Progressives are really grasping at straws these days. First we’re supposed to get excited because Ralph Nader is running for President as a Green. This is the man who made common cause over NAFTA with the racist bigot and Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan–imagine if George W. did that!–and who made a national joke of his 1996 run, claiming that he hadn’t read his party’s platform, having five or six different running mates, spending less than $5,000. The spin was that this restraint was a mark of Nader’s high-mindedness, the cue for a different, more grassroots kind of campaign–you know, the invisible kind. Skeptics suggested the magic figure of $5,000 was chosen because if he spent any more he’d have to make his tax records, and the records of his various organizations, available, and this would reveal that, contrary to his monkish image, he possesses considerable personal wealth and that his operations were indeed largely funded by trial lawyers, as his enemies claim, and by textile billionaire Roger Milliken. Running an anti-NAFTA, pro-environment campaign that resolutely avoided mention of racism, welfare reform, affirmative action, civil liberties, reproductive rights, public education, healthcare, urban decay, poverty or other longtime progressive concerns, and that made little effort to draw in new or disaffected voters, Nader wound up with less than 1 percent of the vote. Look on the bright side, one friend said wanly–he outpolled Dole in some Bay Area precincts. I’m embarrassed to admit that one of his votes was mine. The idea of progressives cranking up an organization, raising funds, fomenting energy and enthusiasm on behalf of this doomed project–this time, we’re assured, he really means it, at least enough to get the 5 percent of the vote that would win millions in federal funds for the Greens–well, it’s just too depressing. If working on Nader’s campaign is the best way progressives can spend the next eight months, it’s time to hire a hearse and lie down in it.

Or has that already happened? At least Ralph Nader is a progressive, in his disembodied way. That cannot be said of John McCain, an outright reactionary–as he keeps insisting in the face of mounting enthusiasm for his candidacy among Democratic and independent voters. He’s anti-choice and pro-gun, pro-military, pro-vouchers, pro-NAFTA; he supported the Contract With America; he wants to rescind Clinton’s ban on logging in certain national forests; he opposes increasing the minimum wage. That McCain and Bush appear different is a triumph of modern marketing–after all, before McCain came along, Bush was supposed to be the “compassionate conservative.” McCain’s just as willing to use racial bigotry as George W., whom he’s cleverly saddled with that baggage. He defended the Confederate battle flag as “a symbol of heritage” and refused to disavow his South Carolina campaign strategist, Richard Quinn, who edits a flamboyantly racist magazine, much less distance himself from right-hand man Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Congressman who just happens to hold an honorary degree from…Bob Jones University! And McCain’s just as politically friendly to the Christian right–he may attack Pat Robertson, who’s thrown his support to Bush, in order to win Catholic votes in New York, but he has hardly rejected the helping hand of the equally theocratic Gary Bauer. Even on abortion, McCain and Bush are a match: They both have long records of voting to restrict abortion rights, both campaign hard for anti-choice votes and both make exceptions for their relatives. As for his much-vaunted efforts on behalf of campaign finance reform, the McCain-Feingold bill replaces soft money with hard. Do you really think McCain, recently caught facilitating a suspect radio purchase for a major donor, wants to change the system in which, and by which, he’s done so well? The idea that McCain represents some sort of political fresh air–an opening for change, for clean government, for “reform”–is only slightly less fantastic than the notion advanced in last week’s lead editorial in The Nation, that his popularity surge reflected a desire for a narrowed income gap (!).

McCain’s image as a closet liberal–like his image as an outsider when he is the chairman of the Senate commerce committee and the son and grandson of admirals–has been constructed out of pure wishful thinking, encouraged, as many have noted, by the tireless fawning of reporters drunk with joy at finding at last a candidate who will shmooze with them and flatter their vanity and forgive them for not having gone to Vietnam. But progressives should be able to recognize campaign smoke and mirrors and the amorous sighs of journalistic groupies. Wasn’t eight years of fantasizing that Clinton was just about to show his true liberal colors enough? “There is also a nontrivial chance that McCain is still a man in political and personal passage,” writes Bob Kuttner in The American Prospect. “The Republican attacks on McCain as a closet liberal seem to be pushing him left.” Kuttner wonders if President McCain might not be a lot like Eisenhower–that in this scenario Ike is supposed to be good shows how exhausted are the energies left of center.

If you had any doubts on that score, consider the metamorphosis of conservative pundit Arianna Huffington. Only yesterday, Huffington was the It girl of the Gingrich Revolution, hobnobbing with Newt, smoothing the entry into Washington circles of Marvin Olasky, a right-wing evangelical professor of journalism whose hitherto obscure book The Tragedy of American Compassion, which advocated the replacement of all government help for the poor with religious and personal charity, became the bible of would-be welfare abolishers. Now Huffington has reinvented herself as a reformer, claiming that her visits to slums during the 1994 Senate run of her fabulously wealthy right-wing Congressman husband (now ex-husband) Michael opened her eyes to poverty. Right. Her sugary new book How to Overthrow the Government advocates campaign finance reform and civic voluntarism and is liberally sprinkled with tributes to…John McCain! That David Corn, Jim Hightower and John Nichols have all written glowingly of Huffington’s repackaging makes me wonder what’s taking that hearse so long to arrive.