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Illustration by Tracey Snelling

Later for Nader

Can America afford a closet right-wing moron?

By Stephen Kessler

RALPH NADER'S presidential campaign this year has been a refreshing blast of reality. Nader's scathing critique of the corporate corruption of American politics has been a vital contribution to the public discourse, casting a cold light into the darker corners of our democracy. His tendency toward self-righteousness has at least been earned through decades of heroic work for the public good; Nader lays no claim to divine endorsement or religious superiority.

With nothing to lose by speaking frankly, he has raised uncomfortable questions about the Democratic Party's apparent abandonment of some of its traditional values. Most valuable of all, his activist populism has forced Al Gore, a centrist "New Democrat," sharply to the left--in rhetoric at least--to take up the cause of "working families" and the middle class against the "powerful forces" (big insurance, big oil, big drugs, HMOs) conspiring to steal their money, foul their habitat, wreck their health, and generally sabotage their lives.

It's possible that this latest Gore is a fraud, that once elected he would forget what he's said on the campaign trail since the Democratic National Convention and go back to work for his corporate contributors in a business-as-usual joke on the people who voted for him. But Gore, for all his difficulty telling the whole truth and nothing but, strikes me as more sincere and more pragmatic than that; he has the character of a Boy Scout, square and eager to please in a way that would make it hard for him to bail out on his declared principles.

Having pledged to defend the little guy, he would at least feel morally obligated to make an effort in that direction. His liberal pedigree and policy proposals--his willingness to invest the fruits of a healthy economy in programs that would benefit those parts of the population that need the most help--give him a certain amount of credibility.

Unlike Nader, whose opposition to global capitalism is principled but pointless under present circumstances, Gore accepts existing economic realities and wants to make them work more fairly for everyone.

But like Nader, who is comparably short on charisma, Gore is an imperfect candidate, a creature of a system in need of repair.

It could be argued that, having already embarrassed himself to the edge of indictment through various fundraising scandals, Gore is actually in a stronger position than he might otherwise be to work for campaign finance reform. Having publicly acknowledged his own corruption, he's motivated to correct it. Nader, having never been more than an "outside agitator," though a very effective one, is both untainted by the system and unproven as someone who can function effectively within it and thereby change it. But beyond their experiential and ideological differences, the major distinction between Nader and Gore is that Gore has a chance of being elected president. The alternative, for those conscious enough to tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican, is the disturbingly moronic and deviously sinister George W. Bush.

Nader's claim that the donkeys and elephants are just two faces of the same corporate beast may be useful as an analytical tool, but anyone who thinks Ted Kennedy, Paul Wellstone, John Lewis, and Maxine Waters are politically equivalent to Jesse Helms, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, and Trent Lott is dangerously deluded. Those on the left, or off the charts, who believe that by voting for Nader--or not voting--and thereby helping elect Bush they are somehow striking a blow for political integrity and against corporate domination of the world will be rudely awakened when the Bush team takes over and proceeds to bankrupt the federal treasury by giving the richest people in the country a trillion dollars in tax breaks that might have gone toward health care, environmental protection, public education, and other investments in the common good.

A Bush presidency would be a great leap backward--just look who his advisers are: mostly his father's cohorts, tottering relics of a Republicanism that pretended to be "conservative" but ran up record debt and deficits. And even more alarming, look who his closest supporters are: the NRA, the Christian Coalition, the whole suspiciously silent Republican right.

A Bush administration is a nightmare waiting to happen, and the Naderistas are its enablers.

IT'S NO ACCIDENT that Nader's support comes almost exclusively from white middle-class lefties who have little to lose by turning the government over to the reactionaries. As Jesse Jackson Jr. has pointed out, minorities and the poor are far more dependent on government programs and therefore cannot afford to throw their votes away on a candidate who not only can't win but would help defeat the one who would work for them. I'm sure they harbor no illusions about Gore, but his credentials are so far superior to Bush's (or to Nader's, for that matter, in terms of ability to work with, rather than against, Congress as it currently exists) that the vice president, for all his faults, is unquestionably the preferable candidate.

Were Gore so far ahead in the polls, as Clinton was of Dole in 1996, that a vote for Nader would be a harmless statement of protest, I might be inclined, as I was then, to go that route. But the gravity of the consequences of a Bush victory, and the closeness of the race in these final days, makes clear what the responsible choice is for anyone with democratic instincts.

Supreme Court and federal regulatory appointments, abortion rights, campaign finance, gun control, workers' rights, the environment, healthcare, Social Security, taxes and their impact on the government's ability to serve the public--these are all vital issues on which Bush and Gore have serious disagreements, and to which their respective administrations would respond with seriously different policies. To pretend otherwise is an act of political idiocy.

Thanks to Nader, Gore must now put his money where his mouth is and make good on his promise to fight for ordinary people against the depredations of the big boys. Having made an important contribution to the dynamics of the debate, Nader, if he really cares about this country, should urge his supporters to get behind Gore.

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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