is unreliable when half the electorate has opted out of voting. Meanwhile, we seek to rehabilitate America's collapsing democracy, to mobilize systematic confrontation with the harsh economic inequalities, to construct a movement that is both powerful and attentive to human concerns and suffering, the suppression of liberties, the destruction of nature. These matters and others are not going to be resolved by one election or several of them. Yet Election 2000, despite its sorry qualities, turns out to be important--perhaps even pivotal for us.
We hold out the proposition that something promising and positive is under way in the dispirited political landscape, and we should determine to make the most of it. After the past two decades of loss and retreat, it takes nerve to sound so hopeful. Ralph Nader, much as many of us might wish for it, is not going to become the next President. If Al Gore does, the radical vision still remains far distant from the levers of power. On the morning after, if George W. Bush has won, we will be gearing up for familiar battles against the right-wing agenda. And yet people on many progressive fronts do recognize the changing circumstances before them, and they are in a still-fragile process of inventing smart new politics to engage the possibilities. Our endorsement goes first to this spirit of renewal.
The promise can be glimpsed in the precious few bright spots of the campaign--especially the resonance of Nader's voice--but also in the political system's continuing failures. A new movement of allied concerns surfaced in the protests in Seattle a year ago, and yet neither major-party candidate dared even mention globalization when the two men met in face-to-face debate. Their awkward silence suggests our growing presence. If Nader draws enough voters to carry the Green Party over the 5 percent hurdle for ballot recognition, that vehicle provides concrete opportunity. If Democrats manage to win back majority control of the House, or even the Senate, their victory multiplies opportunities for educating and agitating on new issues. A Bush victory would be a terrible setback to our optimism, no way around it, but if Gore manages to win the White House, despite his weaknesses, the center-right moves a little bit our way and, in any case, becomes the object of purposeful leveraging.
These new prospects did not originate from any clever slogans; they reflect the harsh contradictions visible in people's lives and shifting sensibilities across the nation--the general disgust with corporate money's overbearing influence on public decision-making, the fragile desire for a new and more humane internationalism, the growing but unfocused anger at government's failure to act on any of the largest problems. These and other discontents are the opportunities for our side, if people will assume optimistically that many fed-up Americans are at last ready to listen to heretical analysis and fundamental solutions. The fog is lifting, though not yet gone.
If we take the long view and our optimism is grounded in reality, this opening requires some changes in us as well, both in temperament and strategy. The test of a first-rate intelligence, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one's head at the same time. For this election and in the politics beyond, we think our readers must learn to juggle similar tensions, between the pragmatic and the idealistic--accepting that long-term allies will disagree and coalesce at different junctures, that politics can be both inside and outside in pursuit of the same goals.
In that spirit, we embrace Nader's ideas and creative idealism and hope that his strong showing will rattle the windowpanes throughout American politics. However, to realize the openings before us, we warn that there is greater urgency to preventing Bush and company from capturing all three branches of government for the right-wing agenda. In the long view, such tensions are symptoms of forward progress. We can learn to live with them.
Ralph Nader has already accomplished a greater victory than even some of his original supporters imagined possible--he has made our side visible again. Even a two-minute TV burst from Nader provides a stunning catalogue of the neglected grievances in American life and corrupted governance as well as the plausible remedies. He does not talk down to voters. Nader's idealism, starting from his earliest consumer crusades more than thirty years ago, is based upon the conviction that Americans at large are eager for serious discussion of public ideas and fully capable of grasping the complexities. One shudders deliciously at what a three-way debate would have been like if the corporate-owned debates commission had allowed it (the commission is already one of the big losers of Election 2000, and the agitation should start now, not in 2004, to blow up its monopoly on political discourse).
Despite minimal media coverage, Nader connected the spirit of Seattle with a much larger audience of Americans--filling halls of 10,000 and more with people, many of them young, who paid to hear him talk. When did that last occur in US politics? Pat Buchanan's right-wing version of insurgency was effectively eclipsed by Nader; even Gore paid backhanded tribute by discovering that this election is about "the people against the powerful." The point is, Nader started something new and potentially sustainable, both as an alternative soapbox and as electoral leverage on regular politics, especially that of the Democrats (whose Congressional candidates may benefit from the new, young voters Nader draws into the process). The future will depend entirely on what people decide to make of it. In the meantime, Nader has articulated the superstructure of progressive thinking--a work in progress, to be sure, but already brimming with big ideas.
In the spirit of positive thinking, we observe first that Al Gore wisely abandoned his New Democrat playbook on many issues in order to connect with the natural constituencies of his own party. His attacks on big oil, big insurance and other malefactors sounded a bit clunky, to be sure, and, although he attacked Bush's tax cut for the wealthy, Gore evaded a fuller discussion of economic inequality since, as everyone knows, it deepened dramatically while he was Vice President. But the Democratic candidate is a smart and capable man who, at different points in his career, has displayed a forward-looking vision on great public problems, like the ecological crisis. Still, no one who has watched the abrupt changes in his campaign persona can have any confidence that the progressive Al Gore would emerge in the White House. The promise, though limited, lies in the fact that Gore has uttered the requisite words on a wide range of subjects, from universalizing healthcare to establishing labor and environmental rights in global trade agreements. As President, Gore would have to choose between the people who elected him and the DLC moneybags who financed him. It's another opening for popular mobilization.
The real argument for Gore is named Bush, and it's the most compelling case. The implications of a Bush victory are well understood across many vital issues (one of Nader's rare false notes was to assert that these are inconsequential differences). The Gore-Bush agendas are indeed overlapping on many central matters--monetary policy, the death penalty, the failed drug war, to name a few--but that doesn't tell the whole story. Gore promises, for instance, to listen to labor, environmentalists, human rights advocates and other protest voices on reforming the global system. Bush's leading foreign policy adviser, on the other hand, proclaims, "The Seattle agenda is a real threat." Bush embraces the continuing crusade against women's right to choose abortion, among other retrograde social positions, while no one doubts Gore would appoint Supreme Court Justices who would defend Roe v. Wade and other civil liberties.
While Bush appears an amiable lightweight, his blank, meek expression merely accentuates the question of who really owns this man. The answer is obvious from his Texas record and personal heritage. Tearing up Social Security delivers the money to Wall Street brokerages. His "compassionate conservatism" extends to shielding insurance companies and drug manufacturers from public wrath, plus old friends in oil and the military-industrial complex. His education experiments, if they proceed, are destined to gut the financing of public schools. It's a long and devastating list, which candidate Gore failed to illuminate fully. Bush's handlers, on the other hand, understood that the son could not run like the father or as a born-again Newt--that revolution is over. At the end of the day, however, the right-wing legacy rules. Bush's White House would obediently vet its legislative agenda and appointments not only with corporate America but with Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, the hard-right caucuses in the Senate and House, the TV Bible-thumpers whose piety is rooted in intolerance.
In another season, when our insurgent values have accumulated more momentum and self-confidence, we might see things differently. This time around, we believe the practical priority of keeping the Bush squad from winning power takes precedence, while we also urge that, if possible, progressives help Nader score a blow to the status quo. For the larger progressive community, the tension can be resolved by following the logic of Texas columnist Molly Ivins. Her rule: Vote with your heart where you can, and vote with your head where you must. In states where either Gore or Bush has a commanding lead, vote Nader. In the states too close to call, vote Gore. In either case, the imperative is to end Republican control in Congress by electing Democrats, also vital to the prospects for progressive change.
The question Election 2000 poses for the ranks of left-labor-liberal-progressive outsiders is: Despite occasional clashes over their different directions, can the radical-to-moderate critics of the decayed status quo learn how to pursue a politics in which radical idealism coexists with heads-up pragmatism? As Nader has said, "There are millions of progressives in this country--the problem is, they've never met each other." That captures the larger, long-term challenge, regardless of the election's outcome. If the fragmented progressive community can begin working together, developing inside-outside electoral strategies, doing the hard work of engaging alienated citizens in the conversation, things will look very much better four years from now. Despite its disappointments, Election 2000 might yet turn out to be the progressive moment--when we stopped backing up and started moving forward.
The number-one healthcare issue facing the country is not which prescription drug plan is best for seniors or whether a handful of patients will be able to sue their HMOs. It is the 44 million people, or nearly 20 percent of the population under age 65, who have no health insurance and, for many, no healthcare at all. The myth that emergency rooms provide all the care the uninsured require continues unchallenged. But the emergency room is not the place to get primary care, follow-up care or care for chronic conditions, which most people need. Federal law requires emergency rooms to stabilize patients. After that, they are sent on their way, especially if they have no money to pay for further treatment. When they are given prescriptions, 30 percent of the uninsured don't fill them because of the cost.
Rationing specialty care for the uninsured is common. In Washington, DC, the uninsured wait four months for an MRI and two months for a CT scan. In California, some counties have money to screen women for breast cancer but no money for treatment. During the four to seven years following an initial diagnosis of breast cancer, one national study shows, uninsured women are 49 percent more likely to die than women with insurance. Community clinics that treat the uninsured rarely have specialists on their staffs and resort to begging area physicians to help out--not always with success.
The Bush and Gore solutions do little to help the uninsured and a lot to keep the healthcare system safe for insurance companies, the AMA, employers and the pharmaceutical industry, all of which have shoveled money into their campaigns. Bush proposes an annual refundable tax credit (that is, one that's given even if a person owes no taxes) of up to $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for families. His campaign literature makes tax credits sound ideal: "If a family earning $30,000 purchases a health insurance plan costing $2,222, the government will contribute $2,000 (90 percent)." Trouble is, most families can't buy insurance for $2,222. The average premium for a family policy is $6,740 and for an individual, $2,542. Gore calls for a credit equal to 25 percent of the premium. Using the average premium as a benchmark, that's about $1,700 for family coverage; a family wanting a policy would still have to cough up more than $5,000.
Tax credits, moreover, leave intact the ability of insurance companies to select good risks and exclude sick people who will cost them money. That, of course, is what the industry wants to protect--and is part of the payoff for its campaign largesse.
Both Bush and Gore would also fiddle with the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to boost coverage. CHIP has brought health insurance to some 2.5 million kids, but 10 million still have none. Bush's solution: Give the states more flexibility in administering the program. But many states have not even spent federal dollars already earmarked for them, and could be tempted into using the money for something other than insurance. Gore's solution: Stretch the eligibility rules to include children whose families have incomes up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $41,000 for a family of four. But what if a family's income is above 250 percent, say $43,000? Gore's answer: tax credits.
Then there are medical savings accounts, which Bush likes and Gore doesn't. Congress now allows self-employed people and employees in small companies to buy MSAs, which are a combination high-deductible insurance policy and tax-deferred savings account. But at the end of 1999, only 45,000 policies of the 750,000 Congress authorized had been sold. Still, Bush wants to let more people buy them, a move that will spark interest mainly among the healthy, who won't need the savings account to pay for care, and the wealthy, who can assume the costs not covered by the large deductible and who will simply get another tax break.
The major battleground in healthcare, though, is over a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries, with pharmaceutical companies replacing HMOs as this year's healthcare villains. Under Bush's scheme, the very poorest seniors would get help paying for the entire cost of a drug benefit. Individuals with incomes greater than $14,600 and couples with incomes up to $19,700 would get a partial subsidy. Bush would pump $48 million into the state pharmaceutical assistance programs to give free drugs to those with the lowest incomes. But more than half the states have no programs, and those that do lace them with restrictions.
Under Gore's plan, Medicare would cover 50 percent of the cost of prescriptions, first up to $2,000 and later up to $5,000, for seniors willing to pay a premium that would start at $25 a month. As with Bush's plan, seniors with very low incomes would get help. Both candidates offer help for those with catastrophic expenses: Gore's benefit would kick in after seniors have spent $4,000 on drugs, Bush's after they've spent $6,000 for all services. Neither, however, includes a way to control pharmaceutical prices. Controls of any sort are anathema to the drug companies.
The fight over whose plan provides the bigger benefit obscures the real fundamental Medicare issue, and that is the future structure of the program itself. Under the guise of "consumer choice," Bush wants to transform Medicare from a social insurance program with a defined benefit available to everyone into a voucher plan under which seniors would be given a fixed amount to buy whatever insurance they could afford. Even if a voucher were sufficient to pay for a policy today, there is no assurance that it would do so in the future. In effect, the Bush proposal could make seniors, rather than government, bear the cost of healthcare inflation. Gore speaks of putting Medicare in a lockbox, which presumably means he wants to maintain it as a social insurance program.
Unresolved in the candidates' discussions is the larger question: Is healthcare a right in America or a commodity available only to those who can pay? On this the public may be way ahead of its leaders. When the Kaiser Family Foundation asked people earlier this year if healthcare, like public education, should be provided equally to everyone, 84 percent said yes. The candidates, however, are listening to the special interests, whose money speaks louder than the people.
While the differences between George W. Bush and Al Gore may still be coming into focus for many Americans in the final weeks before the election, one is already stark. On tobacco, the leading cause of preventable death in America, Bush would return the nation to the failed laissez-faire attitudes of the past. A Gore administration could be expected to continue the course charted by President Clinton, the first truly anti-tobacco President.
Indeed, a Bush administration would solve so many of tobacco's problems that the Texan is virtually one-stop shopping for an industry that has drenched his campaign with cash. For one thing, he'd change the civil justice system. Clinton vetoed tort reform bills, but Bush has made such "reform" a keystone of his proposed social policy and points with pride to his record in Texas--in 1995 he placed draconian restrictions on the right to sue. Bush would help mitigate the fallout from the recent $145 billion verdict in the Engle lawsuit--the Miami class action on behalf of thousands of Floridians sickened by cigarettes--by signing a bill pending in Congress that would send all class actions to federal court. There, Engle would be decertified, downgraded into a handful of individual lawsuits, long before trial by a federal system hostile to tobacco class actions.
As to regulating cigarettes, Bush would likely work with a Republican Congress to enact a "compromise" regulation law, limiting some forms of tobacco marketing and granting toothless federal oversight in return for liability limits and giving tobacco a seat at the table of any regulatory process. Bill Clinton was the first President to make the regulation of tobacco one of his signature policy initiatives. Although the Supreme Court ultimately shot down Food and Drug Administration oversight of cigarettes, Clinton used the bully pulpit of the presidency to put tobacco on the national agenda in a way it had never been before, fulminating against the industry for peddling nicotine to children.
Bush's record indicates he would pay lip service to keeping kids off cigarettes but would put much more energy into vilifying plaintiffs' lawyers for getting rich from lawsuits that attack the industry for targeting children. Bush has pledged to kill off a multibillion-dollar RICO action by the Justice Department that charges that the cigarette companies concealed their product's deadliness, and he would likely rescind or stymie numerous Clinton executive orders, nascent regulations and programs dealing with everything from secondhand smoke to funding research on Big Tobacco's internal documents.
Finally, Bush would be likely to back incursions by domestic cigarette makers into foreign markets. He would be much less disposed to sign on to a proposed World Health Organization treaty on tobacco and health and very prone to weaken it, to the benefit of a global tobacco industry now menacing Asia, and to the detriment of millions of potential new smokers who will become victims of cigarette-related disease.
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