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The voters hear on Halloween
The country's doorbell ring.
There's Bush dressed up as real adult
And Gore as human being.
Take this as a national parable. Once upon a time--in the early eighties, actually--there was a progressive coalition in Vermont designed to become a third force in politics. One of its prime spokesmen was Bernie Sanders, who became mayor of Vermont's largest city, Burlington. Sanders duly became a leading proponent of the idea that America needed a third party of the left.
In 1988 the coalition backed Sanders for Vermont's single seat in Congress. Then as now, orthodox Democratic liberals accused the radical progressives of being wreckers. The radicals said that yes, some creative destruction was necessary. A Sanders candidacy might put Republican Peter Smith into Congress over liberal-populist Democrat Paul Poirier, but that wasn't the concern of an independent force. Just as he's now bashing Ralph Nader, Barney Frank bashed Sanders' candidacy as bad for gays (whose legislated well-being Frank regularly conflates with the fortunes of the Democratic Party) and liberals. And so it came to pass. Sanders swept up Poirier's liberal base and denied Democrats the victory they would otherwise have obtained. Smith won with less than 50 percent.
The progressive coalition had a long-term strategy. It knew Sanders would not win on that first outing. The essential victory was to persuade progressives to vote, finally, for their beliefs, to stop deluding themselves that the Democratic Party would fulfill even a sliver of their expectations. Two years later, Sanders again made a bid, this time against the incumbent Republican. The Democrats effectively quit the field. Sanders swept to victory.
Creative destruction worked. The progressive coalition matured and expanded. It replaced Sanders with Peter Clavelle as mayor of Burlington and took numerous seats throughout the state. Last year it formally constituted itself as the Progressive Party of Vermont and put up Anthony Pollina, a leftist with years of grassroots activism in the state, as its gubernatorial candidate for November 2000.
Once again, the state echoes with the anguished bellows of liberals that Pollina's candidacy will install Republican Ruth Dwyer and take Vermont back to medieval darkness. The Progressive Party has refused to stand down. Incumbent Governor Howard Dean is a DLC-type Democrat who never met a corporation he didn't like or a mountaintop he wasn't willing to sell to a ski-resort developer. Pollina, who had led Vermont's successful fight for public financing of statewide elections, became the first to benefit from it. As required by law, he raised $35,000 (from donations averaging $22), then qualified for $265,000 in public money, the only funds he can spend. Pollina was on an equal money footing with Dean. But not for long. A court threw out the law's spending limit, and immediately Dean inoperated years of pious blather about campaign finance reform. Five days after lauding such reform at the Democratic convention, he rejected public financing and put himself back on the block for corporate contributions and soft money from the Democratic Party.
Pollina and the Progressives have taken the Democrats' scare strategy straight on. They say, Vote Your Hopes, Not Your Fears. The campaign is rich with proposals on healthcare, environmental protection, a living wage, stability for small farmers and small businesses. Pollina has plenty of ammunition against Dean, who has been running Vermont longer than Clinton/Gore have been in the White House. It's the pathetic national story. In Vermont, 95 percent of men under 22 in prison do not have high school equivalency. In the past ten years prison spending has increased by 135 percent, while spending on state colleges has increased by 7 percent. One of every seven Vermont men between 18 and 21 is under the supervision of the Corrections Department.
And Pollina doesn't shrink from reminding voters that at the very moment in the early nineties when Vermont was poised to become the first state to have universal healthcare, Governor Dean, a physician by trade, killed off all such hopes, as he did a bill this year that would have established prescription-drug price controls.
Democrats of the stripe of Dean and Gore know how to talk the talk. They don't move a finger to expand human freedoms or opportunities, then boast that they alone are the bulwark against right-wing attacks on such freedoms and opportunities. After undermining choice and gay rights for much of his Congressional career, Gore now tells women and gays that he is the prime defender of choice and gay rights. At a gay event in Los Angeles, Dean claimed the hero's mantle for signing Vermont's civil union law giving gay couples the same state benefits as married couples. But he was never out front on this issue, moved only under direct order of the courts and then, in an act of consummate cowardice, nervously scribbled his signature to the law secluded from press or camera. So what does our Vermont parable add up to? Independent in name only, Sanders sold out to the Democratic machine long ago. He's no longer part of a movement. He's not a member of the Progressive Party and has not endorsed Pollina. In his re-election race for November, he's outflanked on both politics and gender, facing a Democrat to his left (Peter Diamondstone) and a transsexual moderate Republican (Karen Kerin). But the big story is not Sanders' dismal trajectory; it is that third-party politics in Vermont has moved out of his sad shadow and is changing the face of the state. The Progressives have also endorsed Nader.
"This race, a lot like Nader's nationally, has posed the question: If we want good people to run, and they get on the ballot, what do we want to do with that? Do we wish to use their campaigns to build up a progressive movement, or do we once again want to squander our power on business as usual?" Thus Ellen David Friedman, a long-term Progressive organizer in Vermont. "People under 30 don't give a damn about the spoiler stuff. Most of Pollina's campaign workers are under 25. They want to be able to work for what they believe in. Demographically, these are the people who will be making the difference, organizing progressive campaigns in the years to come."
THE NOVEMBER 7 ELECTION is not merely about ending six years of GOP dominance but also about assuring that the next Congress is pulled in a more enlightened direction. Starting early this year, The Nation began tracking races around the country, keeping an eye on contests where progressive incumbents are battling to keep their seats and identifying the next generation of leaders on economic and social justice issues. The Nation adopted author and activist Michael Harrington's "left wing of the possible" standard--looking for candidates who combine a chance of winning with a commitment to use the victory to fight for real change. None of the contenders profiled in this year's "Nation Dozen" list--which represents only a fraction of the progressive candidates running as Democrats, Greens or independents--are assured victory; indeed, several had to overcome daunting odds just to earn a place on the November ballot. But they have put themselves in contention with strong support from groups like the AFL-CIO, NARAL, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Peace Action PAC, the Human Rights Campaign Fund and the National Committee for an Effective Congress. A decade ago, Minnesota professor Paul Wellstone beat an entrenched Republican US senator and went on to serve as a mentor to other progressives, including several of this year's Nation Dozen. Says Wellstone: "Progressives have got to get serious about these Congressional races around the country. We need to recognize that it matters a great deal when we elect members who understand human rights and economic justice issues; that those members will have the power to raise issues, to shift the direction of the Democratic Party and to build coalitions that can actually prevail." With that thought in mind, here is the "Nation Dozen." With support from Nation readers and other progressives, they have the potential not only to win but to change the way Washington does business.
ED FLANAGAN, Vermont, US Senate
When Ed Flanagan won the Democratic nomination for the seat held by Republican Jim Jeffords, the incumbent warned that Flanagan's progressive populist style would not go over well in the tradition-bound Senate. "He makes a lot of noise, shakes things up, and that's the last thing we need down in Washington," said Jeffords, who is best known for singing in a barbershop quartet with Trent Lott. Jeffords is right about Flanagan; he would shake things up. A former intern to liberal Republican Senator George Aiken and a four-term state auditor, Flanagan condemns "the military-industrial complex that does not have America's defense interests in mind, but is simply out to make the big bucks," and he asks how the Senate can justify a failure to implement living-wage legislation "in the context of an economy that is so rich but has concentrated so much wealth with so few people and so few huge multinational corporations." The odds against Flanagan are long, in part because he is an openly gay man running in a state where conservatives are stirring a backlash against Vermont's just-implemented civil union law. But he is betting that the state that sends Bernie Sanders to the House is, indeed, prepared to shake up the Senate (www.flanagan2000.org).
NANCY KEENAN, Montana, House, At-Large
To understand where Nancy Keenan is coming from, you need to know the story of the Smelterman's Day Picnic that used to be held every August 8 in Anaconda, Montana. Keenan, the daughter of a boilermaker, would line up with the other kids at the picnic to receive a silver dollar from the copper-smelting company that gave the town its name. "As you stepped forward, the management representative would look you straight in the eye and press that shiny silver dollar firmly in your hand. The message couldn't have been clearer: You knew who owned you," Keenan recalled in a speech to the state AFL-CIO. "But the company was wrong. They might have owned our sweat, they might have owned our labor, but because we were members of a union family, they could not own our souls." Keenan, who is seeking to be a voice for hard-pressed factory and farm families in a state where annual incomes are among the lowest in the nation, got into politics to battle for corporate responsibility: After Atlantic Richfield shuttered the Anaconda smelter in 1980, she was elected to the legislature and helped pass a plant-closing notification law. Now, the three-term state superintendent of public instruction is running for Congress against a right-wing opponent on a platform that includes pledges to fight for labor-law reform, vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws against agribusiness monopolies and guarantees that farmers and workers "are not sacrificed at the altar of international trade relations." She says politics beats her old job--shoveling ore and wrangling buckets of boiling copper. "You wore an asbestos suit and counted on your workmate to beat out the flames when you occasionally caught on fire," recalls Keenan, who promises to fight to toughen workplace safety regulations (www.nancykeenan.com).
BRIAN SCHWEITZER, Montana, US Senate
Long before Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee read polls that told them prescription drug prices were a potent political issue, Brian Schweitzer, a peppermint farmer with no political experience, began loading senior citizens onto buses and driving them over the border to buy cheap drugs in Canada. The first-time candidate's political instincts proved so good, and so threatening to troglodyte conservative incumbent Conrad Burns, that a faked-up "citizens' group" funded by drug manufacturers began blanketing the state with anti-Schweitzer commercials. Schweitzer took the attacks as a badge of honor, while the Billings Gazette joked that anti-Schweitzer forces would have a hard time convincing Montana voters to fear him as a candidate "coming to strip us of our God-given right to be shafted by the pharmaceutical industry." After Burns voted against a proposal to place a moratorium on agribusiness mergers that harm Montana farmers, Schweitzer detailed Burns's $198,608 in contributions from agribusiness lobbyists. When he is not banging away at corporations, Schweitzer works to heal rifts between unions and environmentalists that Burns and other Western conservatives have fanned in order to divide progressive voters in states with depressed economies and threatened natural areas. "The debate over the past ten years has been jobs versus the environment," says Schweitzer. "The results are in, and it's clear that we're losing both" (www.brianschweitzer.com).
LANE EVANS, Illinois, District 17
Congress has no truer heir to the prairie populist tradition of the Midwest Progressive, Farmer-Labor and Non-Partisan League movements than Illinois's Lane Evans. In nine terms as the representative from a farm-and-factory district that hugs the Mississippi River, Evans has been one of the few members who consistently earn top ratings from the AFL-CIO and progressive groups. In a district where Republicans remain a powerful political force and where business groups pump thousands of dollars into the campaigns of his Republican challengers, Evans talks tough about corporate crime, wages lonely battles on behalf of family farmers and helps lead the fight against Wall Street's free-trade agenda. This year the GOP has made Evans a top target. The Congressman is suffering from Parkinson's disease, and while he is fully capable of performing his Congressional duties--which would include chairing the powerful Veterans' Affairs Committee if Democrats retake the House--his weakened condition has been the target of whispering campaigns and none-too-subtle jabs from Republican backers of his opponent, a former TV anchorman (www.laneevans.com, www.house.gov.evans).
ELEANOR JORDAN, Kentucky, District 3
With Eleanor Jordan in Congress, the House of Representatives would be a lot more representative. An African-American woman old enough to remember segregation days in the border state of Kentucky, a onetime teenage single parent who understands the challenge of meeting childcare and health bills, a neighborhood activist who got mad enough about legislative neglect to run for and win a seat in the General Assembly, she has lived the issues that most members of Congress only debate. Jordan, who directed a childcare center before her election, has emerged as one of the Kentucky House's most effective advocates for programs that aid children and working moms--winning a high-profile battle to prevent the gutting of the Kentucky childcare policy council. Now, Jordan is challenging incumbent Anne Northup, a conservative Republican who came to the House as a Newt Gingrich protégée and who has established one of the most reliably reactionary records in Congress. Jordan proudly identifies herself as an "outspoken advocate for women, working families, minorities, the poor and children." She says she's not proud of all the earlier choices she made in her life. "But they were choices I had to live with, and people get the benefit of your experience only if you tell them" (www.jordanforcongress.com).
BETTY McCOLLUM, Minnesota, District 4
Even before she won the Democratic Farmer Labor Party nod in a hard-fought, four-way primary to fill an open St. Paul-area seat, Betty McCollum had lined up support from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and other green groups that usually withhold endorsements until after nominations are settled. It wasn't that her foes were so bad but rather that McCollum was so good. She was a leader in the fight to secure funding for one of the first urban wetlands restoration projects in the country. And as a member of the Environmental Policy and Environmental Finance committees of the Minnesota House, she earned a national reputation for developing and advancing innovative legislation to combat air and water pollution, destruction of natural habitats, urban sprawl and environmental racism. McCollum, who continued to work as a clerk at a St. Paul department store during her years as a legislator, is outspoken in her support of living-wage initiatives, organizing rights for unions and protections for working women. Normally, her labor, feminist and environmentalist backing would be enough to secure victory in this liberal district. But McCollum faces a tough race against a former Democratic prosecutor running as the candidate of Governor Jesse Ventura's Independence Party and a well-funded conservative Republican state senator (www.mccollumforcongress.org).
MARYANNE CONNELLY, New Jersey, District 7
Abortion is supposed to be too "dangerous" an issue for candidates in close Congressional races to touch--especially Democratic candidates seeking to grab suburban seats previously held by conservative Republicans. But Maryanne Connelly is breaking the political rules, putting her support for abortion rights front and center in her campaign to win the New Jersey seat being vacated by Republican Senate candidate Bob Franks. "I believe every woman should have the right to choose.... It's no place for the government to be involved," says Connelly. Her tough talk did not endear her to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which endorsed her primary opponent, a more pliant pol backed by powerful political machines in the region. But Connelly's emphasis on women's rights, gun control and campaign finance reform gave her the edge in the primary. In her general-election campaign against a conservative Republican, Connelly continues to eschew compromise. A former police commissioner in her hometown of Fanwood, she is fiercely critical of the NRA, promising to fight to require that all handgun owners--"just like all automobile owners"--must register their guns, have a photo license and pass a safety test (www.connellyforcongress.com).
GERRIE SCHIPSKE, California, District 38
Gerrie Schipske wasn't supposed to be the Democratic nominee against moderate Republican incumbent Steve Horn for a Long Beach-area House seat. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insiders had groomed a young, not particularly political teacher--whose chief qualification appeared to be the fact that she had been featured on national television programs as an innovative educator--for the race to reclaim the historically Democratic seat. But Schipske, a nurse practioner, lawyer and healthcare policy consultant to the Service Employees International Union, won a primary upset with backing from labor and the district's large gay and lesbian community. Allies including Congressman Barney Frank have worked with labor and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to keep Schipske, who is openly lesbian, even with Horn in fundraising. She is in an uphill fight, but, says Frank, "She's serious, she's progressive, she's got a chance to be elected, and if she wins she will immediately be a leader in Congress on healthcare issues" (www.schipske4congress.org).
SUSAN BASS LEVIN, New Jersey, District 3
Susan Bass Levin, a first-time Congressional candidate who has served four terms as mayor of Cherry Hill, doesn't try to be all things to all voters. When the House voted to cut $32 million from the Clinton Administration's civil rights enforcement budget, she angrily condemned the move as an affront not just to minorities but to women, noting that "working families already lose more than $4,000 a year on average because women do not receive equal pay." The founder of a statewide fundraising network to elect pro-choice Democratic women, Levin has thrown a scare into GOP incumbent Jim Saxton. A relative moderate, Saxton for years cultivated links with labor--so much so that after he voted with labor against granting China permanent normal trade status, the state AFL-CIO executive board recommended that unions remain neutral in the Saxton-Levin race. Not a fan of neutrality, Levin sought a roll-call of unions. She won the endorsement by a 4-to-1 ratio, capitalizing on her years of work with local unions to promote pay equity, minimum-wage increases and expansion of worker health and safety programs. "I'm an activist," says Levin. "That's why I signed on to being an elected official" (www.levinforcongress.org).
MIKE KELLEHER, Illinois, District 15
If first-time candidate Mike Kelleher wins an upset victory in his race for an open Congressional seat, it will be on the strength of a paper clip. His better-known and better-funded opponent, Tim Johnson, is a veteran GOP legislator who should be coasting to victory in a rural district with a long history of sending conservative Republicans to Congress. But Johnson got caught using a paper clip to hold in place the button that recorded his legislative votes, making it possible to appear to be present when he was absent. Kelleher, an Illinois State University professor originally regarded as a sacrificial lamb, has juxtaposed Johnson's slacker service against the work ethic of the farmers, factory hands and smalltown shopkeepers who form the core of the district's electorate. Kelleher is airing commercials that feature a construction worker trying to paper-clip shut his lunchbox, and he's launched a www/timspaperclip.com website. He backs up his populist appeal with attacks on HMOs, drug companies and paper-clip pushing Republicans (www.kelleher2000.com).
DAVID WU, Oregon, District 1
Few members of Congress were better positioned to stamp their return ticket to the House with a single vote than David Wu. The first-term Democrat from Oregon represents an international-trade-reliant West Coast district where the politically powerful business community was chomping at the bit to capitalize on "free trade" with China. But Wu, the first person of full Chinese ancestry ever elected to Congress, chose his commitment to international human rights over the easy route to re-election; he voted against the permanent normal trade relations bill, which brought to an end annual Congressional review of China's human rights record. Wu was one of only a handful of West Coast Democrats to do so. Retribution was swift. High-tech corporations in his Portland-area district--a region known as the Silicon Forest--began pouring money into the campaign of Wu's challenger, right-wing Republican State Senator Charles Starr. Wu is standing firm, telling reporters, "If the voters of Oregon decide to send me home for [the PNTR vote], I'll have to live with that. But I'd rather turn my back on the office than turn my back on my principles" (www.wuforcongress.com, http://www.house.gov/wu).
MARYELLEN O'SHAUGHNESSY, Ohio, District 12
In a Columbus district where a quarter of the population is African-American, City Councilor Maryellen O'Shaughnessy is working to build a multiracial coalition by positioning herself as a contender who won't lose sight of the need to strengthen the federal commitment to education, healthcare and senior programs. "I know how hard it is to make ends meet," says O'Shaughnessy, who put herself through college working night jobs and in recent years struggled to care for her ill mother. Running in a GOP-leaning district against a state representative who has received maximum backing from retiring conservative icon John Kasich and national Republicans, O'Shaughnessy has driven her opponent to distraction by expressing a mother's horror at his legislative votes against programs designed to protect low-income children from lead poisoning. "This woman deserves to win," says Representative John Conyers, who campaigned in Columbus for O'Shaughnessy. And, he adds, "I'm convinced that if she wins, Democrats retake the House" (www.meos2000.org).
I'm surprised at how many otherwise thoughtful people seem convinced that this election "makes no difference." In my very first Nation column, I quoted Justice Antonin Scalia, who, during a 1997 visit to Columbia Law School, stated publicly that if Brown v. Board of Education came to him as a case of first impression, he would vote against the majority. Most of the federal judiciary are Reagan/Bush appointees. There are an unprecedented number of judicial openings right now because of the unprecedented blocking of Clinton appointees maneuvered by the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee. A sense of urgency thus prompted me to cull an unscientific sampling of lawyers, writers and human rights activists--all of whom feel that this is an important election in which to make one's voice heard.
Charles Ogletree Jr., professor, Harvard Law School: "The most important election in recent memory will occur on November 7, 2000. George W. Bush, who favors Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and Al Gore, who favors someone in the mold of Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, have radically different views of the next Supreme Court appointments. With Roe v. Wade, affirmative action and majority-minority districts at stake, there is no graver choice facing the nation than a progressive Gore Court or a reactionary Bush Court."
Reva Siegel, professor, Yale Law School: "Last term, the Court invalidated provisions of two different civil rights laws, holding that Congress lacked power to enact the antidiscrimination statutes--something the Court has not done since the nineteenth century. After these rulings, it is no longer clear how statutes like the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act can be enforced against state employers, or what kind of hate crimes legislation the Congress can enact. But more is at stake than the particular provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Violence Against Women Act, which the Court struck down last term, or the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which the Court is considering this term. The question is whether the Court continues to recognize and respect the federal government's power to prohibit discrimination as that power has been exercised by Congress in the decades since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Richard Matasar, dean, New York Law School: "Judicial appointment is the stealth issue of every national election. While abortion and crime occupy the attention of the press, the judiciary can also carry on a quiet revolution in its allocation of authority between state and federal government. The Republican judiciary has already significantly shifted the distribution of power between governments; this election can break or solidify that shift."
Maivan Clech Lam, professor, City University of New York Law School at Queens College: "The Supreme Court's rulings on state and federal power are very likely in the next years to determine issues of sovereignty important to indigenous Hawaiians and possibly all tribes in general."
Bob Wing, editor, ColorLines: "The prospect of an entrenched reactionary Supreme Court majority is awful.... However, I wish that I was more confident that Al Gore, who is associated with the Democratic Leadership Council's center-right wing of the Democratic Party, would reverse that trend."
Peter Gabel, president, New College School of Law: "I'm not sharply critical of those who want to vote for Gore to protect the Court, but I do think they overestimate the Court's role as an active progressive power and fail to see its essential commitment to maintaining a center (whether center-right or center-left). It is movements in society that motivate the Court to move. A real left needs to do the opposite of defending the empty center, which is perpetually self-erasing and actually blocks the development of a progressive movement. Instead, we must try to emerge into public visibility--visibility to one another!--by voting for Ralph Nader."
Jill Nelson, writer: "I've been thinking that it's the height of the ever-growing class-based disconnect in this society for people who consider themselves left or progressive or liberal to run the 'I'm going to vote for Nader because there's no difference between Gore and Bush.' Rest assured, I'm not happy with any of 'em, but I'm very clear about the importance of Supreme Court appointments and for that reason will vote for the lesser evil, which is the real, disappointing, difficult nature, it seems, of democracy as we know it. The alternative is for me to delude myself that an abstract notion of principle trumps class privilege, which it doesn't. Sure, no matter who's on the Court, me and mine can have abortions and hire top attorneys and otherwise have the possibility of buying ourselves out of whatever mess we're in, but that's not enough. For me, democracy is fundamentally about community, and to paraphrase Reagan in that movie, what about the rest of us?"
Sydelle Pittas, attorney: "In the course of work on a television series I produced for the Women's Bar Association on 'Your Legal Rights,' I interviewed almost all of Massachusetts' sitting federal judges. From them I learned a few things that showed me how important it is to have Justices who understand the experiences of real women. Justices are human beings, and while they are impressive in how mightily they strive to find the law rather than make it, how they make those findings necessarily comes from their own understanding, based at least in some part on their experience."
Bill Ong Hing, professor of Law and Asian-American Studies, University of California, Davis: "People of color and other traditionally subordinated groups have few institutions upon which they can rely. Their skepticism of the judicial system's desire to respond to their plight has reached a new high point, as the Court molded by Nixon-Ford-Reagan-Bush (Carter made no appointments) has come to dominate the nation's jurisprudence.... Whether and to what extent, if any, the Supreme Court serves as an agent or ally of social change is debatable. But a progressive voice of a Supreme Court majority--open to the views and experiences of those who have been marginalized--would foster a culture (and hope) for change in other mainstream institutions."
As Bush and Gore battle for the Northwest, Nader's power grows.
Little ventured, little gained--the first Gore-Bush debate featured both
candidates at their usual. No breakouts, no bold thrusts. The face-off
reflected the narrow parameters of the campaign, with Al Gore and George
W. Bush jabbing at each other on a small number of poll-tested fronts--a
drug prescription plan for the elderly, Social Security and education.
(There was, for example, no discussion of trade-related matters or how
to provide healthcare to uninsured adults and children.) Prior to the
much-hyped event, blacked out by Fox and NBC (the latter eventually said
local affiliates could show it), the bearers of conventional wisdom had
decided Gore's task was to show he was more likable than his caricature
and Bush's challenge was to persuade undecided voters he was more
presidential (read: not dumb) than his late-night-talk-show image.
Ninety minutes of back-and-forth demonstrated that neither could easily
recast himself, which is, ultimately, somewhat reassuring. A smuggish
Gore was trying too hard to show he's smart as a whip; an edgy Bush was
trying too hard to prove he's not a lightweight. It wasn't pretty to
When the debate ended, it was hard to tell if it had mattered. Each
contestant had, with limited eloquence, played familiar refrains. Gore
offered a Clinton-like New/Old Democrat mix: Balance the budget, pay
down the debt, protect Medicare and Social Security, cut taxes for some
middle-class families, protect children against "cultural pollution,"
invest in the environment. Bush, who had earlier branded himself "a
different kind of Republican," dished out his own New/Old Republican
stew. He led with a GOP classic, his tax cut for all ("I'm not going to
be a pick-and-chooser"). He pushed his plan to privatize part of Social
Security and blasted Gore for being an inside-the-Beltway,
big-government liberal eager to unleash 20,000 new bureaucrats on the
citizenry. Then Bush championed his own education and drug prescription
proposals and soft-pedaled his antiabortion stand.
Gore boasted that his economic plan devotes more of the coming surpluses
to the military than Bush's budget. Bush spent more time discussing
Medicare than any previous GOP presidential candidate. In the Clinton
era, both parties engage in political copyright infringement. On
points--as they say--Gore probably won. The semi-sanctimonious
know-it-all effectively attacked Bush's various proposals, noting
repeatedly that Bush's tax cut benefits the well-to-do. Bush hardly
soared when discussing foreign policy, national security and how to
handle a financial crisis. (Get me Greenspan!) Yet a less-smirkful Bush
spoke in complete sentences and avoided the worst Bushisms. (He did say
of Social Security, "I want you to have your own assets that you can
call your own.") Those predisposed to either could find reasons to stick
with their man; those caught in between or disgusted with both were
still out of luck.
This debate could have been boiled down to ten minutes apiece of yada
yada yada talking points. Still, a thousand journalists had assembled in
the hockey rink adjacent to the Nader- and Buchanan-free debate hall at
University of Massachusetts, Boston. And they had to be fed.
Anheuser-Busch, one of the corporate sponsors of the Commission on
Presidential Debates, did so liberally, serving up free food, free beer
and Foosball to the scribes in a hospitality tent that contained
multiple Budweiser signs and a display trumpeting the company's
community programs--not its lobbying campaign against lowering the DWI
threshold. And dozens of pols and spinners were present to feed the
journalists quotes. Before the debate, Bush and Gore campaign surrogates
(George Pataki for the Republicans and Robert Reich for the Democrats,
among others) promenaded through the media center dropping predictable
lines. At the same time, several dozen Ralph Nader supporters, who were
protesting his exclusion from the debates at the entrance to the school,
were engaged in a near-tussle with some of the hundreds of union workers
who had been bused in to wave Gore signs. The Naderites shouted, "A vote
for Gore is a vote for Bush! Gore is antiunion, and you're blind! We're
fighting for higher wages and for you!" The union members replied,
"Freaks, freaks! Get a job! I'm making twenty-six dollars an hour, and
that's pretty damn good!"
Ten minutes before the debate concluded with Gore's vow to fight the
"powerful forces"--did he mean the sponsors of the debate, like Ford,
which sells SUVs with exploding tires?--the true spin parade began. The
big-shot campaign aides and surrogates, accompanied by escorts holding
banners bearing their names, filed into the media hall to declare (in
soundbites) their candidate the winner. This was what reporters refer to
as "spin alley," but it was more of a sluice pit. Gore campaign chairman
William Daley maintained that the Vice President's performance had been
"solid." Republican Representative Jennifer Dunn asserted that Bush "got
to the peak of his performance when talking about tax policy." Clinton
economic adviser Gene Sperling handed out copies of Bush's Medicare plan
to prove that, yes, Gore was correct when he stated that Bush's proposal
does not cover all seniors immediately. Bush überstrategist
Karl Rove hissed at Gore for being "condescending" and used "in command"
repeatedly to describe Bush's performance. And in the swarm, J.C. Watts
Jr., Alexis Herman, Donna Brazile, John Engler, Karen Hughes,
Condoleezza Rice, Judd Gregg, Harold Ford Jr., Kate Michelman and others
twisted the night away, spinning for about as long as the debate had
run. In this mob, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that the next
debate's format--candidates seated at a table rather than standing
behind podiums--would present a more favorable setting for Bush. And,
Fleischer added, he sure was looking forward to that. The question is,
after this debate, How many other Americans are? David Corn
Democrats weren't the only ones who benefited from knowing wealthy Asians.
Neoconservatives are serial grave-robbers. Back in the early eighties, Norman Podhoretz tried to claim both Ronald Reagan and George Orwell as part of his meshuggeneh mishpocheh. Now, say what you will about the dimwitted defender of right-wing terrorism and the scrupulously honest symbol of the Anglo-American democratic left, they do not belong in the same political movement. Honest admirers of both men pointed out the fallacy in this transparent tactic, but two decades later, no cure has been found. Last seen in the neocons' trunk leaving the literary graveyard were the intellectual remains of the liberals' liberal, the critic Lionel Trilling.
Trilling never uttered so much as a sympathetic syllable about the neocon/Reaganite worldview to which his would-be inheritors became so attached after his death in 1975. Yet there he was, sitting atop a pyramid of Reagan-worshipers--people whose politics he never endorsed and whose style of argument he abhorred--in a chart accompanying a Sam Tanenhaus-authored encomium to the neocons in the New York Times a few Saturdays ago. The trick with Trilling is really no different from that with the refashioned Orwell. (Ironically, as John Rodden notes in his 1989 study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, it was Trilling's introduction to a 1952 reissue of Homage to Catalonia that was almost singularly responsible for securing the writer's reputation in the United States as a kind of secular saint.) Both men wrote witheringly of those intellectuals who gave their hearts and minds over to Stalinism, prescribing tough-minded scrutiny in the face of emotional appeals. In a foreword to a 1974 edition of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling pointed out that his early essays were inspired by "a particular political-cultural situation" he identified as "the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism." With Trilling safely unable to respond, the neocons twist these words in order to apply them to liberalism itself.
Podhoretz has long been critical of his ex-teacher for what he termed his "failure of nerve" that was part of "an epidemic of cowardice" he detected in anyone who failed to agree with him. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Nathan Glick notes that "besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor," these claims "have the scent of ideological self-serving. They come with particular ill grace from a writer who treats his own seven-year flirtation with the New Left as not only easily forgivable but also proof of his editorial flair for riding the tide of political fashion." In fact, as Glick points out, Trilling viewed liberalism as "a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." Nothing, however, could be further from the neoconservatives' creed--one that has served, in the view of Leon Wieseltier, editor of a generous new collection of Trilling essays called The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, as "the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals." By inventing a genealogy that goes back to Trilling, Wieseltier notes, "They enhance their intellectual self-esteem. They have this view that everyone to the right of the left is Neoconservative, or a Neoconservative who dares not speak its name."
In fact, the critics of the counterculture whose writings have held up best during the past thirty years are those who never gave themselves over to the neocon temptation--who never became apologists for Reagan and Bush, much less Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Liberal and socialist anticommunists like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin and Garry Wills led a relatively lonely intellectual life in the eighties, as Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Elliott Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick were all toasting themselves at the Reagan White House. But contrary to Tanenhaus's apologia, it is their works--together with Updike's Rabbit and Roth's Zuckerman extravaganzas--to which historians will one day turn to comprehend the combination of ignorant arrogance and small-minded self-delusion that captured both American extremes in the final decades of the twentieth century.
Another oddity of Tanenhaus's article was the news that the forever-ricocheting Michael Lind, who mimicked Podhoretz recently with his own McCarthyite tract on the Vietnam era, is writing a manifesto to try to revive the neoconservative creed he once savaged. His co-author is Ted Halstead, president of the New America Foundation. Here history repeats itself as farce. First-generation neocons hijacked liberal institutions like Commentary and Partisan Review (and, sadly, much of The New Republic) and gave them over to conservative purposes. Halstead's organization (with which I was briefly associated) now takes precious funds from progressive donors and redistributes them to the likes of the right-wing Lind and the conservative, isolationist, foreign-policy writer Robert Kaplan. Halstead has even boasted of trying to hire George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. "Fool me once, and shame on you," explained the sage engineer of the Star Ship Enterprise, Mr. Scott. "Fool me twice, and shame on me."
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Babs in Toyland: The famously sensitive liberal icon Barbra Streisand recently played the first in a long series of "farewell performances" in New York and LA, gouging fans to the tune of $2,500 per ticket. The worthy cause? Another twenty million or so for the greater glory of Barbra Streisand Inc. Streisand herself destroyed the political economy of concert-going in the mid-nineties by charging in the hundreds for tickets. Today the Eagles and Billy Joel jack up prices to $1,000 apiece. The Stones routinely charge $350; the Who, $250. Both bands were a hell of a lot better in the pre-Streisandified seventies, when I saw them for about two-weeks' allowance. Yes, I know, markets, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. But could we please put an end to the deification of multimillionaire rock stars who shake down their own fans? (Rock critics rarely make this point, because they get free tickets.)
What an odd presidential race! So long as George W. Bush keeps his mouth shut and remains in seclusion he floats up in the polls. His best strategy would be to bag the debates, take Laura on an extended vacation and come back a couple of days before the election. Meanwhile, Gore reinvents himself on an almost daily basis. Nothing has been more comical than his "populist" posturings about the Republicans being the ticket of Big Oil and himself and Lieberman being the champions of the little people.
This is the man whose education and Tennessee homestead came to him in part via the patronage of Armand Hammer, one of the great oil bandits of the twentieth century, in whose Occidental oil company the Gore family still has investments valued between $500,000 and $1 million.
At the LA convention the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was on the 42nd floor of the Arco building, and the symbolism was apt. In 1992 Arco (recently merged with BP Amoco) loaned the Clinton/Gore inaugural committee $100,000. In that same year it gave the DNC $268,000. In the 1993-94 election cycle it gave the DNC $274,000. In the 1995-96 cycle it ponied up $496,000 and has kept up the same tempo ever since.
Was there a quid for the quo? You bet there was. Early in Clinton-time, the President overturned the longstanding ban on the export of Alaskan crude oil. Why that ban? When Congress OK'd the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the seventies, the legislation triumphed by a single vote only after solemn pledges were made that the North Slope oil would always be reserved for domestic markets, available to hold prices down. Congress had on its mind precisely such emergencies as this year's hike in prices and consequent suffering of poor people, soon to be trembling with cold for lack of cheap home-heating oil.
With the help of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Arco was also, at the start of the Clinton era, in the process of building refineries in China. Hence Clinton's overturn of the export ban was an immense boon to the company, whose CEO at the time, Lodwrick Cook, was given a White House birthday party in 1994. The birthday presents to the favorite oil company of the Clinton/Gore era have continued ever since.
While the Democrats and mainstream Greens fulminate about Bush and Cheney's threat to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nary a word has been mentioned about one of the biggest giveaways in the nation's history, the opening of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Back at the start of the nineties Arco's Prudhoe Bay reserves on Alaska's North Slope were dwindling. Now Arco will be foremost among the oil companies exploiting a potential $36 billion worth of crude oil.
Gore's "populism" is comical, yet one more facet of a larger mendacity. What suppressed psychic tumult drives him to those stretchers that litter his career, the lies large and small about his life and achievements? You'd think that a man exposed to as much public derision as was Gore after claiming he and Tipper were the model for the couple in Love Story, or after saying he'd invented the Internet, would by now be more prudent in his vauntings. But no. Just as a klepto's fingers inevitably stray toward the cash register, so too does Gore persist in his fabrications.
Recently he's claimed to have been at the center of the action when the strategic oil reserve, in Texas and Louisiana, was established. In fact, the reserve's tanks were filling in 1977, when Gore was barely in Congress, a very junior member of the relevant energy committee. The legislation creating the reserve had been passed in 1975. At around the same time as this pretense, the VP claimed to have heard his mother crooning "Look for the union label" over his cradle. It rapidly emerged that this jingle was made up by an ad man in the seventies, when Al was in his late 20s.
As a clue to why Al misremembers and exaggerates, the lullaby story has its relevance as a sad little essay in wish fulfillment. Gore's mother, Pauline, was a tough character, far more interested in advancing Albert Sr.'s career than in warbling over Gore's cot. Both parents were demanding. Gore is brittle, often the mark of the overly well-behaved, perfect child. Who can forget the panicked performance when his image of moral rectitude shattered at the impact of the fundraising scandals associated with the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles?
"He was an easy child; he always wanted to please us," Pauline once said of him. The child's desire to please, to get the attention of often-absent parents, is probably what sparked Gore's penchant for tall tales about himself.
Gore's official CV is sprinkled with "epiphanies" and claims to having achieved a higher level of moral awareness. In interviews, in his book Earth in the Balance and, famously, in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, Gore has shamelessly milked the accident in which his 6-year-old son was badly hurt after being struck by a car. Gore described how, amid his anguish beside the boy's hospital bed, he peered into his own soul and reproached himself for being an absentee dad. He narrated his entry into family therapy. But Tipper and the children didn't see more of him as a consequence. Despite that dark night of the soul beside Al III's bed, Gore plunged even deeper into Senate business and spent his hours of leisure away from the family, writing Earth in the Balance while holed up in his parents' old penthouse in the Fairfax Hotel. Soon after, he accepted Clinton's invitation to run for Vice President.
Gore's a fibber through and through, just like Bill. A sad experience in the closing weeks of the campaign is to encounter liberals desperately trying delude themselves that there is some political decency or promise in the Democratic ticket. There isn't. Why talk about the lesser of two evils, when Gore is easily as bad as Bush and in many ways worse? The "lesser of two evils" is by definition a matter of restricted choice, like a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine. But in this election there are other choices, starting with Nader and the Greens. It isn't just a matter of facing seawater or piss.
It has become fashionable of late to deny the relative importance of politics, on the one hand, and the fact of any important differences between Democrats and Republicans, on the other. Elections, therefore, are said to be merely another form of entertainment--on a par with, say, professional wrestling, but only marginally more consequential. ("Show business for ugly people" is the common phrase, cited recently by Dee Dee Meyers in the Washington Post.) This is not to say that people do not recognize the reality of conflicts between the two sides. But these are sliced and diced almost exclusively in terms of personality rather than genuine political difference. The result is that the only election events that engage the masses--primarily conventions and debates--are reviewed in the media no differently than if they were opening-night performances on Broadway. (Pay attention to the commentary following the upcoming Bush/Gore debates. Just for fun, count how many times network and print pundits talk about each candidate's "comfort level" and style of presentation compared with the number of times they attempt to delineate a significant substantive disagreement.)
Still, one can hardly deny the truth of many of the assumptions that underlie these twin notions. Much of what pretends to be "politics" today is undertaken exclusively for show. Politicians lie, posture and pretend to care about things in public they happily give away in private. They always have, of course, but the rise of cable TV and the subsequent explosion of the punditocracy leads them to embrace show-business production values that leave less and less public space for genuine discourse and debate. Moreover, owing to the legalized system of bribery that has sprung up, thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions that equate spending with free speech, the Democrats are only slightly less beholden to multinational corporations than are the Republicans. Throw in the triangulating tendencies of the Clinton/Gore Administration--the self-conscious and ultimately successful strategy of eliminating your side's political weakness by adopting portions of the other side's positions--and you have what looks to be a pretty convincing case for despair. Who cares who wins a presidential election between two nearly identical candidates to govern a system that has ceased to matter except to all but a few crazies who watch cable TV 24/7?
For many on the left, the response to this quandary has been to support Ralph Nader's protest candidacy. He has no hope of winning, of course, but a vote for Nader is at least a vote for an honest man of progressive principle. Should these votes throw the election to Bush rather than Gore, well, tough luck. It would serve the Democrats right. And anyway, who cares? "The White House," as Nader says, "is a corporate prison." It hardly makes any difference who the prisoner is.
The problem with this perspective is that it views the political forest at so great a distance that it misses almost every one of its proverbial trees. While both major candidates use much the same rhetoric to offer feel-good appeals to centrist and undecided voters, beneath this veneer lie important political and philosophical distinctions with crucial implications for social, economic, environmental and even foreign policy. Examined carefully, the similarities between the two political parties do not hold a candle to their deep-seated differences. And because of the remarkable power of the office of the presidency, these differences in politics and philosophy have the potential to affect our society--particularly the most vulnerable among us--in matters that just about all of us would consider critical, if we only paused long enough to consider them.
An examination of the Clinton record illustrates the fallacy of the "pox on both their houses" worldview. As President, Bill Clinton has done more to deflate the postimperial status of his office--and blur the differences between himself and his opponents--than any President in the past century. Yet he has still been able to use his constitutional powers to catalyze broad changes in our society and to prevent others from taking place.
Consider the President's veto power. Had Clinton lost in 1992 or 1996, today the following would most likely be the law of the land:
§ the abolition of all taxes on estates larger than $675,000.
§ the reform of our bankruptcy laws to the detriment of the poor and middle classes on behalf of their corporate creditors.
§ the outlawing of so-called "partial birth" abortions.
§ a Tom DeLay-sponsored moratorium on all new government regulations, particularly those enforcing clean air, clean water and the rights of both union and nonunion workers.
§ an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act encouraging corporations to bypass collective bargaining in favor of so-called "labor-management cooperative efforts."
§ a bill restricting the Secretary of the Interior's power to protect environmentally sensitive land, including wetlands and other fragile ecosystems, from destruction by private commercial interests.
§ a $270 billion cut in Medicare funding, coupled with a $240 billion tax windfall to be enjoyed almost exclusively by the wealthiest Americans.
Despite the various constitutional restrictions on his power, a US President retains an awesome ability to make things happen just by saying so. The constitutional mechanism for this is the executive order, and historically, these actions have been known to transform millions of people's lives with a stroke of the presidential pen. FDR all but saved the pre-Pearl Harbor British war effort against the Nazis with his "Destroyer Deal," and Harry Truman desegregated the military virtually overnight, both on their own say-so, alone. Following the Freedom Rides in 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, acting for his brother, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate all facilities, including bus terminals, railroad stations and airports, instituting federal lawsuits when localities resisted. Bill Clinton outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians seeking security clearances--something all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower refused to do. (As a result, "if you are a lesbian, you are no longer automatically a spy," notes Barney Frank, in a piece of good news for Mary Cheney.) Clinton also acted unilaterally to protect millions of acres of federal land from development. Just this year, he created the Grand Canyon-Parashant, Giant Sequoia, Agua Fria and California Coastal national monuments. He is expected to ban new road construction on approximately 40 million acres, roughly a fifth of all of the Forest Service's 192 million acres.
On the other side of the ledger, a President can also cause immeasurable harm purely on his own authority. Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam on the basis of an executive order, though he augmented it with the dishonestly obtained Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Ronald Reagan signed executive orders that sold public lands to private industry, allowed increased CIA spying on citizens, expanded the government's censorship and secrecy powers over its employees, instituted random drug-testing for all federal employees, reprogrammed foreign aid to send it to the murderous government of El Salvador and created a new government office for the express purpose of making an end run around Congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
Then there are the courts [see last week's special issue of The Nation, "The Supreme Court and the Election"]. The President nominates not only Supreme Court judges whenever a vacancy arises but also every one of the 852 judges on the federal bench. Few, if any, of the 374 judges Clinton has appointed have been cutting-edge, left-of-center scholars, but just about all of them are well to the left of the reactionary bunch nominated by Presidents Reagan and Bush. I don't like to judge the world this way myself, but since a lot of people do, here are some relevant numbers: 48 percent of Clinton's judicial nominees have been women or minorities, compared with just 28 percent for Bush and a mere 14 percent for Reagan. And Clinton's Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg--whom the University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein calls "the Thurgood Marshall of feminism"--and Stephen Breyer, have been on the progressive side of virtually every Court decision since their appointments.
The President also makes as many as 3,000 political appointments to the federal government, not including temporary appointments. More often than not, Bill Clinton's political appointments have been as safe and mainstream as those for the courts. He has ducked innumerable fights, most egregiously after he appointed his friend, voting-rights pioneer Lani Guinier, to the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Even so, the Administration included any number of leading progressives in positions of genuine power and influence, and these people have been able to use these positions to increase the degree of social justice under which millions of Americans live their lives. Such appointments are important in ways that never make the nightly news reports and hence slip under the radar of all but the most politically obsessed. For instance, Robert Reich told me that during his four-year term as Labor Secretary, he issued hundreds if not thousands of rules on how to implement laws and was generally given considerable discretion in how he chose to do so. Reich was able, on his own authority, to force employers to make their pension-fund contributions within forty-five days, he recalls, "as many had been using them as revolving credit funds." Under Reich, the department also cracked down on sweatshops, and through OSHA, on unsafe plants where workers had been getting their arms mangled and their heads crushed. While Reich lost the main battle to Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin to wage an Administration-led crusade against corporate welfare, he succeeded in opening up the discussion and hence in encouraging progressive groups to challenge corporate giveaways, sometimes successfully. Reich's replacement, Alexis Herman, is one of the most progressive members of the current Administration. Like Reich, she has made behind-the-scenes efforts and frequently consulted with John Sweeney in ways that have helped give unions the time and tools they need to start winning strikes again. Suffice it to say that insuring a fair fight for labor unions on strike was not high on the agenda of past Republican administrations.
Even the President's purely symbolic acts can have powerful, though hardly obvious, effects on the life of the nation. While his commission on race may be fairly judged a failure, for instance, Clinton's willingness to confront the issue of affirmative action head-on in his speeches and town meetings almost certainly saved the program--no longer is it the far right's favorite target for whipping up social resentment against liberals, minorities and other alleged deviants. His choice of Jesse Jackson as a special envoy to Africa and as an adviser on many domestic issues has also had meaningful if unmeasurable effects on the cause of racial inclusion. And the Clinton/Gore embrace of the gay community has created massive ripples in what were, until recently, stagnant waters. Ronald Reagan, perhaps the twentieth century's most effective hypocrite, privately invited gay men to sleep together under the White House roof, yet it took him 2,258 days in office to utter the word "AIDS" in public. In welcoming gays and lesbians at the White House with open arms, Clinton advanced their acceptance into mainstream society to a degree that was unthinkable when he was first elected. The openly gay financial writer Andrew Tobias, national treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, calls gays and lesbians "an explicit part of the Democratic vision, a welcome member of the team." And surely it makes a difference in the character and flavor of our public life that the President has picked progressive heroes like John Kenneth Galbraith and George McGovern for the nation's highest official honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Recent Republican choices have included Milton Friedman and Whittaker Chambers.
Finally, the cliché that "the President proposes and Congress disposes" is dead-on, although it underestimates the office's power of persuasion. Some members of Congress may not like the Microsoft antitrust suit, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. And they may resist re-raising the federal minimum wage or doubling the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers, but they must deal with these issues if a President insists on raising them. Under Reagan and Bush, these proposals languished. Under Clinton, the GOP Congress has been forced to act repeatedly--against the wishes of its own constituency--to help increase the purchasing power of the working poor.
Though he appears to have modified his views in recent weeks, Ralph Nader has spent much of the year traversing the country, insisting that the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush is nothing more than a pick between "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Unfortunately, on a number of key issues, Nader has a strong argument. Gore, like Clinton, is first and foremost a pragmatic politician who will betray progressive hopes whenever it suits his larger purposes. The corporate-friendly Vice President has been nowhere near as strong as he claims on environmental issues. ("On the issue of the environment, I've never given up. I've never backed down, and I never will," he lies.) Like Clinton, Gore will continue to back wasteful increases in military spending and the expansion of the failed bipartisan drug war in Colombia. On civil liberties, he will most likely prove just as insensitive, sacrificing important privacy rights to fight exaggerated threats from terrorism and drug trafficking. On trade and globalization issues, a Democratic President can turn out to be even worse than a Republican one. A Democrat carries sufficient clout to pass most agreements against both public opinion and the public interest but lacks the power to force Republicans to accept the kinds of restrictions that genuinely protect the environment and workers' rights. The result in the Clinton presidency has been a series of business-dictated agreements that make it easier for corporations to pursue beggar-thy-neighbor policies. A Democratic defeat might--emphasis on the word "might"--result in a more unified opposition party that would successfully demand powerful protections for workers and communities as the price of expanding free trade and investment agreements.
If the trade/globalization issue were the Vietnam War or World War II, it would be easier to argue that dumping the Democrats is a risk worth taking. As important as trade policy is, however, it remains an uncomfortable stretch to insist that it somehow trumps everything else put together. For while Al Gore, like Bill Clinton, is certain to disappoint anyone naïve enough to believe that he will always "fight for the people against the powerful," as he continually promises, the policies of his presidency would be preferable to Bush's in almost every conceivable way. The Texas governor has sought to minimize the two candidates' political differences by giving his conservatism what he terms "a compassionate face." But the unhappy fact is that, despite his rhetoric, Bush, together with Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Trent Lott, is the de facto leader of a party and a movement that seeks to reverse decades of social progress as it simultaneously emasculates the federal government's ability to defend the interests of its poor and middle-class citizens. He could not oppose these policies and maintain his power base even if he wanted to--and there is no evidence that he does.
Even on issues where Gore's record is at its weakest, the potential costs of a Bush presidency are enormous. Take campaign finance. We all know of Gore's many transgressions in the mad chase for corporate dollars in the 1996 campaign. His foolishly legalistic "no controlling legal authority" explanations for his unseemly actions have made him something of a national joke on the subject. But owing to this very embarrassment, Gore now professes to have been reborn on this issue. He wants to ban soft money, force outside groups to disclose what issue advertisements they have bought before an election and require broadcasters to give candidates free airtime to answer those outside ads. Gore promises that the McCain/Feingold reform bill, consistently filibustered by Senate Republicans, will be the first law he sends to Congress as President.
Now, even if Gore succeeds in forcing the next Congress to pass McCain/Feingold--an enormous "if"--he is still clearly not willing to go far enough. Until this country institutes a system of public finance like the one currently in operation in Maine, corporations will continue to use their financial power to strangle any number of badly needed reforms. But any way one views the problem, Bush is almost certain to be worse. He opposed John McCain's plan during the Republican primaries because, he explained, the current system works to Republican advantage. Why give it up? Even Bush is not that stupid. As of last spring, business was outspending labor 15 to 1 in this election cycle. Should the Republicans win, that will be the end of campaign finance reform for another four years.
Another area where Gore and company look like Republicans from afar is on foreign policy. A New Democrat through and through, Gore (together with Joe Lieberman) has been on the hawkish side of virtually every intra-Democratic Party argument. Like his gutless boss, but without the excuse of being a "draft dodger," he supports the showering of the military with mountains of unneeded funds as well as a truly idiotic missile defense program that can only do untold harm to the nation's security along with its budget. Gore favors the immoral starvation policies directed at the Cuban and Iraqi people, and the further militarization of our ruinous drug policies, here and in Colombia. Too bad, therefore, that on every one of these issues, Bush is considerably worse.
An almost total novice (and frequent nitwit) when it comes to foreign affairs, Bush is dependent on his father's national security advisers, including Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and Condoleeza Rice. All remain intellectually imprisoned inside a manichean cold war paradigm that was already out of date when they first came into power in the early eighties. Bush's team believes in an aggressive US foreign policy backed by a strong military, but it couldn't care less about promoting human rights, labor rights or environmental protection. (Dick Cheney's vote against freedom for Nelson Mandela is entirely consistent with this worldview.) Bush's advisers do not understand, much less embrace, the emerging view of foreign policy professionals that issues like the depletion of the ozone layer, Third World debt reduction, the global AIDS epidemic, increasing depopulation of ocean fisheries and biochemical threats to the world's agriculture qualify as foreign policy issues. "Global social work" is what Armitage calls these causes. Though not as isolationist-minded as the GOP Congress, this crew has little more use for the United Nations than does Jesse Helms. What's more, in Cheney, Bush has signed off on a politician who publicly endorsed the thuggish extraconstitutional adventurism undertaken by Oliver North during the Iran/contra scandal.
On missile defense, perhaps Gore's most appalling cave-in to right-wing hysteria, the Vice President cravenly favors "developing the technology for a national missile defense system to protect against ballistic-missile attacks from rogue states." But Bush says he would deploy a much more extensive defense right away, whether it works or not. ("Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people," he told the GOP convention.) As former Reagan Pentagon official Larry Korb has observed, "With President Gore, it would be very limited, and it would go a long way toward accommodating the Russian desires. Bush is willing to do the whole nine yards," and damn the consequences for the budget, the ABM treaty, the arms race and US relations with allies and potential adversaries.
On most issues, the differences are even more pronounced. Take the question of the courts. Critics of the Democrats often point out that some of the more liberal Justices on the Supreme Court have historically been appointed by Republicans. That would be comforting if Gore were running against Dwight Eisenhower or Gerald Ford. George W. Bush's judicial heroes, however, are not Earl Warren or John Paul Stevens. They are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and there is no reason to think his appointments would be any less reactionary. The conservatives currently enjoy a 5-to-4 majority on most decisions and have been winning their arguments by a single vote in recent years to an unprecedented degree. Because the next President is likely to pick at least two and possibly three new Justices, this slim conservative majority will become a decades-long right-wing hegemony should Bush win the election. The "strict constructionists" favored by Bush would most likely overturn Roe v. Wade and destroy women's right to a safe and legal abortion. (The Constitution does not mention abortion, after all.) They would strike down federal protections against discrimination for disabled people, for people of varying sexual orientation and for people benefiting from almost any form of affirmative action. Privacy rights would also be considerably truncated, while the rights of corporate and commercial speech would be expanded--thereby dooming any future campaign finance reform. Laws on gun control and tobacco regulation would be weakened, as would laws that allow such agencies as the EPA and OSHA to protect workers, consumers and local communities from corporate rapacity. The entire body of US law, according to Cass Sunstein, would be pushed closer to its pre-New Deal status, implying "significant and possibly historic changes in the meaning of the Constitution." And given the Supreme Court's power of judicial review, there wouldn't be a thing Congress or the President could do about it.
In a Bush presidency, minority rights would suffer from far more than just Court decisions. Like his father, "W" appears motivated less by animus than by cowardice. But even the most compassionate conservative Republican has no incentive to upset his core Christian constituency by extending--or even accepting--many of the gains of the past decade for gays and lesbians. (Barney Frank quips that the gay "Log Cabin" Republican group, with whom Bush declined even to meet, is so named "because they're all Uncle Toms.")
Meanwhile, to argue that there is no significant difference between the two candidates on racial matters is to argue that blacks, Latinos and others are the victims of a grand hoax to which white leftists are somehow immune, since minority support for both Clinton and Gore has been rock solid. Speaking at The Nation's forum on the eve of the Democratic convention in LA, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. explained that while "some of us are making decisions from the perspective of philosophy and the luxury of our comfortableness, and how we are personally situated in the economy...there are other members of our coalition, who are not here, who have everything at stake." To take one small example of the issues in question, California State Senator Tom Hayden observes that a Gore presidency could lead to effective Justice Department measures to curb crimes committed on a systematic basis by law enforcement officers, while George W. Bush has complained of the Justice Department's "overaggressive" police brutality investigations. This is, notes Hayden, "the kind of difference you just can't responsibly forget."
Consider also the twin scourges of gun violence and tobacco peddling to minors. Gore supports a plan that would force gun owners to take a course and get a photo license, just as they must now to drive a car. Using language and imagery borrowed from the NRA, Bush likens such a plan to a Big Brother-like first step to taking all guns away from law-abiding citizens. Gore wants to close a loophole that exempts buyers at gun shows from required background checks. Bush does not. Gore says he would like to ban so-called Saturday night special handguns, limit purchasers to one gun a month and re-impose the Brady Law's waiting period for gun purchases. Bush would do none of this. In the event of a Bush victory, NRA leaders have said they may seek a national law permitting concealed weapons similar to the one the governor signed in Texas. Charlton Heston and company would also go after a Texas-style "lawsuit protection" bill for gun makers. Both are inconceivable under a Gore presidency.
Regarding tobacco, Gore vowed in his convention speech to "crack down on the marketing of tobacco to our children." And indeed, since the $250 billion settlement pursued by the states with the industry, the Justice Department has been pursuing a racketeering lawsuit, seeking to recoup hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent on treating sick smokers. Bush, heavily funded by tobacco companies, failed to support his state's participation in its antitobacco lawsuit, which eventually added $17 billion to the Texas treasury. As Ralph Reed proudly bragged in National Review, Bush "filed a brief to deny a group of trial lawyers a multibillion-dollar payoff as part of the state's tobacco settlement," even after the companies conceded.
On environmental issues, for all of Gore's well-documented failings, the two candidates speak and act as if they come from different planets. Again, Gore is both an environmentalist and a political pragmatist. Judged by the demanding standards that Gore himself laid out in his book Earth in the Balance, he is a sham and a sellout. To take just one example, the Clinton/Gore Administration opened up Alaska's precious National Petroleum Reserve, selling the first oil-drilling leases in May 1999. Compared with George Bush, however, Gore is Mother Nature herself. If elected, he will arguably be the most environmentally sensitive and sophisticated politician ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Gore strongly supported EPA Administrator Carol Browner's improved clean-air regulations. The Clinton/Gore Administration reduced logging on federal lands by 80 percent from 1990 levels, and the Forest Service is now taking public comment on plans to keep 60 million acres of roadless national forests undeveloped. It has created nine new national monuments, including what is now the largest national monument outside of Alaska. A Gore administration would likely take favorable action on any number of environmental initiatives that will face the next President. These include: a proposed ban on development of a fifth of the Forest Service's 192 million acres; the implementation of a new set of extensive regulations on diesel pollution; the regulation of mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, which are understood to pose a significant threat to pregnant women and children who consume them; a ban on dangerous pesticides; and long-overdue compensation for US workers whose health has been harmed by dangerous government-certified work on nuclear weapons.
George Bush, it is safe to predict, would ignore those aspects of environmental protection that he did not reverse. The former oilman has one of the worst environmental records of any governor in the entire fifty states. Every year since Bush took office, Texas has been the most polluted state in the nation. Houston recently accomplished what many believed to be impossible: It passed Los Angeles to achieve the honorific of being the city with the worst air quality in the nation. This is no accident. In 1997 Bush replaced state regulations with a self-policing plan, drawn up by the polluters themselves, that called for strictly voluntary compliance with the standards of the 1971 Clean Air Act for companies that had been grandfathered into the old system. The results were predictable. Of the 160 biggest, a grand total of three have actually cut their emissions. Bush's policies with regard to auto emissions evince a similar pro-pollution bias. Not until the EPA threatened to withhold millions in highway funding did Bush even begin to try to control emissions. In 1999 federal regulators demanded that emissions be cut in Houston by 90 percent or the state would lose billions in highway funds. Things had been allowed to deteriorate so seriously that if every car were taken off the road in Houston, the city would still fail to meet federal safe-ozone levels. The two oilmen at the top of the Republican ticket also have no use whatsoever for the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce the threat of global warming, which Al Gore championed inside the Clinton Administration. Bush has said he does not support the treaty, and in 1996 Dick Cheney led a group of fifty-four oil executives in attacking the proposed Kyoto agreement because it advocated "the forced reduction of fossil fuel use." (Well, yes, that's the point.)
And what of the future of organized labor? Without a vibrant, powerful labor movement, there is simply no hope for the revival of the US left. Again, absent an upsurge in the numbers of pro-labor representatives, Gore is likely to disappoint on issues of labor rights, trade and globalization, just as Clinton did. Making progress will take more muscle than labor has so far been able to amass. But on a panoply of other questions, from the Court's rulings on labor law and the composition of the National Labor Relations Board to the Labor Department's role in strike support (and/or opposition), a Gore presidency would be far better for unions. Gore has called organizing a "fundamental American right that should never be blocked, stopped, and never, ever taken away." Bush, in contrast, governs a "right to work" state and even opposed raising the federal minimum wage, to which the Republican Congress recently acquiesced. Backed by business billions, he (quite logically) supports so-called paycheck-protection laws, designed to silence labor's voice in the political process. Does anyone believe that it truly makes no difference for working people who wins the next election?
And here we finally reach the differences between the two parties that strike this writer, anyway, as by far the most compelling. I refer to what Senator Paul Wellstone calls "bread and butter, workday family economic issues." The problem is not just how much money Bush wants to give to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Rather, it is that the Republican Party, at this moment in history, is politically and ideologically dedicated to the destruction of the very foundations of social solidarity in this country. Bush and company threaten to work toward the ultimate privatization not only of Social Security, Medicare and public education but nearly all of the sustained, generous and democratically grounded social programs the US political system has enacted since the dawn of the New Deal. These are the signal socioeconomic achievements of the left, going back more than seven decades. And they need to be defended if the word "left" is to have any meaning in America at all.
The numbers alone would be worrisome enough. The Bush tax plan offers 100 times more tax relief to the richest 1 percent of Americans than to most middle-income families, and 1,000 times more relief than to low-income families. Added together, Bush's tax cuts could cost at least $1.3 trillion over nine years. Gore's far more frugal plan of targeted tax cuts is aimed at these middle- and lower-income people, allowing them to pay for health, education and job-training needs.
Bush also wants to begin draining funds from the public education system through a system of vouchers. Gore has vowed to fight this. "I will not go along with any plan that would drain taxpayer money away from our public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers," he promises. Given the power of the NEA inside the Democratic Party (for better or worse), he will have no choice but to keep that promise. The Bush budget calls for an increase of $48 billion in public education funding over the next decade; the Gore plan, $170 billion.
For Social Security, our most important instrument of collective, intergenerational solidarity and the single most effective antipoverty program in US history, a Bush presidency could mean the beginning of the end. He proposes to allow workers to place a portion of their payroll tax into a private retirement account for the purposes of private investment, thereby creating an enormous windfall for the securities industry. This diversion would cost the system an estimated trillion dollars in its first decade, but it makes no provisions for the losses to workers that might be incurred during a sustained downturn in the market. As Bush has ruled out raising payroll taxes and would not dare cut benefits without the (politically unimaginable) fig leaf of Democratic cooperation, the system itself will be at risk. Gore, like Clinton, proposes to use today's surpluses to pay off government debt, and then to deploy the savings in the government's interest payments down the road for Social Security.
Regarding healthcare for those who need it most--seniors, children and families tied to HMOs--the case for political equivalence is nonexistent. Medicare is second only to Social Security as an instrument of camaraderie in our public lives. Bush does not explicitly say he wants to repeal it, but as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points out, he "wants to create strong incentives to push the elderly into HMOs and away from" Medicare. "And he takes a small but significant step toward shipping Medicare off to the states by making his short-term prescription-drug plan a federally supported but state-run program." Gore plans to buttress the system with about one of every six dollars in budget surpluses over the next fifteen years, along with $250 billion for prescription drugs. Unlike Bush, he backs a patients' bill of rights that would allow patients to sue insurance plans when they make costly--or deadly--mistakes. For the uninsured, Gore hopes to expand the Clinton Administration's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to cover more poor children and, for the first time, their working parents.
It is on the subject of children's healthcare that the Man from Compassion is at his most hypocritical. In Texas Bush fought tooth and nail to limit his state's participation in CHIP, which combines a generous federal payment with a much less costly state obligation, because "in times of plenty, the government must not overcommit." But such prudence was nowhere evident when it came time to offer up $1.8 billion in state money for tax cuts and another $45 million in new tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. As a result, Texas is one of the few states that showed a net increase in the number of uninsured children, placing it number forty-five in the nation in this "compassionate" category.
Finally, it is a mistake to view the presidency as merely an executive office somewhere on the southern tip of the Metroliner corridor. It's the most potent political symbol in America, and it empowers others to act with greater force and authority than they would otherwise enjoy. The fortunes of left movements in the United States, as historians Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pointed out in these pages six years ago, have always been closely linked with those of liberals in general, and liberal Presidents in particular--from the Progressive Era to the Popular Front radicalism of the thirties through the civil rights and antiwar and feminist activism of the sixties and early seventies. "In each of these periods," they wrote, "the left found legitimacy as part of a continuum of reform-to-radical sentiment, contributing to the widespread belief of the day that social change was both possible and positive."
Nearly twenty years ago, I was in the audience of a speech the British socialist Tony Benn was giving at the London School of Economics, where I was a visiting student. Ronald Reagan had been elected President a few days earlier, and this confused first-semester junior asked Benn his opinion on why voters found politicians of the genuine left, like himself and Ted Kennedy, so frightening but loved right-wing radicals like Thatcher and Reagan. The former Lord Wedgwood refused even to entertain the question, so deeply offended was he by my implicit comparison of himself, an authentic homme de gauche, to Kennedy, whom he believed to be nothing more than a mealy-mouthed front man for capital. "You Americans," he grumbled, "are always going around the world complaining about 'one-party states.' America itself is a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, you have two of them."
Benn's retort remains the cleverest real-time response any politician has ever uttered in my presence. Too bad it was also almost entirely wrong. Would a President Ted Kennedy have hired drug runners to conduct an illegal war against the Nicaraguan government? Would he have brushed off massacres in El Salvador, defended genocide in Guatemala and invaded Grenada? Would he have busted the air-traffic controllers' union and declared war on organized labor? Would he have attempted to destroy the progressive income tax? Would he have supported tax exemptions for Bob Jones University? Would he have appointed a string of reactionaries to the Supreme Court? Would he have unleashed an insane nuclear and conventional arms race with the Soviet Union? Are these somehow trivial issues? Even the more conservative Jimmy Carter would have governed with an infinitely higher quotient of wisdom and mercy than his successor, had America's center-left majority demonstrated the patience to stick with him. The Democratic Party is certainly more conservative than it was a generation ago, but Republicans have been speeding rightward with the velocity of a Bob Feller fastball.
Unfortunately, progressives have an unhappy history in recent times of failing to make important distinctions between candidates to their right. In 1968 many sat on their hands and allowed the criminal Richard Nixon to defeat Hubert Humphrey. Eight years earlier Arthur Schlesinger Jr. felt he had to write a book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? No such book should be necessary this year. Despite Al Gore and the Democrats' countless flaws as progressive political vessels, the differences between the two primary presidential candidates remain as substantial as those in any close election in modern American history. And while this election may not offer an ideal choice, it recalls the famous response attributed to George Burns. Asked how he felt about celebrating yet another birthday, the ancient comic responded, "Well, it sure beats the alternative.