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The Merchants of Fear

Smearing Nader

by DOUGLAS O'HARA

"The worst Democrat is better than the best Republican." That’s what my grandfather, a union man, used to say and it’s still considered political bedrock in my family. I, on the other hand . . .

I’m reminded of my grandfather’s saying because a version of this idea is now circulating among the Anyone But Bush crowd furious at Ralph Nader’s announcement to run for president. The problem with the Anyone But Bush position is that we know what Anyone But Bush looks like: he looks a lot like Bill Clinton. In 1992, beleaguered by twelve years of Reagan and Bush, the Democratic Party united behind a pro-business moderate Democrat. The result, as you may care to remember, was NAFTA, GATT, "the end of welfare as we know it," don’t ask-don’t tell, the Telecommunications Bill, the Defense of Family Act, etc., etc.

My grandfather didn’t live to see the Clinton presidency, so I don’t know how he would have reacted. He may indeed have held firm in his belief. Or, noting that in his day a Democrat was someone who represented the interests of the working class while Democrats now tend to be an especially craven species beholden to corporate interests who bother to distinguish themselves from Republicans, if at all, on the basis of abortion and a handful of lifestyle issues, he might have decided that this new situation requires a new strategy. Perhaps he would have judged that his loyalty was not to the Democratic party but to the causes that the Democratic party used to champion. I do know, however, that he was unlikely to have shrieked at someone who voted for a candidate who actually represented his or her interests.

I should say up front that I voted for Ralph Nader in 1996 and in 2000. I should also say that I remain uncertain how I’ll vote in November. It is a difficult decision whether to vote for someone who represents your interests but is unlikely to win or to vote for the lesser of two evils who is more likely win. Only a clod would insist that it’s an obvious choice one way or the other. You see, I’m sympathetic to the pragmatic argument, but there is a point where pragmatism becomes concession, and I don’t see much that’s pragmatic about supporting a party that made zero concessions to its progressive block while making countless concessions to a president who didn’t even win the popular vote. The blaming by liberals of Nader and Nader supporters for the abject failures of the Democratic party, therefore, must stop right now and once and for all.

The Democratic party used to respond to threats from third parties by stealing their ideas in order to render those parties superfluous. After all, there’s no reason for to vote for a third party if one of the two parties can deliver what the third party promises. In 1935, for example, when a poll by the Democratic National Committee revealed that Huey Long was likely to receive three to four million votes if Long ran for president as an independent in 1936, FDR launched what became known as "the second hundred days," during which time the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the "soak the rich" Wealth Tax Act were passed. According to William Leuchtenburg, as the Wealth Tax Act was being read in the Senate, "Long swaggered through the Senate chamber, chortling and pointing to his chest." That’s the kind of treatment third parties deserve. But the Democratic party did nothing of the sort after the 2000 election. In fact, even after a disastrous Bush-lite campaign in the 2002 election cycle–with no interference, I might add, from third party candidates at the national level–Terry McAuliffe still assumed that progressive Democrats would return to the fold come 2004. For liberals to insist shrilly that would-be Nader voters ought to line up and suffer gladly McAuliffe’s incompetence and contempt is simply too much. A nationally recognized candidate with Nader’s platform and record only comes along maybe once or twice in a lifetime. We would be fools to dismiss his campaign and seek to silence his supporters out of hand before we can figure out how we might use it, and them, to advance those causes. I’m open to suggestions, but the only way I know how to make a major party listen is to cost it elections. I agree, it’s maddening and outrageous that it may take two presidential elections for the party leadership to learn the lesson that FDR learned by glancing at a prospective poll, almost as maddening and outrageous, in fact, as demanding that progressive voters vote for a centrist candidate even when there hasn’t been a progressive law passed in this country for thirty years.

"But Nader’s not electable," the liberals cry. Notice, however, it’s only liberals who worry about "electability." A friend pointed out to me that if the Republican voters had worried about electability in 2000, McCain would have won the nomination hands down and be sitting in the oval office right now without any controversy haunting his election. But they voted instead for George Bush. Why? Because Bush convinced them that he would prosecute a pro-business agenda more effectively and reliably than the sometime populist McCain. They knew it didn’t matter if a member of their party was elected if he didn’t represent their interests once in office. Being a Republican means something more than merely projecting a cultural identity. The same used to be true for Democrats before liberals began worrying about things like electability. As David Brooks pointed out, this year’s Democratic nomination process became "an election about itself, with voters voting on the basis of who could win votes later on." And you know you’re in a very ugly place when David Brooks has you pegged dead to right.

Why aren’t Republicans worried about electability? Because they figured out how to advance their causes without having to win every single election. Once Republicans reduce the "opposition" party to the role of band-aid while they take a time-out to sharpen their swords, it’s not a crisis if they occasionally lose a general election. Democrats would do well, for example, to enlarge and empower labor unions rather than being laissez faire toward them which would have the effect of enlarging and empowering the Democratic electoral base. But did the previous Anyone But Bush administration do anything like this? No. Clinton and his supporters were happy taking the executive foot off the gas pedal and coasting toward the cliff rather than racing toward it like Republicans. It’s been easy for George Bush to ram his agenda through Congress because he didn’t so much as have to turn the car around, there was nothing to undo from the previous Anyone But Bush administration. There was no need for him to spend political capital passing NAFTA because Anyone But Bush already did it. Should we kill Iraqi civilians with bombs? Why not? Anyone But Bush killed them with a decade of sanctions. Ought we to try to pass a federal law prohibiting gay marriage? Oh, that’s right, Anyone But Bush beat us to it. The liberals at The Nation warn us that a sound defeat of a Nader candidacy "can only hurt those causes" which he’s worked so hard for. But no one has yet to explain to me either the difference it makes whether a Republican president ignores those causes or a Democratic one does, or why an Anyone But Bush candidate, who can win his party’s nomination without embracing universal health care or instant runoff voting, would then take up these issues if he happens to win the general election. In short, which of Nader’s causes, which I’m assuming are our causes, is John Kerry going to entertain let alone advance if he wins the presidency? Go ahead, name one.

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson chimed in with perhaps the most common smear against Nader when he says that the decision to run was all about Nader’s ego: "It’s his personal vanity because he has no movement. Nobody’s backing him." I, for one, couldn’t care less whether Nader’s decision is purely selfish or purely selfless. These are moral categories and frankly have no place in evaluating a candidate’s political positions. Again, my attraction to Nader’s candidacy isn’t due to his person but to his politics. This is one of the problems, as I see it, with Dennis Kucinich’s campaign. He often seems more interested in convincing us that his beautiful soul has a beautiful sensibility than in figuring out a way to give his positions efficacy.

Nader supporters will undoubtedly be criticized for not understanding how serious the situation is, how much rides on the 2004 election. But I wonder if it’s possible to see Nader supporters as seeing things as much more dire than the average liberal sees them. That is, if one cares to project into the future, what would things look like if we merely repeated the last twelve years, if Anyone But Bush wins two of the next three presidential elections and a reactionary Republican wins just one. Ask yourself, is that a country any of us could stand to live in?

I would not be misunderstood. This is not an endorsement for Nader and I remain uncertain how I will vote in November. But I think it’s important that liberals understand what’s attractive and potentially useful about his campaign and why eventual Nader voters don’t deserve liberals’ scorn half as much as registered Democrats, who voted for Bush by the millions despite the significant centrist concessions to them. Go screech at them.

DOUGLAS O’HARA for the moment resides in Chicago as he finishes his dissertation on the politics of space in 1590s London. He can be reached at: doh@uclink.berkeley.edu