If Al Gore gets beaten by George W. Bush, it won't be because Ralph Nader got 5% of the national vote. It will be because the vice president, running during the longest period of economic growth in the nation's history, was unable to distinguish himself from a muddle-headed governor who clearly doesn't even understand his own policy statements and whose track record in Texas has been to put the interests of big business, particularly oil companies, ahead of children and working-class families.
Nader was in Austin Oct. 18. He talked about the plight of 47 million "working poor" Americans, the need for fair trade rules, campaign finance reform and more grassroots democracy, among other issues that motivate his renegade populist campaign. He also was versed on local issues such as a proposal to convert an old oil pipeline to carry much more volatile gas through town, and a referendum on light rail, as he spoke to more than 6,000 supporters who paid $10 each to pack the fieldhouse for easily the biggest local political rally of the year.
Nader, running against stereotype, even displayed a sense of humor, as Matt Welch notes in his report on the Texas "Don't waste your vote" tour on page 13. Nader's hour-and-a-half stump speech was packed with riffs, laugh lines and applause lines, although restless audience members started heading toward the exits in the last 30 minutes. Apparently Nader believes in giving the audience their money's worth.
Democrats alarmed at the popularity of Nader, who polls as high as 8% in some states and threatens to tip Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin and even California into the Bush column, are urging the citizen advocate to drop out of the race. They ought to urge Gore to run like a Democrat.
Even President Bill Clinton appeared frustrated with the Gore campaign's apparent inability to rebut Bush's distortions of the administration's record, while Bush takes credit for dubious achievements in Texas. Clinton said he "almost gagged" when Bush, in the third debate, claimed credit for a patients' bill of rights in an HMO bill in Texas that he originally vetoed. Clinton also scoffed at Bush's argument in the debates, virtually unchallenged by Gore, that the administration has accomplished little in the past eight years on education, health care and other issues. Gore, who has tried to distance himself from the president, reportedly was piqued when Clinton spoke out, but as the vice president began to sink in the polls he later welcomed his boss onto the campaign trail, much to the relief of Democrats who are hoping Clinton can energize the Democratic voting base and at least help win back control of the House.
"We have missed the boat in every debate, every time Bush has said that [Clinton and Gore] haven't done anything in eight years," Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told the Washington Post. "It's an incredible assertion. I think the president is extremely good at making clear what the facts are."
As of this writing, two weeks before the election, the facts are that the presidential race appears to be exceptionally tight. Among the states rated as "tossups" are Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
These are the states where a vote for Nader could have a punishing impact. Unfortunately, the punishment would not be felt by Gore, who at worst would retire to private life with a generous government pension from his years in the Army, Congress and the vice presidency to supplement any private business he might pursue. No, if the Republicans gain control of the White House and keep control of Congress, the punishment inevitably will be suffered by working people.
The last time the GOP controlled the White House and Congress was in the mid-1950s, when there were still humane, moderate Republicans. There are no such animals, at least in the Republican leadership, nowadays.
With Bush/Cheney, Lott and Hastert in power, we will see the completion of the six-year-old Contract on America's working poor. The Republicans can be expected to hack away at what remains of the safety net. Working parents who are having trouble getting insurance for their children, much less themselves, will be at the mercy of the "compassionate conservative" who resisted signing up the children of working poor families for federally funded insurance in Texas last year. Families that live in the shadows of chemical companies can expect Bush and company to call off the watchdogs at the EPA and put industry on the honor system to reduce pollution, as he has in Texas. He trusts industry to do the right thing.
You can expect Republicans to repeal the inheritance tax and the capital gains tax as well as approve the tax breaks Bush already has promised, which will require further cuts in social spending when the economy bottoms out, as it must. They will pass the punitive bankruptcy "reforms" which the banks have been after for years that, among other things, will allow creditors to go after homesteads and pension funds. The only campaign finance "reform" they would pass would limit political activity by labor unions -- a longtime goal of the right wing. While they're at it, do you suppose they would pass up a chance to enact a national "right to work" law?
We don't think the R's would dare to dismantle Medicare, but Bush will pursue any opportunity to "privatize" senior medical care and keep the rest of us reliant on insurance companies. Bush's plan to divert a portion of the Social Security payroll tax for private investment, we believe, is a cynical scheme that will reward the well-off but will force working-class Boomers to work longer and expect fewer benefits when they retire.
Our vote for Nader in Texas is easy, because Bush is expected to carry the state anyway. If you're in a state where the race is close, you might want to hold your nose and vote for Gore, but in any case vote Democratic if you have a competitive House or Senate race.
The Democrats have high hopes of closing the seven-seat gap in the House. That could be a bulwark in case Bush is elected. Dick Gephardt is a moderate populist and his deputy, Dick Bonior, is a progressive populist who has led the fight in the House for fair trade, among other issues. A Democratic majority also would place several progressives, including blacks, Hispanics and women, into important committee and subcommittee chairs.
The odds are longer that Democrats will pick up the five seats they need to regain control of the Senate, but it's worth a vote for a Democrat (if there is a race in your state) to replace Trent Lott with moderate Democrat Tom Daschle as Majority Leader. This will be especially important if Bush lands in the White House and starts nominating federal judges. Some of our Green friends are whistling past the graveyard about the prospects of handing over possibly three or more Supreme Court seats as well as scores of lower court benches to Republican judges, particularly after Bush said his models would be right-wingers Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. With several progressives, and a few populists, in line for Senate committee chairs, a Democratic vote is recommended.
We hope Nader reaches the 5% level to qualify the Green Party for federal funding in the next election. We think Nader will attract many voters, including people who were attracted to the Reform Party before Pat Buchanan took it over, as well as young people who would not see a reason to vote otherwise. Once in the voting booth they are likely to cast ballots for Democrats in down-ballot races. That obviously occurred to several Democratic candidates who were handing out leaflets at the Nader rally in Austin.
We also hope that many of those who tell the pollsters they plan to vote for Bush will find themselves unable to cast a ballot for the smirking suit when they get in the voting booth. Labor unions will do their best to turn out the vote for the Democrats and Gore has a chance, if he unleashes his inner populist once again, to carry the day. But if Gore is defeated, he can hardly blame those who voted for the better man.