Febraury 25, 2004
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 vote?
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 that.
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 one vote.
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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