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When George W. Bush spokesman James A. Baker III termed the fight
over the Florida vote recount "a black mark on our democracy," he
couldn't have been more wrong. At the time he said it on Sunday, Bush was
ahead in Florida by a mere 288 votes, and of course the full recount,
required by Florida law, is in order, as a federal judge ruled Monday.
Anyway, since when is political tumult and democracy a bad mix? Never
in our recent history has the vitality of our democracy been on such
splendid display, and it's disheartening that there are so many
frightened politicians and pundits panicked by this whiff of controversy.
What's wrong with a bit of electoral chaos and rancor? The
post-electoral debate over a rare photo finish is just the stuff that
made this country great. People should be outraged if their votes were
improperly counted--the founding fathers fought duels over less.
We have lectured the world about the importance of fair elections, and
we cannot get away with hiding the imperfections of our own system. Not
so imperfect as to require international observers for a full-scale
investigation under UN supervision, yet controversial enough to fully
engage the public. An election that once threatened to be boring beyond
belief has turned into a cliffhanger that is now more interesting than
reality-based TV entertainment. Indeed, it is reality-based TV
Never since John F. Kennedy eked out a suspicious victory over Richard
M. Nixon in 1960 has the proverbial man-in-the-street been so caught up
on the nuances of the electoral process. People who didn't even realize
we had an electoral college are now experts on it. But instead of
celebrating an election that people are finally excited about, driving
home the lesson for this and future generations that every vote counts,
the pundits are beside themselves with despair.
What hypocrites. They love every moment of increased media exposure
for themselves, while darkly warning of the danger to our system. Their
fears are nonsense. What is being demonstrated is that the system works:
Recounts, court challenges, partisan differences are a healthy response
to an election too close to call.
The fear-mongers hold out two depressing scenarios, one being that the
people will lose faith in the electoral process, and the other that
whoever wins the election will be weakened for lack of a mandate.
As to the former, the electoral process has never seemed more vital;
some who voted for Ralph Nader may be second-guessing their choices, and
states such as Florida and Oregon with primitive voting systems will no
doubt come into the modern age, but apathy has been routed, and next time
around, the presidential vote count will be the highest ever.
True, the candidate who finally wins will be weakened. He should be.
An election this close hardly provides the winner with a compelling
mandate, particularly if it is Bush, who may win the electoral college
majority while Al Gore is declared the winner of the popular vote. If
that turns out to be the case, Bush ought to tread with caution.
Compromise is good when not only the President is without a mandate
but so, too, the House and the Senate because of their razor-thin
outcomes. The country has come through eight incredibly prosperous and
relatively peaceful years, so why the rush to march down some new
uncharted course? Later for privatizing Social Security, a huge tax cut
for the super-rich and a $160-billion missile defense system--three mad
components of the core Republican program.
As for the Democrats, with or without Gore as President, it will be
the season for nothing more ambitious than damage control. With Gore, the
main weapon of reason would not be bold new programs that Congress would
ignore, but rather the threat of a veto to stop Republican mischief.
Without Gore, the responsibility will fall on the Democratic minority in
both branches of Congress to engage in a principled holding action
preparing for a congressional majority in 2002.
Odds are that Bush will be the President presiding over a nation that,
by a clear margin in the popular vote, rejected him for Gore. If Bush
wins the office, his challenge will be to prove that the moderate face he
presented during the election is truly his. If it isn't, and he attempts
to be a hero to the right wing of his party, he will wreck the GOP.
Clearly, future political power resides with the vibrant big cities and
modern suburbs, the sophisticated hot spots of the new economy, which
went for Gore, and not the backwater rural outposts that turned out to be
Bush country largely because men remain obsessed with their guns.
What if they held a presidential election and neither guy won? Or a dead man from Missouri defeated an incumbent Republican senator?
Providence put me on a panel debating the Gore/Nader choice with Cornel West at New York University in late October. Most of the audience was for Nader, and the lineup on stage did nothing to improve those odds.
Before the debate began, its organizers took a few moments to speak on behalf of the university's graduate students' struggle for unionization. So did West, who had been handed a flier about it from the floor. And as a man about to lose a debate (and a longtime grad student as well as an occasional NYU adjunct faculty member), I was happy for the interruption. Days later, the National Labor Relations Board set an important precedent by ruling in favor of the students. But here's what I don't understand. How can the student union supporters also be Nader supporters? Nonsensical "Tweedledee/Tweedledum" assertions to the contrary, only one party appoints people to the NLRB who approve of graduate student unions, and only one appoints people to the Supreme Court who approve of such NLRB decisions. No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it's that simple. An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, "Vote your conscience and lose your union...or your reproductive freedom...your wildlife refuge, etc., etc."
Well, Nader's support collapsed, but not far or fast enough. In the future, it will be difficult to heal the rift that Nader's costly war on even the most progressive Democrats has opened. Speaking to In These Times's David Moberg, Nader promised, "After November, we're going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democratic candidates] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They've got to lose people, whether they're good or bad." It's hard to imagine what kind of deal can be done with a man whose angriest rhetorical assaults appear reserved for his natural allies. (The vituperative attacks on Nader, leveled by many of my friends and cronies on the prolabor democratic left, were almost as counterproductive, however morally justified.) But a deal will have to be done. Nader may have polled a pathetic 2 to 3 percent nationally, but he still affected the race enough to tip some important balances in favor of Bush and the Republicans. He not only amassed crucial margins in Florida, New Hampshire and Oregon; he forced progressive Democrats like Tom Hayden, Paul Wellstone, Ted Kennedy and the two Jesse Jacksons to focus on rear-guard action during the final days rather than voter turnout. If this pattern repeats itself in future elections, Naderite progressives will become very big fish in a very tiny pond indeed.
Perhaps a serious Feingold or Wellstone run at the nomination with a stronger platform on globalization issues will convince those die-hard Naderites to join in the difficult business of building a more rational, Christian Coalition-like bloc to counter corporate power within the party. For now, we can expect an ugly period of payback in Washington in which Nader's valuable network of organizations will likely be the first to pay. Democrats will no longer return his calls. Funders will tell him to take a hike. Sadly, his life's work will be a victim of the infantile left-wing disorder Nader developed in his quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican to the American presidency.
* * *
Giving Nader a run for his money in the election hall of shame are the mainstream media. Media portraits of both candidates were etched in stone, with nary a fact or figure allowed to intrude upon the well-worn script. Bush was dumb and Gore a liar; pretty much nothing else was allowed in the grand narrative. Like Nader, reporters assumed the enormous policy differences between Gore and Bush--on Social Security, prescription drugs, education, affirmative action, abortion rights, the environment--to be of trivial importance, hardly worth the time and effort to explain or investigate. The media's treatment of this election as a popularity contest rather than a political one between two governing ideologies was an implicit endorsement of the Bush campaign strategy, as the issues favored Gore. But even so, Bush was usually treated like some pet media cause. With regard to such consequential questions as his political program, his political experience, his arrest record, his military service, his business ethics, Bush was given a free pass by media that continued to hound Gore about whether he was really the model for Oliver in Love Story--which, by the way, he was. I guess being a Bigfoot journalist means never having to say you're sorry.
* * *
One election development that had to gladden New Republic owner Marty Peretz's heart was how bad it was for the Arabs. I got a call one day from a Republican Party functionary telling me that Hillary Clinton supported a Palestinian state and took money from groups that supported terrorist organizations "like the one that just blew up the USS Cole." I told the sorry sonofabitch that like Israel's Prime Minister, I, too, support a Palestinian state. And, if there was any justice in the world, Hillary's "terrorist" friends would blow up Republican headquarters while we were still on the phone, so I could enjoy hearing the explosion.
This heavy-handed bit of racist manipulation grew out of a story published, surprisingly, not in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post but in the putatively responsible and nominally liberal New York Daily News, owned by Mortimer Zuckerman. It was inspired by the machinations of one Steven Emerson, a discredited "terrorism expert" last heard trying to pin the Oklahoma City bombing on the Arabs by noting that "inflict[ing] as many casualties as possible...is a Middle Eastern trait." Each actor played a dishonorable role in the tawdry drama: The Daily News invented the story. The Lazio campaign brazenly exploited it. Hillary Clinton's campaign capitulated to it. Together with the media coverage of the main event, this mini-drama will go down in history as further evidence of that unhappy nostrum of American politics that this year seems to have escaped everyone from the Nader die-hards to Palestinian militants: Things can always get worse.
The razor-thin margin that defined the presidential race is sure to stir controversy around the Ralph Nader vote. Those wishing to blame Nader for Gore's troubles and those Greens wishing to take credit for giving the Democratic candidate a political "cold shower" will focus on Florida. Nader's 97,000 votes in that state came to less than 2 percent of the statewide total, but with barely 1,000 Florida votes deciding the national election, they are sure to be dissected and scrutinized. Ironically, only in the final days of the campaign did Nader decide to return to Florida and ask for votes. A last-minute debate inside his campaign weighed the possibilities of focusing efforts in the swing states like Florida or in Democrat-rich states like New York and California, where "strategic voters" could vote Green without concern about affecting Gore's final tallies. Nader eventually decided he would get more media coverage by targeting places like Florida.
On the national level, Nader fell considerably short of his goal of achieving a 5 percent national vote that would have qualified the Green Party for millions in federal matching funds in 2004. When the votes were counted, Nader had pocketed 3 percent, or around 2.7 million votes--almost four times more than his "uncampaign" garnered in 1996. Relentless pressure on potential Nader voters by liberal Democrats to switch to Gore clearly had an effect on the Green campaign, helping tamp down the final vote to almost half the level at which Nader had finally been polling.
No question but that this result is far from the best scenario for those who hoped that Nader's run this year would hand the Greens substantial future leverage. Given the failure to establish a federally funded national Green Party in the balloting, however, that future clout will depend mostly on Nader's ability and willingness to take his list of 75,000 campaign contributors (as well as countless volunteers and voters) and hone it into an identifiable political entity. That task could be rendered even more problematic by those who will blame Nader for a Gore defeat.
That said, various state Green parties will emerge from this week strengthened and positioned to make a difference in scores of Congressional and legislative districts. In some progressive-minded counties--like Humboldt and Mendocino in Northern California--the Nader vote grazed 13 to14 percent. In many others the Greens scored 5 to 10 percent, making them a potential swing vote in further local elections. In this election, nationwide, some 238 Greens ran for municipal office, and fifteen were victorious.
In what had been considered virtual "Naderhoods"--several northern-tier states where the Greens had significant pockets of strength--the candidate's vote was less than spectacular. In Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon Nader finished with only 4 or 5 percent. Just six weeks ago, he was approaching 10 percent in Oregon. The Greens scored 5 percent in Minnesota--a figure they had been polling for some time--and they hit 6 percent in Montana, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii. The Green high-water marks were in Vermont (7 percent) and Alaska (10 percent--down from 17 percent in some earlier polls).
In the Democratic strongholds of New York and California, where Al Gore won by huge margins and where a ballot for Nader was considered "safe" by those who called for strategic voting, the Greens ended up with a relatively disappointing 4 percent--the same number reached in New Mexico, where Greens have competed statewide for more than five years.
Predictions that the Greens would spoil Gore's chances failed to materialize. Washington, Minnesota, New Mexico, Michigan and Wisconsin--states where Democrats argued that Nader could swing the vote to the GOP--were all won by Al Gore. Even in Oregon, Nader's impact on the major party race was arguably negligible. At press time, Gore was losing the state by about 25,000 votes and Nader's total was 5 percent, or just over 50,000. But whether a sufficient number of the Nader votes would have gone to Gore is open to question. A national USA Today/CNN/Gallup Tracking poll a few days before the election found that only 43 percent of likely Nader voters would vote for Gore as their second choice. Twenty-one percent said they would vote for Bush second. And an equal number said they would vote for Nader or not at all.
As the media obsessed over the seesaw presidential poll, voters across the country quietly made their choices on more than 200 disparate ballot measures and initiatives. For progressives the results are--as usual--mixed.
First the bad news: Three campaign finance reform initiatives went the wrong way. Clean-money measures providing for full public financing were thumped in Missouri and Oregon. Similar measures had been passed in previous years by voters in Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona as well as by the legislature in Vermont--but this time around powerful, well-financed business lobbies weighed in, and dirty money beat clean money. In Oregon opponents ran an effective (and expensive) radio campaign highlighting the out-of-state financial support for the reform, and it raised the specter of extremists running for office if it passed.
In Missouri corporate opponents--including Anheuser-Busch, KC Power & Light, Hallmark Cards and the Missouri Association of Realtors--poured hundreds of thousands into their victorious antireform campaign. Californians, meanwhile, approved Proposition 34, billed as campaign reform but actually cooked up by the establishment to block real reform. The returns on these three measures should compel campaign finance reform activists to rethink their strategies. These are significant and stinging defeats.
The good news is that the failed drug war was a loser in five of seven related measures nationwide. Medical marijuana initiatives passed in Colorado and Nevada (although a full marijuana-legalization bill failed in Alaska). Oregon and Utah voted to reform draconian drug forfeiture laws. And in California, Proposition 36, providing treatment instead of jail for first- and second-time drug offenders, passed easily. But a similar proposition failed in Massachusetts (which also refused to approve a universal healthcare proposal).
Another bright spot was public education. Voucher measures in California and Michigan were beaten by wide margins. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper put up millions for the California proposal--to no avail. California voters also approved a measure that makes passage of school bonds easier. But bilingual education, banned in the Golden State two years ago, was also thrown out by Arizona voters. As he did in California, businessman Ron Unz fathered and funded the Arizona measure.
Colorado voters defeated the so-called informed consent measure on abortion, but Arizona and Nebraska approved a ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions. In Maine a measure to protect gays from discrimination was defeated. In Oregon the notorious Measure 9, which outlaws "teaching" homosexuality in schools, failed. Oregonians also rejected two antiunion "paycheck protection" measures, which the state labor federation had vigorously fought.
It wasn't exactly a reversal of 1994, but in this year's Senate races Democrats erased much of the Republican majority that was established in that year of Grand Old Party hegemony. Democrats picked up at least five and perhaps six Republican-held seats, while losing just two. In several cases, the shifts were dramatic, replacing staunch conservatives with far more progressive legislators.
For example, Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton, a liberal department store heir, displaced Republican incumbent Rod Grams, a conservative hundred-percenter famous for dismissing Senator Paul Wellstone's attempt to lodge a criticism of Chinese human rights abuses as "demagoguery." Missouri Republican John Ashcroft, perhaps the Senate's most outspoken advocate of the Christian-right agenda, will be replaced by Jean Carnahan, the widow of liberal Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan (although the threat of a legal challenge remains). Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a House member whose strong labor record won her passionate support from the powerful United Auto Workers union, beat Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham, a former aide to Dan Quayle who frequently zeroed out on labor's voting-record ratings. One immediate change could come in the area of campaign finance reform: Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin says he now believes there will be sufficient support in the Senate to get the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill passed. "The question now is whether we'll have a Democratic President, who will sign the bill, or a Republican, who will veto it," says Feingold.
Perhaps the biggest Senate disappointment of the night was the 51-to-48 loss of Brian Schweitzer, a Montana rancher who used his campaign to dramatize the high cost of drugs for seniors and in the final weeks closed the gap on antienvironment, antilabor incumbent Conrad Burns.
There was even more disappointment in the results in the House, where an expensive two-year Democratic drive to win the seven Republican seats needed to take back the House failed. While Clinton impeachment manager Jim Rogan went down in California, and Arkansas's Jay Dickey may have been beaten in part because of his support for removing the state's number-one homeboy, most targeted Republican incumbents withstood the challenge. At least one Democrat with a good record, Connecticut's Sam Gejdenson--a consistent liberal with a strong international affairs bent--was ousted, and several progressive newcomers, including California's Gerrie Schipske and Montana's Nancy Keenan, have been beaten. But Illinois's Lane Evans beat back a meanspirited Republican challenge, and new California Representative Mike Honda won with strong backing from labor, as did New York's Steve Israel, who won the Long Island seat vacated by Republican Rick Lazio--the man First Lady Hillary Clinton bested in the nation's highest-profile Senate contest.
At the state level, the nastiest fight was in Vermont. There, in a campaign that turned into a referendum on the question of whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed the rights of heterosexual couples, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who signed the state's groundbreaking yet controversial "civil union" law, won a decisive victory in his campaign for a fifth term as governor. Vermont Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina surprised observers by racking up 10 percent of the vote and helping elect several Progressive Party candidates to legislative seats.
North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, the state's progressive populist attorney general, lost a race for the governorship. But Delaware Lieutenant Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who dropped out of high school at 16 to work on the family farm and returned to school after being widowed at age 32, was elected governor. Her win means there will now be five women governors--the highest number in history.
A key result of the elections at the state level will be their impact on redistricting, which will shape Congress for years to come. Democrats now control forty-nine state legislative houses of a total of ninety-eight, while Republicans control forty-five. Four legislative chambers are evenly tied. Democrats won control of the Colorado Senate and the Washington Statehouse Tuesday. But they lost the Vermont House, with thirteen incumbents being swept from office. "It was all the civil-union fight," says Kevin Mack of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "Howard Dean won up there, but a lot of good Democrats lost on the issue."
This issue goes to press on Wednesday, November 8, the day after the election, when all was supposed to have been decided, all was to be made clear. Instead, a great bewilderment has descended over the land. The recount of the vote in Florida, which might conceivably erase Bush's lead of a thousand or so votes and give the state and the presidency to Al Gore, has begun but not been completed. As I write, the numbers are changing hourly, and no two news outlets seem to have the same ones at the same time. There seems to be some fuzzy math going on down in Florida. Meanwhile, we do know that Al Gore has won the popular vote and faces the possibility that the will of the people will be annulled by the Electoral College. In short, we do not know at present who the next President will be or whether, when we do know, the people will have wanted that man.
Ordinarily, journalists hate situations like this, in which the deadline for elucidating a momentous event descends just before the event occurs. We are required, it seems, either to qualify our comments to the point of meaninglessness or else to pen words so vague and general that they will cover all contingencies. Rich as the arts of pontificating are, these occasions seem to stretch them to the breaking point. ("Whoever wins the White House, one thing is clear, the democracy of this great land..." and so forth.)
On this particular occasion, however, the situation is different. History, giving hard-pressed journalists a hand, has, by declining to produce a victor, provided for the time being the perfect metaphor for the campaign that has now ended. In the campaign the choices offered by the two parties were more obfuscated than clarified, more concealed than revealed. Gore decided to distance himself from his partner in the White House, Bill Clinton, declaring himself to be "my own man," assuring the voters that "I will never let you down" and preventing Clinton from going out on the hustings. It was the fundamental strategic decision of the Gore campaign. Yet the reason for it--the scandals that led to the impeachment of Clinton--were never mentioned by Gore. In consequence, impeachment, the most important political event of the last decade, and the one with the most important bearing on the fitness of the Republican Party to be placed in positions of trust and authority, went undiscussed by the Democrats. Had the impeachment been a necessary remedy for a grave danger to the Republic from President Clinton, or had it been (as I believe) a reckless abuse of power by the Republicans? No question was more in need of an answer in this year's election, but none went more thoroughly unaddressed. Gore's decision even prevented him from taking adequate credit for the Clinton Administration's economic successes.
The Republicans, for their part, waged what E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post rightly called a "stealth campaign." They had held the majority in Congress for six years, yet the Congressional Republicans were all in hiding, and their self-described "revolution" of the nineties--including, for example, their attempt to eviscerate environmental law, their attempt to shut down the Department of Education and their shutdown of the federal government--also went down the memory hole. They opportunistically took their stand on Democratic issues--a plan for prescription drugs, a plan for saving Social Security, a plan for education. Only Bush's proposal for an across-the-board tax cut was in keeping with the recent Republican record. (The art of winning elections by stealing the other party's issues is one they appear to have learned from Clinton.)
Astonishingly, the Republicans even pre-empted the impeachment issue--though without mentioning it explicitly any more than Gore had. Bush spent the final week of the campaign attacking the "partisan bickering" in "Washington," as if it had been the Democrats who had tried to impeach a Republican President for frivolous reasons rather than the other way around. Thus did the impeachment issue control the candidates' decisions without being discussed by them. Almost the only issue given a really thorough airing was the entirely jolly one of how to pass out the trillions of dollars of the budget surplus (how much in prescription drug benefits? how much in tax cuts?)--trillions that may never in fact materialize and that the current Congress has in any case been busily spending.
Had the outcome of the election been known today, a tidal wave of interpretation of the results no doubt would already be rolling over us. It is well that it was stopped. It is better to reflect for a moment on our political confusion. The contest, even when it produces a winner, will not have provided a basis for generalizations regarding the public mind. A foggy campaign has ended in a deep fog, as if the people, not having been offered a true choice, have simply decided not to choose.
When the history of this year's presidential campaign is written, the addiction of both Bush and Gore to the obsolete politics of capital punishment will rank high in the annals of moral insensibility and cowardice. In the final debate they fell all over each other agreeing that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder. Never mind the polls showing a steadily eroding public support for it and growing alarm about tainted convictions. Even Janet Reno admitted a few months ago that "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point."
Just how remote the capital-punishment rhetoric of this campaign is from reality is suggested by a ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the case of Calvin Burdine, who sits on death row in Huntsville, Texas. Burdine's court-appointed lawyer, Joe Cannon, slept through long stretches of his trial, a practice frequently ratified by Texas courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "Sleeping Lawyer Syndrome," April 7, 1997]. Federal District Judge David Hittner threw out Burdine's conviction, but on October 27 a Fifth Circuit appellate panel reinstated it. The two-judge majority--including Judge Edith Jones, a favorite Republican prospect for the Supreme Court--claimed that the record failed to show whether the lawyer's naps came during "critical" phases of the life-or-death proceeding. The panel's lone dissenter, Judge Fortunato Benavides, wrote that the circumstance of Burdine's trial "shocks the conscience."
What is conscience-shocking is not just Sleeping Joe Cannon but the entire capital-justice apparatus. Recently the Quixote Center of Maryland released a dramatic study documenting sixteen people executed in six states, despite late-appearing evidence questioning their guilt or the exposure of massively unfair proceedings. A typical case in the report is that of Brian Baldwin, executed in Alabama in June 1999, even though his confession was coerced, his court-appointed lawyer never conducted an investigation, a co-defendant later confessed and exonerated Baldwin, and an Alabama court found that the prosecutor routinely practiced "deliberate racial discrimination."
Clearly, we need a national timeout on executions. Thirty-five cities nationwide--most recently Greensboro and five other municipalities in conservative North Carolina--have endorsed such a moratorium. As legal scholar Anthony Amsterdam said in October in his keynote address to the American Bar Association's annual convention, the system is "fatally unjust and prone to error." And that also applies to the federal court system, in which a recent study showed widespread racial bias in death sentences. The first federal execution since the Kennedy years is set for December unless President Clinton intervenes, as he certainly should. Senators Carl Levin and Russ Feingold and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. have introduced legislation that, in varying ways, would put executions on hold. Their bills deserve vigorous support.
A postscript to the Bush-Gore deterrence theory: According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, released in October, while violent crime is declining nationwide, it is up in the execution capital of the country, Texas.
Ralph really ran. Against the record of his own faux campaign of 1996, against the expectations even of friends who said he lacked the candidate gene and against the calculations of Democratic strategists who were forced to go from dismissing him to clumsily attacking the Green monster, Ralph Nader mounted a presidential campaign that in the closing days of the election defied the pundits' tendency to consign most third party candidacies to endgame obscurity.
As political players began counting down the hours to voting day, Nader was thrust into the national spotlight by media that had long disregarded his candidacy. The man who had been prevented even from attending three dismal debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush found himself portrayed by a New York Times editorial as the "wrecking-ball" of the postdebate campaign. There was Nader, just days before an election to which he was supposed to have been an asterisk, staring ABC newsman Sam Donaldson in the eye and asking, "Do you think Gore is entitled to any votes? Do you think Bush is entitled? Am I entitled to any votes? We have to earn them. If Gore cannot beat the bumbling Texas governor with that horrific record, what good is he?"
Conscious of the Nader threat in states that had been securely married to the Democrats as far back as 1988 but began swinging in 2000, mainstream environmental and abortion rights groups diverted late-campaign energy and resources to scaring Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin Nader supporters into stopping Bush by abandoning the Green for the Gore. But the a-vote-for-Nader-is-a-vote-for-Bush drive ended up buying Nader millions of dollars' worth of free media attention. And what voters saw was a Nader far removed from the stiff scold who launched his Green bid last winter. After watching Nader joust with news anchors desperately seeking to get him to abandon his critique of both parties and declare some hidden sympathy for the Democrat, conservative commentator George Will was heard asking when it was that Nader evolved into so able a candidate.
Nader's focused, fact-based, unapologetic appearances were no surprise to hundreds of thousands of students, renegade trade unionists, angry family farmers, environmentalists, organic-food activists, campaign finance reformers, dissident Democrats and leaderless Perotistas who packed Nader's "superrallies" from Oakland to Minneapolis to New York City. Those modern-day hootenannies raised some of the more than $5 million with which Nader's campaign hired staff in virtually every state, developed a network of 900 campus coordinators, bought a few television ads and papered every coffee shop bulletin board from San Francisco to Boston with Green literature. For their contributions, those who rallied were treated to inspired performances by Nader backers Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder, crowd-rousing appeals from Jim Hightower and Michael Moore, arguments for a split from the Democratic Party by such progressive icons as Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich, and Nader addresses that bore less and less resemblance to college lectures and more and more to the populist orations of William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette.
On a Friday night in Iowa City, just days before the election, Nader arrived to find the University of Iowa Memorial Union overflowing with more than 2,000 cheering supporters. "The two parties have morphed together into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup," the candidate declared. The line was dutifully picked up by the Iowa City papers, which, like most local media, lavished front-page coverage on the man drawing some the biggest political crowds of the year. Unfazed by criticism from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Al Franken, who had appeared in town that day at a hastily scheduled Democratic rally, Nader said, "These frightened progressives say I'm undermining my own legacy of reform. What they don't know is that the Democratic Party has already done it."
Nader was introduced by one of the most prominent Democrats in Iowa, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who explained, "I have worked for the election of Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman in 1948. I have received three presidential appointments from two Democratic Presidents. I have run for Congress from Iowa as a Democrat. I have served the Democratic Party at every level from local precinct chair to a Democratic National Committee task force. So it's not easy for me, this endorsement of a Green Party candidate. But the corporate corruption that engulfs both major parties has now reached the stage when we cannot afford to wait any longer."
But where does such a leap take Nader backers? If their candidate polls 5 percent or more of the national vote, the Green Party will receive at least $7 million in federal campaign funds. As Election Day approached, however, even some in the Nader camp worried that 5 percent earned at the price of a Gore loss might lead to a damning of the Greens that would make party-building difficult, if not impossible. In the final weeks of the campaign, Nader's closest advisers debated whether to tailor their schedule to states where the race was not close--such as New York, where Gore is a prohibitive favorite--or to return to swing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where a strong Nader could undermine Gore. Pleas from swing-state Nader backers tipped the decision in favor of the go-for-broke strategy--even as vote-trading schemes like www.nadertrader.org promised Nader fans who agreed to trade Gore votes in states like Oregon and Washington for Nader votes in New York and Texas that they could get the best of both worlds: President Gore and 5 percent for the Greens.
But a good many Nader voters were disinclined to become election day-traders. Their enthusiasm had less to do with party-building than with raising a banner of protest and, perhaps, of faith in a vision of democratic participation. In the crucial swing state of Wisconsin, the village of Belleville took a pre-election break for its UFO Parade, an annual commemoration of a supposed Halloween visit by aliens some years back. Bush and Gore backers were no-shows. But there, between the Brownies and the Belleville Dairy Queen, were forty Nader supporters, almost all of them from nearby farm towns. They carried a banner reading ralph nader is out of this world and handed out packets of seeds with a reminder to "plant a seed for democracy on November 7."
Grandmothers grabbed the seeds, children cheered "Nader!" And Dr. Cynthia Haq, the local physician, clapped as they passed. Torn between Gore and Nader, she said, "I know we're supposed to be worried about Bush, and I am worried. But it makes me feel good to see the Nader people. There's something that feels right about voting for what you believe, as opposed to voting against what you fear. I think that's why a lot of people are sticking with Nader--no matter what."
I want to vote for Bill Clinton for President again, but that not
being possible I had resigned myself to Al Gore. Surely, I thought, he
would defend the Clinton Administration's record of the past eight years,
and voters would recognize it as obviously preferable to the debt and
divisiveness the Republicans had wrought.
Indeed, the only reason to favor Gore over Bill Bradley in the
primaries, which I regrettably did, was that Gore had on-the-job training
in the most productive administration in decades. That's what the vice
President brought to the table, certainly not his deer-in-the headlights
stage presence, and yet he sits dumbfounded for lack of a ready reply
when George W. Bush rails on about the failed opportunities of the
"Hey, buddy," I keep waiting for Gore to say, "I wasn't going to bring
up your daddy's wreckage of the economy but you leave me no choice. Are
Americans better off now than they were eight years ago? You bet they
are. Crime, unemployment and poverty are all down, and the economy is
still on an unprecedented roll. Under Bush senior, the Japanese were
thought to be entrepreneurally invincible, and now it is US know-how
the world seeks to emulate."
Instead of a celebration of what he and the President accomplished
despite reactionary Republican control of the Congress, Gore offers only
the most mealy-mouthed rejoinders when Bush slanders the record of the
Unfortunately, Al Gore has spent most of the election trying to prove
that he is not Bill Clinton. He needn't have bothered. No one could ever
confuse the two. Gore is by temperament, and apparently conviction, the
un-Clinton--it's like comparing a fresh out-of-the-bottle swig of Coke
with a 7-Up gone flat.
The President is a compelling advocate for his vision of progressive
government, so much so that even his lousy ideas, like welfare reform,
have a sizzle of optimism. But in the main, Clinton deserves a great deal
of credit for demonstrating that a concerned activist government also can
balance the books while lifting the US economy from the doldrums.
Whether it is a matter of personal chemistry or absence of genuine
commitment, Gore lacks Clinton's ability to convince us that deep down
he's on our side--whoever we are. Gore has made doing even the obviously
right thing, like saving Social Security and Medicare, seem partisan and
His best moment was that acceptance speech at the Democratic
convention when he sounded the alarm that George W. Bush could actually
do serious harm to this country. But since then his campaign has become
nothing more than an awkward attempt to keep up with Bush at Texas
line-dancing as a form of governance. They move together in a dreary
drumbeat of support for the death penalty and huge military expenditures,
and Gore has even muffled his criticism of Bush on guns and abortion.
Gore has come out of that contest so disoriented that he has even managed
to make Ralph Nader seem like a sexy dancer.
Which is why what could prove to be a critical 4 percent of the electorate,
composed of largely thoughtful and well-intentioned people, are willing
to risk Republican control of the White House. No small risk, given that
right-wing Republicans likely will continue to run Congress, and with
Bush as President, the third branch of government--the federal judiciary
from the Supreme Court on down--will be shaped in the image of Jesse
Helms. There is no reason to expect otherwise from a Bush presidency,
since he has warned us that Clarence Thomas and Anthony Scalia, two of
the most reactionary judges in the history of the Court, are his judicial
Nader has been less than honest in tarring the major parties with the
same brush. He surely must know that the Democrats are better, far
better, at protecting consumers and the environment, supporting labor,
including raising the minimum wage, and advancing the rights of women,
minorities and gays.
However, there is an argument for having Nader in the race and even
for telling pollsters that you intend to vote for the man. It's to force
Gore to distinguish himself from the Bush campaign in order to win back
those Nader votes.
Yet, on Election Day, Gore, for all his faults, still deserves the
votes of those who care about the frightening damage that a Republican
sweep of the White House and Congress portends for this country.
Behind that smug Bush smile lies the calculations of Trent Lott and
the heart of Jesse Helms. There even might be room for the ghost of Newt
Gingrich in a Bush Cabinet. It's Halloween time.
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