You can tell the Democrats are getting truly worried about Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate. It's only July, and already the attacks are getting shriller and sillier. But with Nader within sight of double digits in the polls in California, Oregon and Washington, and making an increasingly strong showing in the Rust Belt, Gore's supporters see desperate peril.
Asked about the threat that Nader would erode his own base and let Bush into the White House, vice president Gore was dismissive last weekend, simply telling reporters that he does not regard Nader as a threat. But behind this mien of strained nonchalance, Gore and his strategists are casting about for surrogates to intimidate potential defectors to Nader and to bully them back into the fold.
Some of these attacks on Nader have been surfacing in small journals of liberal opinion, like the biweekly In These Times, which sedately caters to progressive Democrats and labor activists. The current edition features an attack on Nader, written by Guy Saperstein (identified as a trustee of the Sierra Club Foundation), offering a defense of Al Gore's environmental record almost surreal in its distance from the painful facts.
Saperstein has the effrontery to laud Gore's record in preventing oil exploration and drilling in Alaska. Alas, Gore has helped pry open the largest expanse of undeveloped terrain on the Arctic plain, the Alaska National Petroleum Reserve. Saperstein also asks rhetorically, ``What has Ralph Nader done for the environment?'' Well, for a start, Nader and his associate David Zwick essentially wrote the Clean Water Act back in the 1970s, when Al Gore was supporting every dam project of the TVA, including the Tellico Dam, where he first helped steamroll the Endangered Species Act.
Saperstein also acclaims Gore's record as a defender of the national forests. But his own group, the Sierra Club, has called for an end to commercial logging of these federal lands, and the only candidate to endorse that call has been Ralph Nader. In an era of oil-industry consolidation unprecedented since the age of the first Rockefellers and Mellons, Nader has been an unrelenting critic of Big Oil, while Gore and the Democratic National Committee have pocketed millions in oil-industry cash.
Slightly up the food chain from In These Times is the venerable Nation. Its latest issue features a swinging attack on Nader by Katha Pollitt, a feminist who reduces this year's presidential election to one issue: abortion. Gore, she says, will be a robust defender of the Roe v. Wade decision, whereas Nader's record on feminist issues is, she implies, dubious.
Even a cursory cruise through Gore's congressional career would surely have brought up Pollitt short. As a congressman, Gore endorsed the most reactionary of Reagan-era erosions of choice, and then, repeatedly voted against federal funding for abortions for poor women.
Of all the laws in the Clinton-Gore years affecting women, none was more devastating and punitive than the Welfare Reform Bill, passed in the summer of 1996. In the Cabinet, Gore was the one who pushed Clinton into signing the bill over the opposition of virtually the whole Cabinet. In consequence, 2.6 million people were thrown into direct poverty, of whom 1.1 million were children. The federal entitlement for welfare, one of the cornerstones of the New Deal, was ended, and 14 million on welfare were put on a three-year limit.
Even as Nader made a strong showing at the National Press Club this week, Rep. Barney Frank took a swipe at him, saying that Gore would be a more vigilant defender of civil rights. It's odd to hear the openly gay rep from Massachusetts defend Gore on these grounds. After all, the vice president's biographer, Bill Turque, discloses in his book that Gore, a born-again Christian, has referred to homosexuals as being ``abnormal.''
Gore is also the man who tried to gut affirmative action at the federal level, with his ``reinventing government'' initiatives in 1993. The vice president's position on the death penalty is indistinguishable from George Bush's, and Gore's campaign is now attacking the Texas governor for being soft on crime.
In The New York Times, columnist Anthony Lewis, a Gore supporter, lashed out at Nader for his opposition to the WTO and for permitting one of his groups to accept money from the textile magnate Roger Milliken.
At this point, one has to start laughing. Over the past 23 years, Gore has solicited and accepted campaign cash from arms companies, the nuclear industry, bond traders, runaway firms to Mexico like Mattel, and exploiters of child labor. Occidental, in which the Gore family has a stake now worth over half a million, is trying to drill in the Colombian rain forest on land belonging to the Uwa Indians, who are being murdered by Colombian soldiers now reportedly about to receive another billion, courtesy of the Clinton-Gore administration.
In the end, Gore's crowd has one basic argument: a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. No, it's not. A vote for Nader is a vote for revitalizing the system and breaking the iron ceiling of the current one party with two heads.
Get Nader into the debates (under the current arbitrary rule imposed by the Democratic and Republican party machines, he needs to show 15 percent national support), and he could trounce both Gore and Bush, and roll into November with support kindred to Perot's 30-plus ratings in the summer of 1992. It was a three-way race then, and it could be a three-way race this fall. Nader isn't going to self-destruct the way Perot did.
A vote for Nader is not a wasted vote. It's a vote for optimism, a vote that says that if Nader even gets over 5 percent next November, then funding will kick in that will help thousands upon thousands of young reformers get their start across the country. It could be the first truly exciting event of the new millennium.
© 2000 Mercury Center