Al Gore already owes a debt to Ralph Nader's insurgent campaign. As a Green Party candidate for president, Nader raised populist issues such as the corporate control of government and the problems of workers who are cast adrift in a global "free trade" push while all Gore wanted to talk about was the booming economy. Democratic leaders became alarmed as Nader's support in polls approached double digits in key states while Gore lagged double digits behind the Republican boy wonder, George Dubya Bush.
Bush was so confident of victory last month that he named a fellow oilman from Texas as his running mate.
Gore shook it up on the final night of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles when he first embraced wife Tipper with a prime-time lip-lock and then embraced populist rhetoric as he accepted the Democratic nomination. There was not that much new in his support for campaign finance reform, education, Social Security, Medicare and health coverage for children, and his promise to fight for the interests of working families will not strike fear into the hearts of corporate executives who have been financing his campaign so far, but it was refreshing to hear the vice president at least give lip service to populist issues.
Gore's rise in the polls after his acceptance speech wiped the smirk off Dubya's face for a moment and showed that the $20 million payment Dick Cheney got as a going-away gift from Halliburton, an oilfield service and construction company, may have been premature. Gore's 55-minute performance, if not spellbinding, at least confirmed that he is in command of his issues, in contrast with the Texas governor's "compassionate conservative" platitudes delivered two weeks earlier in Philadelphia.
Bush later charged that Gore was engaging in "class warfare" and was "playing politics" in his promises to fight for the interests of working people. This from the standard-bearer of the Republican Party whose main initiatives are elimination of the estate tax for wealthy heirs, more reductions in the capital gains tax and holding the line against any increases in the minimum wage, much less spending on welfare programs for the poor. And Bush -- who has raised $100 million for his presidential race so far and whose handlers would not allow John McCain to mention campaign finance reform in his speech to the Republican convention -- had the gall to say that Gore could not be trusted to deliver on his promise to clean up elections. Clear the sty out of your own eye, Dubya.
In the meantime, Gore was off rocking and rolling down the Mississippi River with Tipper, showing off his inner Elvis as well as his New Populism to the crowds that welcomed him along the river's banks in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., has been making the point that bread-and-butter progressive issues are winning issues, as polls show that people want campaign finance reform, better health care, stronger Social Security and improved public schools, but the first reaction of pundits after Gore's speech seemed to be that he was taking a risk in taking this populist turn. That shows you how far removed the pundit class is from working people who haven't benefitted all that much from the economic boom.
In 1988 it took Michael Dukakis until the final two weeks of the campaign to discover that populist rhetoric appeals to voters (imagine that!). His belated pitch to address workers' concerns nearly caught the wonkish Dukakis up with old George Bush. That Gore clued in on this "secret" this early is a hopeful sign for Democrats. One can imagine a poster in Gore's "war room" that reminds one and all of the central talking point: "It's the working families, stupid!"
Not that we should get carried away over what so far appears to be little more than a cosmetic change which, it turns out, was field tested before Big Al wrote it into his speech. Recall that Bill Clinton ran a populist campaign in 1992, only to find out after he plopped into the Oval Office that Wall Street was calling the shots.
So the race is on and progressives face the choice: Gore, the Democratic nominee, who has evolved from a centrist congressman and senator to a vice president who supports incremental reforms in campaign finance, education, Social Security and health care. Or we have Nader, the Green nominee, who has made a career of fighting for citizen rights, accountability for giant corporations, public financing of elections, universal health coverage and "fair trade" pacts that protect labor standards and the environment in the United States and overseas.
Barbara Ehrenreich, a progressive author who supports Nader, says, "If you vote for Al Gore, you say you're OK with the plutocracy that controls the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party." There is something to that argument.
However, Nader's rhetoric notwithstanding, there is still a difference between Democrats and Republicans. Sometimes it might not look like much of a difference -- the D's at times do appear reduced to the centrist wing of the Money Party, and you can bet that Al Gore's fighting spirit will fold before the same bond traders that explained reality to Clinton in 1993 -- but if the GOP gets control of the White House and both houses of Congress you'd see how right-wing Dubya could become in a New York minute. The Supreme Court soon would be headed the same direction, with several seats likely to come open in the next few years, and pretty soon abortion rights wouldn't be the only thing out the window.
If you thought Reagan/Bush was bad, the Democrats warn, picture its sequel with Dick Armey calling the shots in the House, Trent Lott running the Senate, Dubya ready to sign any bill that bunch of scoundrels produces, and Antonin Scalia as the new Chief Justice of a Supreme Court packed with his clones. It wouldn't even do you any good to leave the country, because then you run the risk of becoming a victim of American foreign policy.
But Gore has not earned your vote. Even if his new populist turn has you thinking maybe he'd be OK after all, it's too soon to write Nader off. Come November you can make an informed vote, but don't settle for a protest vote for Nader. If you do vote for Nader, vote for him to win. In American politics, there is no consolation prize.
Of course, the rap on Nader is that he cannot win. That same rap was used to belittle Jesse Ventura in 1998 before he was included in debates of Minnesota candidates for governor. Going into the debates he was polling only 10% support but his straight talk impressed viewers and he upset the mainstream contenders in large part by appealing to the working people who would not have otherwise voted.
Recent polls show Nader with anywhere from 3 to 7 percent support after little more than a word-of-mouth campaign. If he had gotten the amount of press coverage that Gore and Bush have received over the past year, there is no telling the level of public support he would be enjoying right now. But in a year where cynicism about politics is widespread and less than half the electorate is expected to vote, Nader could make a race of it just by appealing to those 100 million discouraged voters. Televised debates could be just the forum for that sort of appeal.
The electorate deserves a full airing of the broad spectrum of American politics, from the full-throated progressive populism of Nader to the pop-flavored centrism of Gore, to the conservatism of Bush, to the right-wing populism of Buchanan. Democracy depends on the myth that the people decide.
Gore revived his campaign by reaching to the populist roots that made the political career of his father. Now that Gore and Bush have accepted the $67 million each in federal funds for the general election campaign Gore can show us how independent he intends to be. A bold start would be to open up the presidential debates by inviting Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. -- JMC