LOYAL OPPOSITION: Liberals Attack Nader

Liberals are out to stop Ralph Nader.

The day before the Democrats opened their convention in Los Angeles, The Nation magazine staged a panel discussion in a Los Angeles temple, where prominent progressives, including Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Senator Paul Wellstone, California legislator Tom Hayden, and author Barbara Ehrenreich pondered the future of the Democratic Party before an audience of 800. What was most interesting was that the discussion turned into a debate on the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, the famous consumer advocate, who is running on the Green Party line.

The back-and-forth in Los Angeles was passionate, as Wellstone and Jackson argued for sticking with the Democratic Party rather than backing Nader because their party (a) is better than the Republican Party on significant policy matters, particularly those that affect low- and middle-income Americans, such as the minimum wage, the earned-income tax credit, and college tuition tax breaks, (b) stands as the only real bulwark against the Republicans, who would wage war on programs for the poor, labor unions, abortion rights, and environmental standards, and (c) can be improved if good-hearted people organize within its ranks. Ehrenreich argued that when a serious and trustworthy progressive candidate champions the right stands -- as does Nader -- he ought to be supported, especially when he provides an escape route from the institutional corruption of the corporate-finance Democratic-Republican duopoly.

As Ehrenreich spoke, I must have, for a moment, nodded approvingly, for a prominent progressive organizer in the audience, a person who has spent many years in the labor movement, grabbed my arm, yanked me out of the auditorium, and demanded to know if I was endorsing Nader. My interrogator informed me that all sophisticated lefties had no choice but to fall into line behind Prince Albert, for were George W. to be elected, the unions would be under seige, particularly if the Republicans retained control of Congress.

Sure, this person said, Gore's deficits were serious. He's been a supporter of corporate free trade, a practitioner of sleazy campaign finances, a friend of welfare deform, an advocate of more military spending and the dubious national missile defense program, and a disappointment on his signature issue of environmentalism. But a Gore Administration would provide labor -- the key component of the progressive community -- the space in which it could continue to organize and boost its political clout. Put Bush in the White House, and labor would have to expend energy and resources to thwart the inevitable Republican assaults. And a vote for Nader is not a block-Bush vote. "Don't you see?" this well-intentioned progressive asked. "Don't you?" It was almost a plea.

There's some merit to this go-with-Gore/anti-Nader argument -- which many nervous progressives are pushing. Give the Republicans the power of the White House and Congress, and the odds are good the poor will be screwed, labor will have to play defense, and the rich will be showered with tax cuts. There's also, of course, the Supreme Court, which is delicately balanced between the so-called liberal-and-moderate bloc and the conservative wing. Months ago, People for the American Way, the liberal outfit founded by television producer Norman Lear, held its annual luncheon in Washington and honored Ann Lewis, a longtime liberal who became a top spinner for the Clinton White House, and her brother, Representative Barney Frank. Many a speaker at the event reminded the Washington Hilton audience that with the Court in possible play, it was crucial that the Republicans not take the White House and gain the chance to steer the Court to the right.

The thinly-veiled message of the PFAW luncheon was, we must elect the good-enough Al Gore to stop the Right from remaking the Court. The implicit message was, Nader is the enemy, for he distracts people and muddies the picture. In fact, award recipient Barney Frank has been the most persistent critic of the Nader candidacy, dismissing Nader's commitment to civil rights and abortion rights and claiming he has doesn't give a whit about poor people. And during a PFAW party at the LA convention, I encountered several top-tier liberals who, unprompted, expressed anger at Nader for possibly enabling a Bush victory.

The case against Nader has its logic, a depressing logic. Even though the Democrats and the Republicans share many ugly values of the tainted political system they co-manage, there are differences between the two, differences that might matter to a low-income family that needs help paying for college tuition for its kids or prescription drugs for the grandparents. Many Democrats are as eager to bag corporate soft money and as reluctant to challenge the excesses of globalization as are Republicans. But most of them, unlike the Republicans, are not scheming to hand over Social Security to Wall Street. Viva la difference, I suppose. So there are tactical reasons for progressives to ignore the stench and vote Gore.

But -- you knew a "but" was coming, I hope -- when it comes to selecting the nation's paramount leader, an American should have the option of voting for principles, rather than tactics.

Twenty years ago, I spent a year working for Nader. That stint provided an unromanticized view of Citizen Nader. He was constantly hatching new ideas for advancing consumer rights, good government, and environmentalism. But like many visionaries who triumphed over entrenched power after being told they had no chance (in his case, he bested GM and the auto industry, which resisted his attempts to force them to manufacture safer cars), Nader had an alarming stubborn streak. He did, though, know how to inspire. One night a law school student who was working on a project involving energy companies and federal lands fell asleep at his desk at 2:00 am. Nader, who maintained erratic hours, was passing through the office. He saw the student, shook him awake, and asked, in all earnestness, "Do you think Mobil Oil ever goes to sleep?"

It is hard to envision Al Gore waking up an aide in the wee hours to remind him that protecting the public interest requires constant vigilance and determination. Nader has stirred hundreds of people to pursue public-interest careers. His shop has been a breeding ground for do-gooders, who have gone on to populate the occupational safety and consumer protection infrastructures of state and federal governments. Notable journalists such as Michael Kinsley, James Fallows, and Ray Bonner passed through his offices.

What has Al Gore bequeathed the world? The most noteworthy Gore alums are corporate lobbyists.

Nader's work has led to laws that address unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking and poultry industries, unsafe automobiles, the dangers of natural gas pipelines, radiation emitted from televisions, cronyism at the Federal Trade Commission, and the dangers of working in coal mines. He has created numerous citizen-action groups and promoted consumer co-ops. He has been one of the clearest and loudest voices against monopolies and the corporatization of the political process. He pushed Congress to adopt procedural reforms that opened up committee activity to the public, and he helped put teeth into the Freedom of Information Act. He has achieved more than most governors and members of Congress -- including his competitors in the presidential race. It is disheartening that most politicos and media chatterers do not consider someone with this resume a natural contender for the presidency.

Nader's candidacy has been widely defined by its impact (real or imagined) on the Gore campaign, and much of the commentary regarding Nader has fixed on whether he will "steal" votes from Gore and hand Bush the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania. Theoretically, Nader could attract enough Gore-leaners to cost the Vice-President the election. But that is not the only theory to consider.

Ross Perot, the billionaire weirdo who advocated campaign finance reform and opposed the NAFTA trade accord (as has Nader), won 20 million votes in 1992 and 8 million in 1996. This voting pool is not a good swimming hole for Gore. If these folks didn't vote for Clinton, they are unlikely to demand his understudy. If Nader could win half of the Perot vote of 1996 and reclaim the 700,000 votes he snagged during his joke of a presidential run that year, he would be damn close to his stated goal of winning 5 percent of the total -- which would qualify the Green Party for federal funds in the next presidential contest. And he would do so without swiping Gore supporters.

No one can say for certain what Nader does to the Gore vote, if anything. Perhaps Nader's presence in the race moved Gore to adopt his populist-lite stance, which seems to be faring well (as far as polls can tell). Had Nader heeded the calls of Barney Frank and others and abandoned his quixotic mission months ago, maybe Gore would not have been pushed to address the Nader threat and would have continued to mount a lackluster campaign. Does Gore already owe Nader a thank-you?

Cause-and-effect in politics is often not discernible. Consequently, how can progressives-for-Gore in good faith assert that people must vote for a man whose commitment to their values is questionable, a man who has readily participated in the political sleaze they decry?

Consider Nader. Here's a man who believes in what he believes. One does not have to ask, is he saying whatever he's saying merely to get elected? One does not have to look at his present positions and try to reconcile them with previous positions. One does not have to worry that he will shift his policies once he assumes office. One does not have to wonder about his integrity. (He has given away about $10 million of his earnings since 1967 to his various projects and organizations. In 1997, Gore made nearly $200,000 and slipped $353 to charity.)

If there are Americans who feel that Nader represents their frustrations and their hopes, who appreciate his decades of public service, who are enthused by his no-BS, anti-slick style, who agree with his challenge to politics-as-usual, who yearn for a third-party challenge to the Republicans, and who believe they have finally found a truth-telling candidate -- and this is a rare occurence in politics -- it is damn presumptuous to guilt-trip them out of voting for Nader and into supporting a fellow who does not stand for their views. As I replied to my friend at the LA temple, regardless of the tactical reasons, I cannot tell people they have to vote for a lout (okay, maybe Gore's only a semi-lout) over an honorable man.

Bush is right: it would be nice to see honor and integrity in the Oval Office. Nader has jazzed up not millions, but thousands. In Portland, Oregon, 10,000 Naders fans packed the Memorial Coliseum to see him. The California Nurses Association and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, two small unions, have endorsed him. Nader is registering with those who want more choice than the current political system offers. That deserves a cheer or two. Unfortunately, there are signs the anti-Nader progressives will become increasingly hostile and vocal as election day approaches.

A progressive is not compelled to vote for Nader. If he or she has nightmares about a Bush Supreme Court validating abortion restrictions or a Bush Administration rubber-stamping social spending cuts and environmental standard rollbacks, then it's not wrong to vote for Gore to stop Bush. But the bash-Nader libs are playing a dangerous game -- dangerous, in terms of preserving their own credibility. Those who advocate honesty in politics should not undermine the opportunity citizens have to vote for authenticity and integrity. Given what may happen should Bush win, a vote for Gore is understandable, but it is not an imperative.

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