A Sow's Ear Election

For much of the election night, when it looked like Al Gore might pull out the victory, it was because labor unions and African Americans got out the vote for him in the northern industrial states and in Florida. About half of Ralph Nader's Green supporters appeared to peel off in the last few days to "come home" and vote for the Democrat. But when the networks early Wednesday morning, Nov. 8, declared that George W. Bush had taken Florida and appeared to win the election (only to hedge that bet an hour later when Dubya's margin dwindled to a few hundred votes), the Vice President could finger himself as the main culprit in his own troubles.

Gore, after all, distanced himself from a popular though controversial President and his partisan colleagues in Congress. He chose to run as his own man (although he appealed to disgruntled progressives to set aside their principles and support him because he was the Democratic nominee). He also allowed his Republican opponent to depict him as untrustworthy, so even though voters generally conceded that Gore had more experience, as vice president during a time of peace and prosperity, and Bush was at best marginally qualified for the office -- and at worst was unaware that Social Security is a federal government program -- half the electorate, buying the argument that Gore was a liar, was willing to risk four years with the amiable Texan.

At least it was fun to watch the puncturing of the Bush campaign's overconfidence. The day before the election Bush staffers were openly speculating about Cabinet appointments and who would handle the transition office. When news media pollsters called Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, for Gore early on election night, it shut up the crowd milling in the cold rain outside the Texas Capitol and caused the Bush family to hustle back from dinner at a local restaurant to the Governor's Mansion to watch the returns and make some strategic phone calls. Republicans, led by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, found some wayward "absentee votes" and got the state moved back into the "too close to call" column, where it stayed into the wee hours.

Don't blame Nader, who drew as many Republicans as Democrats in Florida. It appears that he did not come close to the 5% threshold for the Green Party to qualify for federal funding in the next round of elections, but his insurgent campaign was not a failure. Nader succeeded in energizing young activists and he forced Gore, who came up through the party as a big business-oriented "New Democrat," to embrace populist issues. If Gore's oft-repeated promise to fight for working people apparently did not carry him through to victory, at least the support of working families appeared to put him ahead in the popular vote. (Let the pundits who once fretted that Gore might claim an illegitimate Electoral College victory now urge Dubya to step aside in deference to the popular tally. Fat chance!)

Nader also reminded the "New Democratic" leadership that their electoral hopes rely not only on the political center, but also in tending to the liberal/progressive base of the party. "This effort is going to make people like (Minnesota Sen.) Paul Wellstone more influential within the party," Nader said in an election night interview on National Public Radio. Nader said he'll continue to build a progressive opposition movement and noted that the Greens replaced the Reform Party as the third-largest party in the country. "This movement is designed to reassert the sovereignty of people in a participatory democracy," he said.

Republicans appeared to hold onto control of the House and, if Bush holds on, will rule the Senate by the margin of the new Vice President's vote, as the Democrats showed a net gain of at least three seats with a chance to deadlock the Senate at 50-50 if Maria Cantwell prevails in Washington. Gore shares a large part of the blame for the Democrats' failure to recapture congressional majorities as he refused to allow President Clinton to help get out the vote in battleground states. He neither made a pitch for a Democratic majority in Congress nor attacked the do-nothing Republican Congress during the presidential debates.

A week and a half before the vote, Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Michigan, was pleading for help from the President, who remains personally popular, particularly among Democratic voters. The Gore campaign would not allow the President to travel to Michigan because they were afraid it might offend undecided voters. Stabenow apparently beat incumbent Sen. Spencer Abraham by a narrow margin anyway. Many other D's narrowly lost.

Among other highlights, a dead man beat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft as Missouri voters elected the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. Democratic Gov. Roger Wilson had announced he would appoint the Carnahan's widow, Jean, to the vacancy until the next general election. And whatever you think of Hillary Rodham Clinton, you have to love her knocking off Rick Lazio and sticking it in the face of every right-wing blowhard who made her Public Enemy No. 2. Also, Democrats apparently picked up seats in Delaware, Florida and Minnesota while they lost seats in Nevada and Virginia and Washington was still counting.

This is no time for progressives to go on the defensive. If Bush holds on, the Republican Congress will try to pass every bad bill and self-serving tax cut that Clinton blocked for the past six years. It will be a tough two years, make no mistake, and even Nader might find that there is a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans after all, but in two years 20 more Republican senators will be up for election and Democrats will have another shot at the House. By that time the American electorate might remember why they haven't given Republicans control of the White House and Congress for 45 years.

After an election that saw an estimated $3 billion in hard money, soft money and independent attack ads -- half again as much as the previous record for campaign corruption -- Democrats should press for passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill as the first order of business to rebuild public confidence in government. A larger populist movement is needed to demand the more fundamental reform of public financing of congressional elections, and people like Nader and Doris "Granny D" Haddock" are building that movement. In the meantime states such as Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Vermont are taking the initiative in implementing their own plans. Unfortunately, Oregon and Missouri voters appeared to vote down similar Clean Money initiatives Nov. 8.

Now that Republicans have lost two elections due to a third party and Democrats arguably lost one due to Nader's insurgency, both parties have reason to replace the one-shot, winner-take-all election with an "instant runoff" voting system. In such a system voters would rank candidates according to their order of preference. If a candidate did not reach a clear majority in the first round, the votes would be refigured, throwing out the candidate with the least number of votes. The process would continue until a candidate reaches a majority. In this system, a voter who favored Nader might list Gore or Buchanan as the second choice, just as a voter who favored Buchanan might list Bush or Nader as the second choice. In such a voting system, Gore might have won the election the night of the election.

Another reform that needs a popular movement to drive it is proportional representation, which would allow minorities of voters to win representation in multi-member districts. For example, in a district with five seats, 20% of the vote would win a seat. This would help to preserve representation of black, Hispanic and other minority groups as the Supreme Court backs off from the Voting Rights Act provision for minority single-member congressional districts. It also would allow Democrats to gang up to elect a candidate in an otherwise Republican area, and vice versa.

A movement takes more than one election to build. Democrats can tend to their progressive roots or watch the left drift to alternatives such as the Greens. -- JMC

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