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"When the ax came into the woods, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'" There is more intellectual content in this old Turkish folk warning than in the entire output of the "lesser evil" school. Here comes Albert Gore Jr., striding purposefully toward us with a big chopper resting easily on his shoulder.
Multiracial and populist, New York's Working Families Party gains ground.
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.)