|Before the votes are even counted in the scion-versus-scion, $300-million-plus presidential election of 2000, nervous Democrats are looking for a fall guy. As the race entered its final fortnight, party loyalists and liberals ganged up on consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate. They complained that if Vice President Al Gore were to lose, Nader would bear the blame for the ascension of an anti-abortion president allied with corporate polluters, the conservative movement and the religious right. (Interestingly enough, the Republican side has not engaged in a pre-blame-game.)
Don't throw your vote away, don't elect George W. Bush, they urged. The Gore campaign dispatched prominent libs -- Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Paul Wellstone, Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem and Robert Redford -- to Nader-friendly pockets, including Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington, to douse Ralph Fever. Some Dems have even called for a last-minute Nader bug-out. After months of Gore aides maintaining their boss would not directly address the Nader challenge, Gore started responding to the Nader threat, boasting that his environmental record was as strong as Nader's. (How many nuclear power plants has Gore shut down? In fact, the Clinton-Gore Administration has demanded that the Kyoto global warming accords include emission credits for nuclear power, which would promote the development of nuclear power -- and more potential Chernobyls -- abroad.) And the anti-Nader campaign has gotten ugly. Steinem, for one, blasted Nader's rallies for being "so white, middle-class and disproportionately male."
There is a tactical argument for the Democrats to make to progressives: you have to vote for Gore, even if his record, positions, campaign finances, and personality are disappointing, to block the Texas governor. Call it the Hollywood Squares plan. It's a pitch that has some sense to it. But citing Nader as the undoing of the Gore campaign is both melodramatic and premature, if not unfair and inaccurate. It is based on the fuzzy-math assumption that every vote Nader bags will be stolen -- as if votes can be swiped -- from Gore's pouch. Clearly, not all Nader voters are Gore voters who were lured away by a progressive Pied Piper. Perhaps as many half of Nader supporters would sit this contest out if they were forced to choose a candidate from the Democratic-Republican, corporate-funded duopoly.
At Nader events across the country, I have talked to his fans. He has -- somewhat surprisingly -- drawn well among the self-described altie (as in alternative) crowd--students and post-students who believe they are part of an anti-corporate impulse (some call it a movement). They consider politics-as-usual a thoroughly corrupt and worthless institution, they worry more about the WTO than IPOs, and they desire a public debate dominated by green sensibilities, not greenbacks. That Nader has rallied this small army of the disaffected is a feat. He's even gotten them to pay for admission to "super rallies" of 10,000 to 15,000 people. And Steinem -- who deserves respect and admiration -- is wrong in her mau-mauing depiction of Nader's gatherings. Plenty of ovaries are present. During a "Let Ralph Debate" protest at the University of Massachusetts campus on the evening of the first presidential debate, several college-age women told me they had been moved by Nader's no-bull critique of corporate culture to travel from upstate New York to Boston to join the protest. By the way, Nader's running-mate is a woman -- (native American activist Winona LaDuke), his campaign manager is a woman, and he is supported by noted feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich. In Steinem's views, are they dupes, traitors to their gender?
Many of the young people Nader has revved up, as well as some of the older ones, would not otherwise be voting for Gore. The Nader voters also include independents and perhaps a few out-of-whack Republicans. (Nader's most significant strategic mistake was not aggressively courting the independent bloc. With his impassioned support of campaign finance reform and fair trade, he might have fared well with recovering Perotistas and other indies.) So before anyone takes Nader's standing in the polls and adds it to the Gore column, that number has to be cut probably by 50 percent, if not more. When this is done, the number of states where the so-called Nader affect might impede Gore drops -- at this point -- to one or two.
True, this close-call election could turn on one or two states. But the Nader fuss is not merely a question of win-or-lose arithmetic. It is one of values. Gore has had his chance. For months, he ignored Nader. He did little to motivate those disenchanted with politics. Moreover, for years, he enthusiastically participated in the ever-worsening campaign finance system. (Remember, White House denizens tagged him the "solicitor-in-chief.") His populism has been situational. At the end of his campaign rallies, Gore screams, "I want to fight for you. I want to fight for you." (It's a little embarrassing to watch.) He so yearns to combat the big bad drug manufacturers, HMOs, and oil companies on behalf of the l'il folk that his face nearly explodes.
But where has this fighter been in past years? He's been hanging out with corporate lobbyists, who have raised his campaign dollars and guided his various campaigns. Journalist Mickey Kaus quips that if Gore were a true populist he'd be yelling, "I want to fight for us!" There is no cause to the Gore campaign. There is to the Nader effort. He is trying to ignite a political force; Gore is attempting to win a promotion. He doesn't even bothering talking about electing a Democratic Congress. It's really about him -- and what he wants to do for us. Democratic loyalists might wonder why Gore ran an ad in California that celebrated his working relationship with President Ronald Reagan.
Gore and the Democratic Party have often blown off progressives, and they have done nothing of substance to reach out to citizens disgusted by big-money politics. Now these believers in free-markets are afraid of political competition. The anti-Nader Democrats are asserting that people who want to vote for principles have an obligation to stick with the party that craves their votes but has no room for their ideals. Days ago, John Podesta, Clinton's White House chief of staff, told a group of reporters that in 1992 Bill Clinton led the Democratic Party to the center and "everybody is a New Democrat now." Well, if that were the case, then a desperate Gore campaign wouldn't need to lean on Nader voters. And in an editorial chastising Nader for daring to muck up "a clear up-or-down vote between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore," the New York Times huffs, "Mr. Nader acts as if the presidential election would have no impact on the future of campaign finance legislation."
Has the editorial board of this fine newspaper been asleep for eight years? When the Clinton-Gore administration had a Democratic Congress to work with in 1993 and 1994, it did not vigorously pursue reform. Then, through its deeds, it set new records in soft-money sleaze, and it led the way in undermining existing campaign finance law. Gore, unlike Bush, does say he would support modest reform -- mainly, the elimination of soft money contributions -- but there is no reason to believe a Gore presidency would yield fundamental change in the campaign finance system.
In the end, it's conceivable Nader might attract an election-turning number of voters in a swing state or two. That is a risk. Bush certainly poses dangers -- particularly on the fronts of abortion rights, the Supreme Court, and Social Security. But his election would not automatically establish a religious-right-run-amok administration. Bush is no Reagan -- although there are similarities in temperament and aptitude. He shows no signs of being an ideological missionary dedicated to dismantling government and reshaping society. (Bush whacks Gore for being a devotee of big government, but Bush's new spending proposals total $523 billion.) Additionally, the existence of a budget surplus renders it less likely that Bush would attempt to push Reagan-like cuts in social spending programs that assist the poor. One can argue the possible cost of a Nader vote (Bush in the White House) outweighs the benefits (promoting progressive principles and independent politics). But it is not unreasonable for voters of high standards to conclude the opposite. For some, a vote can be a reluctant statement of choice; for others, a declaration of belief.
As the Democrats increased the pressure on Nader, Gore kept his distance from the hired muscle. He told ABC's Charlie Gibson, "I don't like the argument that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. It may be true, but my argument, that I much prefer, is, I want to convince all of the voters to support me with enthusiasm. ... I'm not going to ask people to vote against somebody." But his surrogates were happy to do so. At a Gore rally at the University of Minnesota, Jesse Jackson told Nader voters, "we must not waste a vote or waste time." Is this how one keeps hope alive? Telling voters not to support a politician who gives voice to their convictions and dreams? Wellstone, in a newspaper interview, took a more reasonable approach. He urged Nader voters to side with Gore in the states where the election is tight -- for a Bush win is "too steep a price" -- but he added, "I will never tell anyone they are wasting their vote. ... It's insulting and counterproductive. No one ever wastes their vote in a democracy."
In Catch-22, Yossarian, the contrarian World War II bombardier who constantly questions the military status quo, is asked, what if everybody "on our side" felt that way? "Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way," he replies. "Wouldn't I?" The contrarians of the electorate ought not to be guilt-tripped, and Nader ought not be smeared. If Gore, a sitting vice president in booming economic times, cannot triumph over an opponent of middling experience and questionable intelligence, there will be many reasons for his defeat -- incuding his inability to convey the meaning of his campaign, his inability to maintain a populist thrust, his inability to convey a sense of self, and his inability to attack effectively the unpopular policies of his foe. To accuse Nader of causing Gore's downfall will be akin to blaming a warning label for a product that fails.
David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation. His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published recently by St. Martin's Press.
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