Debate Fight Ends Brusquely
ST. LOUIS -- On a day when Missouri's sky-high hopes for a moment in the national spotlight were marred by tragedy, Ralph Nader's quixotic fight to wiggle his way into the presidential debates ended ignominiously at the hands of campus security guards.
After filing a federal civil rights suit against the Commission on Presidential Debates in the morning, then denouncing America's "stench of fascism" in the afternoon, the Green Party candidate stormed the third and last presidential debate last night at Washington University armed with a valid credential and an interview appointment, but was turned away once more by rent-a-cops acting on behalf of Democrats and Republicans.
"One police guy said 'You cannot come in here' and took me by the elbow and told me I had to go back," Nader told reporters, describing WU as an "armed camp." Security called debate commission officials, who supported their order, he said. "We all had the same badge around our necks which was supposed to allow us to get on the campus," Nader said.
With the end of the brief debate season and all its hope-against-hope talk by Nader supporters of a Jesse Ventura-style bum rush up the polls, Nader was left with the grim consolation prize of establishing some kind of citizen debate watchdog group.
"This will be the last time the debate commission will have a monopoly ... so have your fun, debate commission, this is your last hurrah!" Nader warned defiantly. "By the time we finish with ... the deposition, and the investigations of the stench of crooked corporate money, it's ranking in the public opinion polls will be below a terribly performing used car salesman."
His suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston against the commission, the commission's two co-chairmen, a commission security consultant and a State Police sergeant, claims Nader's rights were denied by his exclusion from the hall at the first presidential debate Oct. 3. He had been given a ticket to the event by a local college student.
The day started abysmally for everybody in Missouri politics. Gov. Mel Carnahan, a classic 66-year-old Southern Democrat who was giving conservative John Ashcroft a serious run for a vital seat in the U.S. Senate, was pronounced dead before sunrise, after his Cessna plunged to the ground in a terrible fog near Jefferson City, killing the governor, his son Randy, and campaign aid Chris Sifford. There was immediate talk from Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's camp that maybe the debate -- which St. Louis had been looking forward to so much -- should be canceled out of sympathy for the Carnahans. And a collective of local anarcho-lefties called "O17" (for October 17) was deflated to discover its chosen day for Seattle-style protest had turned into a national day of mourning.
Nader's campaign team, at a noon press conference, was visibly shaken by the Carnahan news. Press chief Laura Jones shook her head anxiously and whispered "Can you believe it? I mean, did you see all those Carnahan signs on the streets?" After commiserating with his handlers for 15 minutes in a corner of the State Capital building, Nader walked to the podium with a deeply spooked look in his sunken eyes.
"This is a tragic day for the state of Missouri. I extend my condolences to the family of Governor Carnahan," he said, and then paused for 15 seconds to collect himself. "Against this background of tragedy it seems almost tertiary to talk about the press-conference subject today, but I will go ahead with it, because I know that the governor wanted to become a U.S. Senator to represent the people for change in the U.S. Senate."
And go ahead with it Nader did. He described his expulsion from the first debate in Boston as "an indefensible act of political arrogance," and an "unlawful police order to exclude me." The debate commission -- a private bipartisan body that set the 15 percent bar of poll support for inclusion into the campaign contests, is "not only a political atrocity, it's now a military initiative." The Democrats and Republicans, meanwhile, are "complicit in allowing big business to hijack our democracy and our government, and to strip us of our control over everything that matters."
Nader always maintained that a debate without him would be a debate that ignored the Drug War, white-collar crime, child poverty, the Taft-Hartley Act, and so on. And last night, as in the previous two presidential debates, both candidates steered toward a safe harbor of near agreement on most controversial issues. Given a clear opportunity to slam Bush's enforcement of Texas' much-criticized death penalty system, for example, Democrat Al Gore said only that he also supported capital punishment.
Driven to the margins of the mass media, Nader is left with his impressive paid super-rallies, and speech after corporate-bashing speech in front of white college students. St. Louis, a city with a huge African-American population and an epidemic of classic suburban-flight issues -- blight, vanished tax base, awful municipal service, crime, despair -- should be uniquely receptive to Nader's class-war proposals to soak the rich and give freebies like health care and college education to the poor, and his arguments to end discriminatory enforcement of the Death Penalty and the Drug War.
But even when he ventured to the largely African-American Mid-City area of town, where spruced-up entertainment centers share space with totally abandoned 40-story high-rises, and whole city blocks of stores are boarded up, Nader can't seem to draw a minority audience. At the massive Scottish Rites Temple, maybe 10 in an audience of over a hundred were black.
As is his custom when addressing an audience that might be focused on race issues, Nader immediately launched into attacks on "loan sharks and redlining. Perhaps after sizing up the typical Nader crowd of '60s veterans and the new Seattle Kids, he then delivered the red meat they were waiting for. "We need a political revolution in this country!" he said, drawing the biggest applause of the speech.
If Nader tips the electoral balance from Gore to Bush in any state, Missouri would be a prime candidate. Party affiliation, the presidential race, and several statewide contests are all statistical dead heats going into November, and the national contenders in particular are nervous, because Missouri has a better track record in electing presidents than any other state in the union (Adlai Stevenson was the last one the "Show Me" citizens got wrong).
Though Nader is spending much energy on already decided states like New York, California and Texas (subject of Nader's forthcoming "Don't Waste Your Vote" tour), he did not shy away from aggressively campaigning in a close race. "Missouri is a swing state," he told supporters. "Missouri is a state you can send the politicians a big message by giving local, state and national Green Party candidates your vote."
An essential Nader campaign justification for potentially wreaking havoc on Gore's campaign is that Nader's supporters theoretically come from the ranks of the political drop-outs, and from the ranks of people who got excited by the campaigns of Ventura, Sen. John McCain and Ross Perot. But at his rallies, there is nothing remotely centrist, moderate-Republican or even Texan about the rhetoric. "We always thought Communism would bury us," said Green Party state senatorial candidate Mary Auer, in one supporting speech. "It's not Communism that's going to bury this country. It is going to be buried -- it's well on it's way -- and it's by capitalism."
Ventura, who believes a Third Party must be centrist, and that socialist-leaning college students need a good dose of reality before being taken seriously, would have flinched at some of Nader's spirited flogging of "giant corporations" later in the afternoon, at the nearly 1,000-strong O17 rally in a park adjacent to Washington University.
"There's just one thing I want you to believe, and that is ... you can take back your country, and say to those giant corporations that they are going to be your servants, not your masters! said Nader. "What happens is that in a very few decades corporations have reasserted their power to new heights of autocracy over our democracy. And we have to now assert our democratic power.
"We have so much to offer the rest of the world by example, by appropriate science and technology, by our finest traditions of justice, and by the great generosity of our people. All these are being pressed downward by the greed and power of fewer and fewer giant corporations that are merging by the week."
At the end of the speech, the energized Nader stormed the university barricades, and received his final insult. Accompanied by a reporter from the campus TV station and bearing a credential to speak with two reporters at their tent outside the field house where the debate took place, he was turned forcefully away, even though two of his campaign staffers had been allowed inside with the same type of pass.
Nader left the campus and his campaign aides said he planned to go to his hotel to watch the debate.
Outside the debate security lines, little knots of cuddly anarchists stood off under trees, looking mysterious. Huge puppets of evil-looking pigs walked by, dangling mini-politicians from their hooves. A group of nerdy kids wore red shirts that said, simply, "On to Mars!"
As the crowd dissipated, and the kids who drove all the way from Wisconsin on the proceeds of a campus bake sale plotted their next move in the anti-globalization fight, Nader's pessimistic stream-of-consciousness rap echoed in ears that won't soon be listening to any Jim Lehrer-moderated debate:
"The two rapidly diminishing men you will see on the debate tonight, frightened by their own shadows, crumbling before the same corporate powers, homogenizing their minds, refusing to recognize the truth, withering and wallowing and wavering and shaking and dodging confronting the fundamental subject matter that is on the minds of most people in this country. Which is: that they're all losing control.
"That people are losing control over almost everything that matters to them. They're losing control over their government, over their workplace, over their marketplace, over the environment, over their own children, they're losing control over their own time, they're losing control over their own human being, over their own privacy to these corporate invaders, they're losing control over their own territorial jurisdiction, their own sovereignty, which is being transferred on the installment plan to these international autocratic systems of governance, that we call the World Trade Organization, and the NAFTA -- both supported by the Republican and the Democratic parties, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore."