By The Plaid Adder
So, Ralph Nader is running for president again.
I know you're upset. Everyone is. So perhaps this isn't a
good time to finally come clean about my dark past as a Nader
voter. But I'm going to do it anyway, because a) I'm a lunatic
who doesn't know what's good for me and b) it is my fond hope
that by the time you all are done reading this column, you'll
be less worried about Nader costing the Democrats the election.
On your way to that happy ending, you will undoubtedly encounter
things that will piss you off; and for that reason I would
like to point out that the administrators of Democratic Underground,
all of whom I love like brothers, cannot in any way be held
responsible for the opinions contained herein, as they are
mine and mine alone.
But then again, they're not mine alone, not really. The story
of how I came to vote Green in the 2000 presidential election,
trivial though it is, is part of a much larger story about
some things that went wrong in the Democratic Party during
the Clinton years -- and more than that, about the pernicious
and apparently incorrigible effect that the increasing rigidity
of our two-party system has had on American politics. If you
long for the day when a Nader candidacy gets about as much
support as a Plaidder candidacy would, then you're going to
have to help me figure out how to change some of this stuff.
I am only one among many Democrats who felt, by the time the
2000 election rolled around, that we were being held hostage
by two-party politics. At the time, Nader looked like a possible
escape route. As it turned out, he wasn't. But that doesn't
mean that the crisis that created his candidacy wasn't real,
or that it doesn't need to be resolved.
I've been a Democrat for as long as I can remember. In high
school I wrote not very funny satires on Reagan for the school
paper; in college I sat in the TV room with a bunch of my
fellow liberals and cheered on Lloyd Bentsen as he ripped
Dan Quayle to tiny bits on the debating floor. I cast my first
vote in 1988 for Dukakis. At the same time, I voted for a
Republican for the first and last time in my life. I voted
for Lowell Weicker instead of his Democratic opponent, Joe
Lieberman. I did it because fiscally speaking, Weicker was
actually more liberal than Lieberman.
But it wasn't until George Herbert Walker Bush unleashed
the Gulf War -- or, as they called it then, Operation Desert
Storm -- that politics started to matter to me. I knew that
Saddam Hussein was a bad man and that invading Kuwait was
a bad thing to do. But there was something about the way the
war was promoted that really got to me. I found the media
coverage chilling, largely for what it didn't show -- that
is, any form of recognizable human suffering. You remember
what the first Gulf War looked like: video footage of 'smart
bombs' making their 'surgical strikes,' shots of tracer fire
illuminating the sky like fireworks, talking heads relaying
their pre-screened information in accordance with their agreements
with the military with whom they were cooperating. I remember
thinking, "This is the first war of my generation, and
they have made sure it won't cause us any pain." I thought,
even then, that this was a very, very bad sign.
I hated everything about the way Bush fought that war. And
I hated the 1992 Republican convention, at which Pat Buchanan
gave one of the most horrifyingly bigoted speeches I had ever
seen on national television to a wildly cheering audience.
So by 1992 I was following the DNC with new and desperate
interest. Clinton's acceptance speech is something I still
remember. It was a good speech, delivered with the warmth
and conviction that Clinton always projected. In the middle
of it, he talked about how the country had become divided
into "us" and "them," and that we had
practically "themmed ourselves to death." As part
of this little excursis he rattled off a list of all the "them"s
that were being attacked and oppressed by the politics of
division -- 'them' the poor, 'them' the immigrants, 'them'
the Blacks, and so on. When he got to "them the gays,"
there was a huge audience reaction. The cameras went to the
aisles of the convention center, where you could see gay Clinton
supporters standing there with tears running down their faces.
At home, I was choked up too. Writing to a straight friend
later on, and trying to explain why the inclusion of three
kind words about us was enough to bring the GBLT audience
to tears, I finally summed it up by saying, "We cried
because it was so much more than we're used to getting, but
still so much less than we need."
And I didn't know it then, but that was a premonition of
what life would be like for me and my partner during the Clinton
years. Our big issues are economic justice, peace, and GBLT
rights. Unfortunately, those also proved to be the issues
on which Clinton was always most ready to compromise. The
precedent was set early with the failed attempt to lift the
ban on gays in the military, which ended in the disaster of
"don't ask, don't tell." The North American Free
Trade Agreement, which many people in the anti-Bush camp now
blame for the tanking of the economy, was put through on Clinton's
watch. So was welfare 'reform.' So was the Defense of Marriage
Act, which Clinton signed. And Clinton reenacted on a smaller
scale the thing that I had hated most about Bush's presidency
when -- during the weeks leading up to his impeachment vote
-- he authorized unilateral strikes against Afghanistan, the
Sudan, and Iraq.
These are all things that I felt were wrong. They were, in
fact, all things that I had thought I was voting against in
1992. They did not, in my mind, become less wrong just because
a Democrat was doing them. In fact, they became more wrong,
because now there was the added element of betrayal. After
all, you expect that kind of behavior from a Republican. You
don't expect it from a Democrat, at least not one who ran
the kind of campaign Clinton ran.
So. In 1992, we drove to D.C. to attend Clinton's inauguration,
along with hundreds of thousands of other people. I still
remember standing out in the street, far, far away from the
action, listening to Clinton take the oath of office -- and
then, during the cheering afterwards, yelling, "The Reagan
years are over!" At home, I made a cake and decorated
it with a picture of the White House in icing and we put candles
on it and sang "The Star Spangled Banner." We really
believed in a place called Hope.
By 1996, we had been painfully disappointed by Clinton on
virtually every issue that mattered to us. We voted for him
anyway. What were we going to do? Vote for Dole?
And that was the beginning. I realized in 1996 that I was
going to have to support the Democratic Party no matter what
it did to me -- because no matter how often they sold me out,
the alternative would always be worse. In fact, after 1996,
the Democratic leadership appeared to be taking the position
that since the Republican party was such an effective stick,
they never had to bother dangling the carrot. Why should they
risk pissing off their corporate donors or those moderate-to-conservative
middle class white men they were so busy courting just to
do something good for the poor? Why bother trying to keep
the progressives happy? After all, what choice did we have?
Clinton could sign as many DOMAs as he wanted; the Democratic
candidate would still get the HRC endorsement, just because
the Republican candidate was bound to be worse. Same thing
on poverty, foreign policy, affirmative action, you name it.
And so because the Republican Party kept sinking ever lower,
it pulled the Democratic Party after it. That is just how
politics works. Why bother being any better than you have
to be? With a rigid two party system and one party that's
basically pure evil, there's no real incentive for the other
party to be anything better than slightly adulterated evil.
So 2000 came. Gore's only serious challenger in the 2000
primary was Bill Bradley, and he was knocked out by Super
Tuesday. Then, all the excitement was about who he would choose
as a running mate. He picked Joe Lieberman.
It was at this point that my partner formulated her first
and greatest crackpot theory: the bipartisan ticket. Why,
she reasoned, should Gore have to restrict himself to faux
Republicans when he could just as well have nominated a real
Republican? I mean, how else was he going to get the Republican
The choice of Lieberman as running mate, and the campaign
Gore ran, signaled to us that the trends we had noticed during
Clinton's presidency were only getting worse. Gore did not
run like the man he had been when Clinton picked him as his
running mate, nor did he run like the man who has been going
around the country for the past couple of years blasting the
Bush administration in public. He ran a campaign pitched at
independents and moderate Republicans, and he picked a vice
presidential candidate who distinguished himself during the
campaign by spending the entire VP debate agreeing with everything
Dick Cheney said. I am sure Gore was doing this on the advice
of his campaign managers and the party leadership, who no
doubt told him that since he could take women, African-Americans,
the gay vote, and the left in general for granted, the people
he really needed to court were the white men to the right
of center. And so that's what he did; and that's why this
voter got angry.
To give you a sense of how angry I was, here's a snippet
from something I wrote during the 2000 presidential campaign
explaining why I was voting for Nader:
"Especially now that almost nobody is voting these days,
the defection of a particular block of voters, even if it's
small, is of serious concern to either party. That's why you
see George jr. out there whoring himself for the Christian
right, just like his father before him. But Gore doesn't whore
for the liberal left, because he doesn't have to. He knows
that as long as he doesn't actually start talking about criminalizing
abortion and rounding gay people up in cattle cars, we'll
stick with him just out of fear. Which means we've already
lost any power we had. We can't influence the Democratic party's
agenda; we can't impact Gore's platform; we can't put any
kind of pressure on him. All we can do is concede, concede,
concede. Telling ourselves while we do it that it's all right,
it could be worse." Even at my angriest, I never bought
the argument that there was absolutely no difference between
the two parties. Nobody who has ever cast even a cursory glance
over the panoply of right-wing anti-gay propaganda would believe
that. But I made the decision, in 2000, that economic justice
mattered more to me than social issues, and in this I was
probably swayed by my partner, who after two years of working
as a union-side labor lawyer was so fed up with the Democratic
Party on economic issues that she joined the Labor Party and
volunteered to collect signatures to get Nader on our state
ballot. And I believed that the only way to convince the Democratic
Party to start moving in the right direction on economic justice
would be to get them to stop taking the left for granted.
And I thought that a protest vote for Nader might help do
It was the right decision based on what I believed at the
time. Alas, some of what I believed at the time turned out
to be utterly wrong. For instance, I thought of George W.
Bush as a mostly harmless idiot who was at least less frothy
and ranting than some of the other conservatives out there,
and who couldn't possibly do that much damage if he got into
power. The Republican party duped me on this one, and I guess
my only defense is that they spent a lot of time and money
deliberately trying to do that. I also did not forsee September
11. That, in itself, I don't think I can be blamed for; my
mistake was in not trying hard enough to imagine just how
bad things could get in this country with the wrong man in
the Oval Office at the wrong time. I knew Bush wouldn't be
a good president. But I was not prepared for the ruthlessness,
the rapacity, or the blatant corruption demonstrated by his
advisors. I don't think anyone was, even on Capitol Hill.
Bush ran on the idea that he was going to be the bipartisan
president, you remember.
In the end, my vote didn't make a damn bit of difference.
My state hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential election
since FDR. The Republican majority is so overwhelming that,
thanks to the electoral college, casting my ballot for President
is just so much pissing into the wind anyway. The only person
it made a difference to was me.
It's 2004. Things are very different now.
What you have to realize is that the people who were most
likely to vote for Nader in 2000 are exactly the people who
were best positioned to realize, with exquisite clarity and
painful intensity, just how evil the Bush administration turned
out to be. Being good leftists, we are also prone to feelings
of guilt and remorse. And that means that right now, most
of us would rather die than vote for Nader in 2004. Michael
Moore made this clear by supporting Clark's candidcay. In
our humble household, the shift has been just as emphatic.
For instance, my partner's response to the news that Ralph
had announced his candidacy was unprintable. She has been
supporting Edwards for a long time now; but if Kerry wins,
she'll vote for him anyway. At this point, she and I would
both vote for a ham sandwich if it ran on the Democratic ticket.
If Bush was running against Satan himself, it would be a tough
call; but I would probably go for Satan on the grounds that
at least he's smarter.
But the fact that Bush's evil is now blazoned abroad in fiery
letters is not the only thing that has changed. The 2004 primary
campaign has been very , very different from the one that
produced the Gore/Lieberman ticket. And in fact, in many ways,
it suggests that I was right about one thing. The 2000 election,
and perhaps even more than that the 2002 midterm elections,
taught the Democratic Party that it could not afford to take
its base for granted. And that's why, contrary to all the
predictions, we now have a shot at 2004.
The most visible sign of this transformation is the nearly
universal repudiation of Lieberman, who began the race as
the heir apparent. An equally important and rather more dramatic
sign was Gore's endorsement of Dean, the outsider candidate
whose entire appeal depended on tapping into the kind of anger
that has been cooking inside me and the other progressives
in the Democratic party since the late Clinton years. Most
important of all, from my perspective, is the Kucinich campaign.
There's nothing Nader said in 2000, and nothing he could possibly
say in 2004, that Kucinich has not said better. He is a living
refutation of Nader's claim that the two parties are equally
beholden to the rich and powerful, and no matter how few delegates
he winds up with I am immensely grateful to him for showing
us that there is still room in this party for me and for what
I care about.
Dean has now withdrawn from the race, of course, and Kucinich
never had a real shot at it. But they have had a tremendous
impact on the way this race is being run. Dean in particular
was instrumental in showing the more mainstream candidates
that not only could they attack Bush in public, they had to.
In fact, of all the theories out there now about why Dean's
campaign imploded, I subscribe to one of the simpler ones.
The most successful elements of Dean's message have now been
adopted by the party establishment, who are all seen as more
'electable' than he is -- especially after the media-manufactured
flap over the "Dean Scream." Kerry is running a
better campaign now because he has been forced to compete
with Dean; and that's one of the reasons he's doing better
than he was. That sucks for Dean; but it's certainly a welcome
development in terms of the Democratic Party's overall survival.
And there has been a big change in me, too. Since Bush took
office, I have written dozens of letters, gone on God knows
how many marches, donated money, started this column for all
the good it does, and organized constituent meetings with
my House representative. The only thing that could have driven
me to make that much time in my life for politics is the sense
of desperation and horror with which Team Bush constantly
inspires me. The 2000 election taught me a lesson too, and
it was that I was also taking too much for granted.
Like I said, my vote doesn't matter. But I can only imagine
that most of the people who voted for Nader in 2000 have benefited
from the same brutal education that the Bush administration
has given me, just as the Democratic Party in general is now
sadder, wiser, and a lot more pissed off than it was four
years ago. Even the Green Party gets it now. The only person
who appears not to get it is Ralph himself; and he only has
But the problems that created the crisis of 2000 have not,
by a long shot, been solved; and it is important that once
we have dislodged Bush, we don't just breathe a sigh of relief
and go back to business as usual. In the long run, it will
not be enough to have someone better than Bush in that office.
Bush is, after all, in Helen Thomas's memorable words, the
worst president ever. To get us out of the hole he has dug
will require all the courage, intelligence, creativity, and
honesty we can force our leaders to scrape together. And more
than anything else, we will need a way to force the party
establishment to stand up to big money even when they are
afraid it will cost them. Voting for Nader is clearly not
the solution. I am still trying to figure out what it is.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an
equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same
cam be found at the Adder's Lair at http://www.plaidder.com.
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