This is not going to be a column blaming Ralph Nader and the Greens for the daily disasters of the Bush Administration, so don’t stop reading–yet. That column has been written dozens of times, in every shade of emotion with which the words “I told you so” can be uttered, and I think it’s been pretty well established that Tweedledum and Tweedledee are at best fraternal rather than identical twins. Or are there readers out there who think the Gore Administration would be proposing a budget that would end contraceptive coverage for federal employees while angling for a huge tax cut for the richest 1 percent? If so, you won’t have any problem washing your delicious school-lunch salmonellaburger down with a big glass of arsenic-laced water from one of our fine mining and timber states.
Nader’s assistant called me recently to say that he had been misquoted last summer in Outside, which had him hoping for a Bush win. But those who thought the Democrats deserved to die seem to have gotten their wish. I mean, where is Al Gore? I’ve been an adjunct professor myself, and the duties are not all that taxing. He could be going on the Sunday morning talk shows every week, rallying opposition to Bush’s onslaught against the environment–the Kyoto treaty was supposedly his baby, after all. Maybe he read Alexander Cockburn’s column in the testosterone-addled New York Press claiming global warming is bunk, and now thinks it’s good that Bush slammed the door on the treaty and the Europeans are just crybabies. Clinton’s off riding elephants in India, Hillary voted for the bankruptcy bill, nobody wants to pay to make sure votes get counted in poor neighborhoods (remember when voting booth upgrades were definitely on the agenda, whoever won Florida?), and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which was going to start the arduous process of getting big money out of electoral politics, has morphed into a measure that doubles the Republican hard-money advantage while abolishing soft money, where the Democrats had edged ahead. Thanks a lot, Senator Feingold! And you too, Senator Wellstone! Now advocacy organizations like the ACLU and NARAL will be barred from running issue ads for sixty days before the election. Forget the First Amendment: Let them buy their own radio and TV stations like the right-wingers do.
None of this cowardice, confusion and collapse is the fault of Ralph Nader or the Greens: Would the Republicans be quivering in fear if they were the ones out of power? Still, the political landscape we confront today does call into question some of the arguments that were made for the Nader candidacy. You will remember that I expressed a certain skepticism about these claims last spring and summer, for which I was belabored with e-mails from Nation readers for months. The Last Marxist often points out that progressives don’t like to analyze their past enthusiasms in the light of history, preferring to move right along to the next glorious cause. So let’s go to the videotape and see what happened:
§ I said the Greens would do poorly because that’s the general fate of progressive third-party and symbolic presidential candidacies; for the decreasing number of Americans who actually vote, the two parties are not identical and each offers concrete rewards to its constituency. Perhaps nonvoters would bring a new set of concerns and demands to the electoral table–that was the thinking behind the motor voter bill–but to register nonvoters on a massive scale and get them to the polls was quite beyond the capacities (or radar screen) of the Greens. What happened: Nader polled 2.7 percent.
§ I said that history suggested presidential candidacies did not build movements, as many supporters claimed Nader’s run would do. I noted the rapid descent into nutty irrelevance of the most successful third-party candidate in modern history, Ross Perot, and his Reform Party. A party that cannot attract large sums of money and cannot deliver favors to its supporters is just not in the game. What happened: The Greens tool along at the same modest level as before, with eighty-one mostly low-level elected municipal officials thinly scattered around the country. Nader claims he is shut out by the media–surprise–but media never built a movement. Can you imagine Eugene Debs or Bob La Follette, to whom Nader is often compared, letting Rupert Murdoch or the Washington Post decide whether his message gets out or not?
§ I pooh-poohed the Greens’ somewhat contradictory prediction that Nader would attract new voters who would not have gone for Gore but would vote for “good Democrats” lower down on the ticket. Why would voters drawn to the polls by a candidate who spent months bashing the Democrats turn around and vote for them? What happened: Despite much spin on both sides, Nader votes were probably a wash for down-ticket Dems. There was no major influx of new voters lured by Nader. Youth voting went down.
§ I took issue with the argument that the Nader candidacy would push the Democratic Party left. As the Greens themselves have observed in disclaiming responsibility for Bush’s win, thirteen times as many registered Democrats (13 percent) voted for Bush in Florida as for Nader (1 percent). Nationally too, many more Democrats voted Republican than voted Green. So if you were thinking of running for President as a Democrat, where would you look for votes? Left to the Naderites, or right to the Dems and moderate Republicans who voted for Bush? Answer: Joe Lieberman’s already exploring his options for 2004.
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Speaking of past enthusiasms, the Teamster-turtle alliance isn’t looking too good: Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa Jr. supports Bush’s proposal to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. According to the New York Times, Hoffa said drilling would help stabilize the economy and create employment, including 25,000 Teamsters jobs at a time when the nation appears near recession. Turtle soup, anyone?