As a Ralph Nader for President supporter, I fretted through the Democratic and Republican primaries. My big fear at first was Bill Bradley, whose "just to the left of Gore" patina won him endorsements from the likes of Sen. Paul Wellstone, Prof. Cornell West, Katrina van den Heuvel of The Nation, and even the reliable environmental group Friends of the Earth.
When Bradley was run over by the Straight Talk Express, my panic heightened. Even my mother, a lifelong liberal Democrat, confessed that she would vote for John McCain on the strength of his war hero image and his fiery rhetoric against Washington's "iron triangle." Then, in a Super Tuesday rout that had the aura of inevitability, McCain was sent to the sidelines. I breathed a huge sign of relief.
Now the Dems are left with Gore and the Repugs with Bush. Perfect. The more you look at their lying, sleezy, environmentally destructive, corporate-schmoozing ways, the better it is for Nader. In fact, the best spokesmen for Nader are Gore and Bush themselves. Now, if the Reform Party gets its act together and nominates Pat Buchanan, we'll have a field of candidates from which Ralph Nader will emerge like a beacon of light from the thick fog of American politics. I don't expect the Nader candidacy to illuminate the entire political landscape. Victory is not yet within reach. But this election could bring enough Green votes to qualify for federal matching funds, thereby placing a legitimate political alternative squarely on the map in 2004.
Governor Bush has signed a death warrant once every two weeks for the past five years. Bush's Texas is 50th (meaning lowest) in spending for teachers' salaries, 49th in spending on the environment, 48th in per capita spending for public health, 41st in per student spending on public education. Looked at from the other end of the telescope, Texas ranks 5th (meaning only four states are higher) in percentage of the population living in poverty, 1st in pollution, 1st in percentage of children without health insurance, and of course, 1st in executions.
Any marginally liberal, progressive, leftish person has to look at those numbers and cringe. If you're a Gore Democrat, they create an unassailable fortress around the vice-president, and against the good sense and virtue of a Nader candidacy. Sure, a vote for Nader might feel good, but a presidential election is not an opportunity for self-indulgence. Dubya must be denied! It's your duty, even if you have to hold your nose, to pull the lever for Al!
Not so fast. Bill Bradley, for all his foibles as standard bearer for what's left of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, spoke truth when he accused Gore of being a prime-time prevaricator. On the Sunday morning TV talks, Bradley asked the pointed question, "If Al Gore won't tell the truth during this campaign, what confidence can the American people have that he will tell the truth as president?" The answer, clearly, is none.
Now that's not to say that Dubya doesn't also tell some tall ones. My favorite is how he transformed himself from being a "compassionate conservative" to being a "reformer with results." One of the reforms he most liked to tout was the Texas Patient's Bill of Rights. If you didn't read the fine print, you'd think Shrub (as dubbed by no less a Texan than Molly Ivins) was the scourge of the HMOs. The real story is that Texans have some measure of protection from the health care conglomerates not because of the governor's leadership but in spite of it. Bush refused to sign the patient protection bill in Texas and it became law without his signature.
Gore's gaffes in taking credit for everything from the Superfund to the Internet are well-known as are his confusing statements around his voting record regarding tobacco and abortion. More potentially damaging to his present aspirations, however, are his improbable stories about how he came to be at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California one June day in 1996. And then there are those 56 or so fund-raising calls placed from the taxpayers' domain inside the White House.
It's likely that Gore aide Maria Hsia will go to jail for arranging a shell game in which Buddhist nuns and monks wrote checks to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). These "straw donors" were then reimbursed by the temple which, as a tax-exempt institution, is prohibited from making such political contributions. Gore first claimed that the temple visit was "community outreach." Later he acknowledged that he had known the visit was "finance-related." Remind you of anyone? You could say that Algore, as Rush Limbaugh unceremoniously calls him, has learned his lessons well at the feet of the master.
Use of public property for the purpose of raising campaign funds has been illegal since before the invention of the telephone. Yet, according to a compliant Janet Reno, there is a critical distinction between using such property for the purpose of raising money for the party (i.e., "soft money") as opposed to raising it for the Clinton/Gore reelection campaign (i.e., "hard money"). In one of his most Clintonesque constructions, the veep opined that there was "no controlling legal authority" to deter him. To bolster his case, Gore now claims he was taking bathroom breaks when White House attorneys explained what is and isn't kosher regarding the use of White House facilities to bring in filthy lucre. "I recall that I was drinking a lot of iced tea during those meetings," says the veep. How far will the weak bladder defense take Gore, especially now that he's transformed himself into an alpha male?
When candidate Bill Clinton chose Gore as his running mate in 1992, he sealed the deal for many doubting progressives. I remember watching then Senator Gore debate environmental threats like global warming and ozone depletion. His book Earth in the Balance was considered the most thoughtful book on the environment ever penned by an American politician. "I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization," Gore wrote. A few years into his vice-presidency, the joke was that Gore had not only not written the book, he hadn't even read it.
Gore has gone along with the administration's destructive policies on forests worldwide, including supporting the so-called global free trade agreement on timber, a recent major bone of contention in Seattle. Gore opposes efforts to end commercial logging on public forest land, despite the fact that these lands provide only a small fraction of national timber production. Gore has repeatedly favored sprawl at the expense of environmental protection, including in the super-sensitive Everglades National Park in Florida. Gore also promised to keep offshore oil and gas drilling away from the Florida coastline, then failed to do so. Now, seven years later, Gore says he will oppose new offshore leases, a position that puts him on par with such ardent environmentalists Dubya's brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and the nebbish Gray Davis of California.
As a candidate in 1992, Gore promised to stop the gigantic hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Today, the project is completed and polluting the community. Despite strong statements in his book, the ozone hole has continued to grow under Clinton-Gore. Gore also broke his commitment to protect wetlands, failed to keep radioactive materials out of commercial products and remained silent as the environmental protection budget was slashed over the past seven years.
Despite Gore's lacklustre record riding shotgun for Bill Clinton, the vast majority of Democrats will stick by him. Gore's great strengths are first and foremost, the booming economy with its stock market-driven "wealth effect" and second, that he is not George W. Bush. A sharp economic downturn during the year could change this, but the main beneficiary of that scenario would clearly be Bush.
Dow plunge or not, Nader's goals in this campaign are achievable. He decided to run as a Green instead of as an Independent because he's serious about the absolute necessity of building a real alternative party of the left. If the state Green parties around the country coalesce behind him, Nader can draw the necessary 5% of the national vote to qualify the party for federal matching funds of at least $15 million in 2004. That's enough money to build a machine that will eat the Democrats' lunch in four years. A recent Reuters/Zogby poll showing Nader with 5.3% of the vote is already striking fear in Al Gore's heart.
If we are going to do more than work around the fringes of public policy, it's essential that we engage fervantly in electoral politics, including presidential politics. As environmental writer Jim Britell pointed out post-Seattle, "Until social change activists grasp that we are in a political system where the only thing that matters is how many actual votes you have, we are doing the equivalent of training people to play one game when in fact they are in another one altogether." In other words, we need to show that we can back up our protest actions, as did the civil rights movement, with mass voter registration and mass voting.
Besides an outright victory, the most auspicious outcome of this presidential race would be Ralph Nader pulling enough votes away from Al Gore to skew the election, even if that means electing George W. Bush. The New Democrats, as embodied by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, have only marginally better public policy positions than the Republicans. The Democrat establishment opposes national health care and public financing of campaigns. It opposes the increasingly popular call for an end to commercial exploitation of our public lands, particularly our beleaguered national forests. The Democrats support the continuation of outrageous military spending, NAFTA and the WTO, the death penalty, the drug war, and mass incarceration. A Bush presidency, while it would make me gag, would at least make the enemy that much more clear and that much easier to attack.
But the chief benefit from a Nader skewing of the election would be a newfound power and self-respect within the American left. No longer would the Democrats be able to take our votes for granted by playing the "lesser of two evils" game. The possibility of a strong new party on the left would force the Democrats either to institute significant internal and policy reform or simply to meld with the Republicans. My guess is that, after years of living high off the corporate hog, they have no intention of engaging in soul-searching.
I hope the Katha Pollitts of the progressive movement will take the time to consider the Nader candidacy once more before chucking this rare opportunity out the window. Listening to him I can't help thinking of crusty Old Testament prophets, invoking damnation on a society that has given itself over to Mammon. His speeches cover a broad swath of critical social, political and environmental issues without compromising his central theme: the need for a mobilized citizenry to fight the insidious and expanding power of corporations. As Nader describes, this is nothing less than a struggle for our birthright as American citizens, and as human beings.
Dan Hamburg is a former northern California congressman and is currently executive director of Voice of the Environment, an organization dedicated to halting corporate predation in all its many forms.