Why Are We Surprised, Again?

Over at The Left Coaster, paradox gets upset about the seeming inevitability of the coming health care cave-in by Obama and Congressional Democrats to the industry forces and the still-deeply unpopular GOP. He describes himself, not without reason, as “politically hurt, profoundly ashamed, and fundamentally bewildered how the Democratic Party could go so stupidly wrong.” And he makes the obviously-true observation that

…doofus offensive Senators from nowhere drive the Democratic Party crown jewel accomplishment [health care] metric so they can compromise with loathed and hated Republicans.

Yup, that about sums it up. As the Summer of Hate blazes on, and wingnuts assault their representatives with pictures of Obama defaced to look like Hitler (and even sillier actual arguments), the Democratic party, holder of sixty Senate seats, the White House, and an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives, appears yet again poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, through nothing more than a simple lack of vision and spine. I was so simultaneously in-sympathy with paradox’s agony and so irritated by the recollection of the treatment I and others received for having voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 because we saw this sickness full-blown in then-candidate Gore, that I began writing a reply to paradox’s post. And, as is my wont, it turned into a bit more than I’d originally intended. Heh. Who’d-a thunk? 😉 So, considering a) I’m no longer on the Left Coast and b) this really turned into what should be its own post, I’m going to re-post it here, after the jump:

Y’know, I can’t tell you how much crap I’ve received over the years in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) since, let’s say, DailyKos started up or thereabouts, every time I reveal – and heaven forbid if I should ever even think about trying to defend – that I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000.

I’ve been called what’s wrong with the Democratic party, what’s wrong with liberals, what’s eating Gilbert Grape, you name it. I’ve been accused of being soft-headed, not thinking clearly, lacking vision or focus, etc. And those were the tame ones. In general, I tend not to mind, since I’ve no regrets at all about my decision even at this late date, and with the benefit of hindsight – though it does get awfully monotonous and tiring, hearing the same old inaccurate and tired accusations over and over again. I’m not accusing you of having made any of these accusations, per se – I don’t really know how you personally feel about those who “went Nader” in 2000 – but certainly there are those right here on this very blog who didn’t bother holding back their venom towards people who went Obama this time, let alone Nader in 2000.

The reason I’ve found so many of the complaints about “people like me” so tiresome isn’t just because of their ubiquity and uniformity, though: it’s because of their collective missing of the most basic point of all. It’s this inability on the part of those doing such complaining to get at what’s genuinely wrong – and still continues to be wrong – that is why I find all the vitriol more a depressing annoyance (like persistent mosquitos at an outside event I can’t leave) than a mortal wounding. And I suspect you’ve already figured out why I chose to put this here, in reply to your post: because your post perfectly demonstrates, highlights and laments what remains wrong to this day with the institutional left in the form of the Democratic party.

Because you were absolutely right (or, I guess, Digby was) when you said that it’s complete bullshit that “the liberal base has nowhere to go.” Five-hundred-and-thirty-seven fucking votes, gang. 537. How many did Ralph Nader get in Florida that year, again? 90,000? Anyone who’s still saying – and especially any elected leader who’s operating under the principle (RahmBo, I’m looking at your scheming ass) – that the liberal base has nowhere to go is forgetting the recent past to such an alarming degree that it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of reasonability to wonder if they’re simply ideologically incapable of observing and reacting appropriately to reality any longer.

If I sound almost exultant about having cost Al Gore the election in 2000, I am. I hated the Bush years as much as anyone here, perhaps even more so because I knew going in that it was people like me who were quite possibly going to cause Bush’s election, and therefore some of the then-unknowable but certain-to-follow shit-storm of incompetence and patriotism-plated mendacity would be on my head; that I would be responsible for some of it. But before anyone pulls out the flame-quills, stop and ask yourselves this question: did you really – heck, did anyone really, truly think that Lucy wasn’t going to pull the football away again this time, if we elected the still-Beltway-insider and sometime environmentalist Al Gore in 2000? Or, for that matter, whether we elected either the plucky mixed-race dude with the unlikely personal story and the soaring rhetorical skills, or the cast-iron consummate insider, tempered in the fires of her husband’s administration, with the world’s deepest rolodex?

What’s most annoying about the people who’ve consistently castigated Nader voters since 2000 is that they do so on the basis of being clearly able to see that we – Nader voters – have some of the responsibility for the train wreck of the Bush years (just as I pointed out that I already knew going into the 2000 election), but they either can’t see – or don’t accept – that we would have already arrived at some of the very same places you’re now so upset about if we had elected Gore in 2000: a popular(ish) President, but a media still dominated by mendacious conservatives memes, and a congress which – regardless of the actual balance of power – simply would not stand up and fight for the reforms we all know are so desperately needed in the way they need to be fought for.

For crying out loud, does anyone really need any further proof than the current health-care “debate” debacle, that electing the Al Gore of the 2000 campaign, where the early Presidential debates with candidate Bush were marked more by their inability to find substantial points of disagreement than they were by heated arguments (support for death penalty, increasing military budget, etc.) would have resulted only in getting to exactly where we are now…but with even greater timidity and ineffectiveness than currently? Think about it: we’ve got one of the most telegenic, articulate, intelligent Presidents in years. We’ve got sixty seats in the Senate. We’ve got an enormous majority in the house. And – as you say – we’re STILL “unable to beat even these horrible chumps.” And yet we’re supposed to believe that if only those feckless liberal base idiots hadn’t voted for Nader, that things would REALLY have gotten done under a President Gore?

Please. That kick-ass speech of Gore’s at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, the one which sounded so much like the voice of the guy we all thought we were voting for when we cast votes for Gore in 2000? That came only AFTER the heartbreaking loss, the time in the wilderness, the growth of the facial hair, and the freedom that comes from not being part of the political mainstream any more, specifically, of the Democratic party insiders machine anymore. Candidate Gore, if he’d become President, would no more have made a speech like that one than he would have sprouted wings and flown. Or, perhaps – put better – would not have made such a speech any more than bipartisanship-loving President Obama would, with Rahm Emanuel whispering in his ear, stand up and make one of those soaring speeches from the campaign trail in unapologetic support of real health care reform. Instead, you get the nearly-instinctive flinching of the elected modern Democrat, always looking over his shoulder to figure out what the Luntz-primed Republicans are saying – or might say – on a given topic.

It’s a fair point to note that candidate Gore, had he become President, would not have made such a speech as the powerfully anti-Iraq war one that ex-candidate Gore gave at the Commonwealth Club because he would not have needed to make such a speech: that the only reason Gore gave that speech was because Bush was President, and that if Gore had been, we wouldn’t have even been IN such a mess. It’s a fair point…but I wouldn’t be too sure. While I will stipulate that even the triangulating, far-more-craven VP/candidate Gore would have been nowhere near the proactive disaster that Bush was, I don’t think it follows that he would have been any great shakes as a President, either. Again, I’ll refer you to the current health care push: that’s among the top priorities for most liberals/progressives I know. As I write this, I sit here in my “health care for all, yes on 186” t-shirt from the 1994 California single-payer initiative attempt. Many of us have been pushing on this and other goals for decades.

And what have we got to show for it? The Republicans aren’t wrong when they point out that things like DOMA and DADT and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act and various other hideous pieces of legislation were all passed under a Democratic President. Of course, most of those things were all led by Republicans and conservative think-tanks. But they couldn’t have happened over a veto, likely, nor without at least some Democratic congressional support (or at least acquiescence). Bill Clinton recently told the throngs at Netroots Nation: “You wanna talk about ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. You couldn’t deliver me any support in the Congress…” In other words, according to Clinton, it’s our fault. Think about that for a moment before you continue. And, of course, the thought of vetoing a piece of legislation simply because it was, you know, WRONG, doesn’t enter into the Big Dog’s calculus. It never has. This is the DLC-led, triangulating, appease-the-Republicans, bipartisanship-over-good-law Democratic party which you’re complaining about, in full flower. It’s been on display, for anyone who cared to observe it, since Reagan.

It isn’t that the GoOPers are unbeatable, either, or that institutionalized or structural forces are so arrayed against progressive and liberal ideas that no amount of electoral victory would allow passage of landmark legislation, whether it be on health care, environmental protections or labor laws (or any of dozens of other issues). They’re not unbeatable. As you correctly observe, today’s Republicans are eminently beatable, especially right now. But what it will take is exactly what has been lacking in mainstream Democratic party proper since Reagan (and certainly since Gingrich’s “Class of ’94”) – and the reason I, with eyes open, voted for Nader instead of Gore in 2000: there’s no spine. There’s no clarity of vision enough to see that what’s required is someone to LEAD, not triangulate. Contrary to Clinton’s formulation at the Netroots Nation to answer the “heckler” (in other words: disappointed liberal) over DADT and DOMA, it isnt’ that our elected leaders (Democrats) don’t receive any support from US, the base, it’s instead that, once elected, we dont’ receive any support from them. And it is this lack of either vision, spine or both, that leads to the GOP perennially eating our lunches, even when they’re in as much disarray as they are currently.

Henry Ford once said “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” And, while this isn’t the deepest quote I’ve ever come across, it’s perfectly suitable for the problem the Democratic party has faced for some time now. On something as large and, frankly, boring to most people as the details of health care policy, those wishing to pass effective and comprehensive reform (which I do believe includes most of the Democrats currently in office) need to LEAD. Democrats and liberals are great at listening to the people and figuring out what they want (unlike Ford, I don’t think that’s useless, I just think you have to discern what’s really upsetting them and what are false issues or distractions). Democrats have always have been good at listening to people. In fact, they’re too good at it; where they fall down is when it comes time to put those identified needs of the public – and the Democrats’ own values – into action. They get so caught up in listening, whether to the loonballs at town hall meetings whining about Hitler’s “T4” plan, or disingenuous Republicans on the hill who are negotiating in bad faith from the get-go (and, frankly, they’re also too scared of another anti-Democratic wave like in 1994) that they compromise away not just their ideas but their principles before the game’s really even begun.

I’m far from the first amateur health care wonk to point out that it was a colossal blunder to not even include the single-payer folks at the table in the early stages of negotiations on health care. Not because I think there was any chance that single-payer would have been the plan that would have emerged from the committee process, but because, without those single-payer people represented as part of the spectrum of ideas worthy of consideration, there’s far less to compromise from. In one fell, unthinking blunder, the public option suddenly – and needlessly – became the most “radical” idea on the table, leaving Democrats no wiggle room nor anything to compromise on. first by having the steel to create a good bill, and finally by mounting an aggressive campaign to tell not just the people, but perhaps recalcitrant members of their own party in congress why THIS is what they need.

And now we see the result: Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus being empowered to write our nation’s entire health care future for the foreseeable future, quite possibly returning a bill that will be “passable,” but which will be so drained of real reform that the Republicans will be able to campaign against it in 2010 and 2012 by saying that we tried it their way, and it didn’t work….and it also cost you tons of money. It won’t matter if those charges are true…all except the one about “not working.” The Republicans are going to lie and do whatever’s required to get elected, anyway, but they’re not wizards: they can’t make people disbelieve their own eyes and experiences. If health care reform were to pass – real health care reform, with a strong public option and all the other goodies we know any such bill would need to be successful, then in 2010 and 2012 and possibly for quite some time afterwards, when the Republicans’ most dire predictions don’t come true – and, in fact, people see in their own lives that it DID work – no amount of GOP spin will be able to tell people that it didn’t. They’ll still make the “socialism” and “our way would’ve been better” arguments, and the ever-popular “it cost too much.” But if people can point to success stories of health care that they know wouldn’t have happened under the old system, those arguments will fall flat, and the Republicans will continue their downward trajectory and be even more pointedly forced to choose between empowering and legitimizing the lunatic Limbaugh/Palin wing of the party (thus ensuring the death-spiral continues), or standing up within their own caucus and calling bullshit on the worst of the liars and fear-mongers and returning to something like the “loyal opposition” they’re supposed to be – heck…maybe even to win elections again sometime in the future.

But that isn’t going to happen on its own if they aren’t forced to confront it; if they pay no penalty for being discredited or even for being out of power. Every time that elected Democratic leaders reflexively cave to ideas which are not only contrary to core party values but are also simply insane (removing end-of-life counseling because of the “death panels” nonsense), they not only legitimize the worst of the GoOPers charges in the eyes of both the media and the public, they also ensure that sooner or later (and probably sooner) that much of the low-information or “swing” voters will decided (largely correctly) “what’s the frigging point in electing these guys, even as just an “anyone but the GOP” vote, if they can’t accomplish any of the nice stuff they campaign on, no matter how large a majority we give them?”

And to the degree that we – the progressives and liberals who’ve known what time it is in America for a long time – allow it to flourish by continuing to pour our energy, resources, money, time and our audacity of hope into those elected Democrats who make such compromises, we only solidify the notion – in them (the elected officials), in the media, in the electorate and even in ourselves, that there is no other way (certainly no better way) to work towards these goals; we reinforce these officials’ belief that they owe the liberal base – and ideas – of the party no respect, and no loyalty. I saw this cancer of timidity, of refusal to lead on crucial, core issues back in 2000, and it’s why I voted for Ralph Nader: not because I thought he had any chance to win, but because I was tired of voting for candidates who I was only lukewarm on anyway, and who experience had taught me would fold like a lawn chair on any initiatives that smelled remotely of liberalism at the first sign of mean ol’ Republican attack ads or charges of socialism. The Democratic party needed a good, swift kick in the ass, in order to throw off their reflexive instinct to appease ever-crazier right-wing demands and become the ideologically resolute party that could prevent the Republicans being able to elect people like Bush and Palin whenever they chose. Perhaps spending four or eight years out-of-power, with that idiot in charge would provide the necessary impetus (not to mention embarrassment) to bring the Democrats back to recognizing that their base was not only not disposable, but essential to their success. After the heartbreaking loss of 2000 by 537 votes, for a time I thought that President Bush’s election might have provided that kick in the ass. And, in truth, it DID (along with the happy coincidence of the rise of blogging) literally create the much-renewed progressive activist base we see today in communities like this one and DailyKos and MoveOn. Imagine how much of this would even EXIST today, had we had four or eight years of President Gore? But apparently, even though no one should forget the primary lesson of 2000: that the liberal base does indeed matter in elections, it seems as if that needed kick in the ass may have yet to produce the result that’s truly needed: elected Democrats who are willing to LEAD, in the manner of FDR, and to bang heads in the manner of LBJ – not coincidentally, the last two Democratic Presidents who achieved major, sweeping legislation.


8 thoughts on “Why Are We Surprised, Again?

  1. This is hastily written… there should be some good openings for counter-argument. Have fun:

    I agree with so much. And yet… sigh.

    There are two flaws in your argument, plain as the nose on your face.

    1. There was a difference between Bush and Gore. Huge difference.

    From a legislative standpoint, it is true that “that we would have already arrived at some of the very same places”. No doubt. But much of what went so very wrong in the Bush/Cheney era was ‘administrative’. You seem to ignore one of the most fundamental concepts about our governmental structure: congress legislates, and the executive branch ‘executes’.

    So, what we got were Bush’s signing orders basically saying “f-off congress. I don’t like this bill and I’m not enforcing it”. What we got were secret spying and torture programs. What we got was an executive order for zero funding of stem cell research. And so on. None of this had to do with legislation. And I’ve heard not one person name any significant Bush executive decision that Gore would’ve supported. I don’t think you can.

    The Nader vote did cost us a lot. Some would argue that it cost us thousands of American lives, and maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. Some will argue that those two Supreme Court seats made a difference. (Are those “some of the very same places” Gore would have taken us?) We’ll never know exactly what kinds of decisions Gore would’ve made, but we can be sure that they would’ve been better decisions, regardless of the legislation he might have signed – or never got to sign, because, as you point out, legislation would’ve been about the same either way. What we lost was all the rest that the president does.

    2. Presidential protest votes have never changed congress, and yet, that is the whole thrust of your argument in defense of the concept of the protest vote.

    Nader wasn’t qualified to be president. So, to say we have options because there was Nader, is not much more than saying we have the option to write-in “Micky Mouse”. Oh, I know: we have the option to essentially withhold our vote, but register your liberal bent and dissent. But the proof is in the pudding. Did it work? Did the Dem party become more liberal? Most especially, since you’re focused on legislation, have Democratic congress members been voting more liberally, or developing more back bone? No. You’re argument centers around legislative failure, and I say the evidence is now in: the Nader vote didn’t make one bit of difference in THAT regard.

    So, let’s take stock: Nader voters gave up executive power and decision making, in order to persuade Democrats to become more liberal, and get more liberal legislation passed. EPIC FAIL. My point isn’t to shame Nader voters. But for goodness sake, at least take the benefit of hindsight and see that THAT strategy didn’t work. Defending the vote based on good intentions is all fine and dandy, but when one continues to justify the action, showing no regret, no second thoughts, no acknowledgement of failure, well, that sounds a lot like Bush in his farewell speech to me. (You know what I’m talking about.)

    I would suggest that liberals have failed in congress, not in the White House. We can get a good president elected when we stand together. But what we’ve never done for at least a whole generation is stand together long enough to change congress. Where legislation lives and dies is in in the halls of congress. We’ve got executive change. Now, you want legislative change? Change the legislators. That’s where the meat is… not in some fantasy protest vote we now know doesn’t work. Let that one go already. It failed.

      1. Yes, and I wish the D Party would actually learn that lesson. The problem is, they didn’t. I don’t disagree with anything digby wrote, and indeed, some of it actually reinforces one of my points: protest votes don’t appear to make a positive difference, but do run the risk of making things worse.

  2. Nader wasn’t qualified to be President.

    There are two problems with that flat, unsupported assertion. The first one is that it’s difficult to have a worthwhile discussion with anyone with whom once can’t even agree on the same set of facts at the outset. It’s a bit like an agnostic trying to talk morality with a fundamentalist Christian who believes that the ONLY way to live a moral life is through belief in and adherence to the teachings and divinity of Jesus: not very productive. At some point, any such conversation devolves into “you’re wrong because I believe this can’t possibly be true.” And, though you’ve no idea how little interest I have in “defending” Ralph Nader or my vote for him in 2000 (mostly because I think on one level it’s a gigantic waste of time at this point), I have to ask for you to back up your statement, not because I want to “defend” Nader, but actually because I don’t think Nader particularly needs me or anyone else to come to his defense. The man graduated top – literally, #1 – of his class from Harvard Law, and has spent the entirety of his life since then around the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., working for various groups (most of which he founded himself) to try to effect better legislation on a number of issues (take your pick). Convince me that such a man is simply “not qualified to be President,” full stop – and remember, as you do, the qualifications list of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as your own replies to the flat assertions by many that Obama was simply not qualified to be President.

    But my second, and biggest, problem with your assertion that Nader isn’t qualified to be President is that it appears to assume that everyone knows this to be true and agrees with it, including those who voted for Nader. Thus, in a more-or-less direct fashion, you suggest (by comparing a Nader vote to writing in “Mickey Mouse” or perhaps just staying home and not voting) that the goals of Nader voters in 2000 were merely to jam a thumb in the eye of the Democratic party in general or Al Gore in particular, and it would not have mattered the vehicle they used to do so.

    If that’s genuinely what you meant by your assertion, instead of it being merely a hyperbolic overstatement on your part, then I suspect there’s little place for any conversation we might have on the topic to go anywhere productive. I could tell you that’s not the case at all; that WHO I’m voting for matters every bit as much to me as it apparently does to you (based on your lengthy defense of Gore as having been better than Bush). But if your mind’s already made up, what would be the point? If you’ve already decided that not only was Ralph Nader not qualified to be President, but that everyone else, including those who voted for him, knows this to be true, and they voted for him anyway because….well, I’m not sure how you’d answer that “because,” since it’s so far away from what was actually the case that I’d have to crawl inside your head to even begin to try to answer that one. And I’m not, as I said, interested in trying to defend a position I don’t hold, or beliefs I don’t share. There are a number of points to be made and discussed, but not if we’re starting from a place that doesn’t contain the same set of facts.

    1. Well, like you, I’m not so invested in this argument as to want to tease out all the issues that would need further exploring by those standards. If what you said is true, we’d have to first identify all of the potential criteria for being qualified for the office of POTUS, and then agree on the same set of criteria. Then we’d have to review Nader’s background, and determine how his experience and other factors stacked up against those metrics, and agree on those “facts” as well, before we could even have a discussion. (Let’s also not debate the obvious question this raises about how one can have a political discussion about a candidate’s qualifications – or any political discussion – if you have to first agree on what the facts are, when those facts are subjectively determined.) So, let’s assume we a.) don’t want to spend the time doing that, and b.) that if we did, we probably wouldn’t end up agreeing anyway. And, that just lets us bypass the first round. I don’t have the time or energy for all 15.

      Let me correct and take back one thing. I wouldn’t dare to assume that people were voting for Nader all for the same reasons, and with the same sets of beliefs. I do know some who didn’t believe Nader was qualified, but voted for him in protest anyway. In fact, you’d be the first Nader voter I’ve known who would stand firm on the issue. So, I made a false assumption about your position.

      But let’s keep in mind, the “Nader wasn’t qualified” assertion was not a central point in my response. For me, this isn’t about Nader. It’s about the argument you made to justify your protest vote all these many years later.

      Regardless of his qualifications, or any lack thereof, I think any rational Nader voter understood that their vote was a protest; they knew that Nader would not win. Nothing wrong with that. My point is simply that if you wish to make an argument that this kind of presidential vote is a valid strategy for changing the D Party, particularly in terms of legislation, then all you have to do is look at the results and see that it failed. And if you assert, as you did, that there was no substantive difference between Bush and Gore, well, that falls flat too. So, using these two reasons to defend the Nader vote as though you would do it again – knowing what you know now – makes little sense to me. I understand that this line of reasoning may have seemed logical and justified at the time, and there may yet remain other good reasons for a presidential protest vote, but not these two – not anymore.

      1. OK. I’ll try to keep this brief, but you know me, LOL.

        I’m surprised to hear you say that you know personally a number of Nader-2000 voters but that none of them believe he was qualified to be President. Without diving into the whole “was-he-or-wasn’t-he-qualified” bit, let me just say that it’s hard for me, as a fairly experienced political person, to imagine voting for someone for President if I didn’t think they could handle the job. To give you an example of what I’m talking about, I’ve thought for years, with varying degrees of intensity, that a viable third party would be incredibly salutary for our political system. I often reference the old George Carlin line about how even though Americans are all about “choice” (freedom to choose doctor, “choice” of where to eat, etc.), that it often seems as if the variety in our choices is in inverse proportion to the importance of the choice: you want ice cream? Right this way, sir, we’ve got 31 flavors. Political parties? Sorry, only two. It’s funny, but not so much.

        A third party might not be a panacea, but it would certainly – if it could actually credibly compete with the Republicans and the Democrats, give both our elected officials and the voting public the sense that there WERE other choices possible. Right now, I think both conservatives and liberals feel pretty trapped, in general: there’s not really any viable place for them to go if they don’t like the way their party is headed. And the politicians make that calculation, too – especially on the Democratic side, unfortunately: they cynically observe (mostly correctly) of their own base: “where are they gonna go,” secure in the knowledge that unless they want to “waste” their votes, there IS no place for a disgruntled liberal (or conservative, on the other side, but that’s a whole other ball of wax) to go. I’ve long thought that a strong and growing third party would put everyone on notice that things aren’t fixed or static. We’d get less of those cynical calculations from politicians, and voters would feel empowered to actually cast their votes for things they believed in, instead of just the lesser of two evils.

        In fact, that’s what I wrote about in my post, concerning my own vote for Nader in 2000. But here’s what I don’t understand about your friends/acquaintances who say they voted for Nader, thinking as they did so that he wasn’t qualified to be President: you have to be willing to live with your choice if you’re going to vote like that. Oh, I’m guessing that your friends may have assumed (as I did, because it would have been near-delusional to assume otherwise) that there was no realistic chance for Nader to actually win the election and become President, and therefore, it was OK to vote for him even though they didn’t think he was qualified. But even though I would agree that such a calculation is likely accurate and therefore “safe,” my problem with it is that voting, whether for a major-party candidate or a third party or even “fringe” candidate should never be done merely as a “waste” or especially not frivolously on something (or someONE) the person casting the vote wouldn’t want to live under. That’s the whole REASON for wanting a viable third party – not just for the empty exercise of increasing the quantity of choices available (who cares, if they’re all crap, for example?), but because creating a viable third-party (even a conservative one) in which some segment of the electorate actually believes and supports makes the practice of democracy a more vital and vibrant one. It strengthens and keeps honest the political debate. Whereas, throwing one’s vote away on Mickey Mouse or on a candidate in whom one doesn’t truly believe only strengthens the emaciation of our democracy and our real choices.

        In the Digby piece I linked you to, she talks about having a conversation in 2000 with a bunch of “young, impressionable lefties,” who “had no political experience except what they saw as a betrayal of liberalism and they found Nader’s analysis of the two parties as being in bed with corporate interests extremely convincing.” Though I know the sort of person of whom she speaks – we were all that person at one time or another, just waking up to our political consciousness (whatever it turned out to be) – that actually doesn’t describe me in 2000. By that election, it had already been more than a dozen years since I first worked full-time for a political campaign, and I’d been a veteran of several by that time. I knew politics, from the inside. Not as well as some, obviously, but better than most. I think it’s totally fair to say I’d spent a greater amount of time thinking about political issues, as well as the mechanics of how to go about advocating for the positions I believe in, than the average person. When I WAS that political newbie (probably during my first couple of years at Berkeley), I can remember thinking “you should vote for who you want, not for the lesser of two evils!” But it was all moralizing and idealism, little experience. My first election was 1984’s crushing defeat of Walter Mondale by Ronald Reagan. And I think I voted for the “Peace and Freedom” candidate that year – I could no longer even tell you who the actual candidate was, but I can remember poring over the sample ballot intently, thrilled to discover that there WERE choices besides R or D. But after watching Mondale lose so decisively, and after a few conversation with older, more jaded “grown-ups,” I began to believe that one should always vote for the lesser of two evils because – as I’d come to observe – only someone with either the magic “D” or “R” after their name ever got elected. The other parties were treated by pretty much everyone as fringe kooks, either of the righty or lefty variety, and it did not matter much whether they were Peace and Freedom or American Independent, they were all lumped together by virtually everyone from voters to the media under the same general heading of “kooks.” And I didn’t want to be a kook.

        So my political consciousness evolved. I began using the “lesser of two evils” line, even though I still leavened it with a plaint of “in a perfect world, people would vote for what they really wanted, instead of just what they thought they could get.” I would tell anyone who asked that I tended to agree with the party platform of the Greens or the Peace and Freedom party, but that it just wasn’t realistic to actually VOTE for those guys – it was like the kid in the suburbs wishing for a pony as a pet – might be the fantasy choice, but it wasn’t realistic because his family simply had no place for such an animal in their tiny suburban yard — better to stick with wishing for “realistic” things, like a cat or a goldfish.

        And that’s pretty much the way I stayed for several years, until well after I worked for my first couple of political campaigns. I suppose it might be the case that I got spoiled by early victory; the first campaign I ever worked for was the Prop. 103 campaign – the insurance initiative which (at the time) had a record amount of money spent against it in California ($72 million-plus) by the insurance industry. We were a true grassroots effort, supported by our own fundraising efforts and living on a shoestring budget. And when the smoke cleared on election day, we won….by a margin of something like 50.4% – razor thin. But the elation I felt – even though I knew it was one that many activists went tens of years between feeling that thrill of victory – planted the seed which would eventually change my thinking on the subject of voting in large national elections for “the lesser of two evils.”

        I wound up coming to believe, over time and WITH experience in politics, that the logic implicit in the “lesser of two evils” is that you’re STILL voting for what you yourself consider to be an evil. Most people probably don’t think of it in those terms – they don’t go to the polls thinking “I’m going to cast my vote for someone I believe is evil.” And, in truth, their feelings toward the candidate for whom they pull the lever are probably nowhere near that harsh. Evil? No. More like uninspiring, certain they’ll not do such a hot job, etc. Blah. Who gives a f—? That’s more like what a lot of people feel. And we wonder why turnout is often so low. Why vote at all, if you can’t begin to get excited by any of the realistic choices presented to you? In some ways, not-voting is actually (in my opinion) more honest a response if those sentiments are what you’re feeling about the candidates for a given election, than taking the time to go vote for someone who you don’t actually like or support all that much….except in comparison to the other guy. Why? Because voting for a candidate you don’t support (except by comparison) is implicitly accepting not just that particular candidate for that particular post in that particular election, but it’s also an implicit acceptance of the entire setup: it’s saying, loudly and clearly, that you’ll take whatever’s given you: you’ll pick the least-bad, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. And even if you don’t GET “the best” – even if the candidate you reluctantly pulled the lever for turns out to be awful in exactly the ways you suspected he or she might be, you’ll come right back next time, regardless of who’s on the ballot, and make the same calculation again. That gets to the old definition of insanity as “doing something the exact same way, but expecting different results.”

        I’ve heard people say that if you don’t like the choices you’re presented with, that it’s incumbent upon you to work during the time between the elections to improve the quality of the candidates who while be offered up to the public next time. And I agree. But most people lead busy lives, and don’t have a ton of time to devote to such things, and even if they do manage to become active, there’s still a good chance their efforts won’t be immediately effective. It’s a bit like telling a person who’s out of work in this economy “just go get a job”: easier said than done. In my case, political experience actually led me back (albeit with new eyes) to the more-pure position I held as a political neophyte: if you want change, you have to act like it, and that means not only becoming engaged in the political process when there’s NOT an election looming, but also means you have to act like it at the voting booth, too: spending your life voting for the least-uninspiring of candidates only ensures that you’ll continue to be presented with uninspiring candidates.

        As much as I have wanted a viable third party over the years, though, that’s the reason I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Ross Perot: because I took a good long look at him, his record, and why he was running for President, and I asked myself: “do I actually WANT this guy? Would I be OK with it if by some miracle this man actually won the election and became President?” And the answer I came away with was “no, I don’t think I would.” As badly as I wanted a third party to emerge (not just a one-time political candidate), I wasn’t willing to hitch my wagon to the Perot-train. Even though he got something like 21% of the vote in the election that gave us Bill Clinton, which is more than any third-party candidate in decades, I just didn’t see the “Reform Party” as a coherent alternative to D & R — and I though Perot was simply using it as a vehicle to get himself elected. Turns out, I was right. By the next election, the percentage was MUCH lower, and by 2000, the “Reform” candidate was Pat Buchanan…not much more needs be said about THAT. But Nader? Again, without getting into the question of whether he was qualified or would have done a good job, I’ll just say: yeah, I think he would have been good for the country. I can see areas where he might not have been, but overall, I would have trusted him at least as much as Gore – and more than Bush. That’s why I voted for him, but not for Perot eight years earlier.

        You assume that most Nader voters understood their votes to be on the “protest” end of things, and I think that’s a reasonable thing to assume. I certainly didn’t think Nader had much of a chance to win. But – and, at least to me, this is crucial – I would have been OK if he HAD, by some miracle. More than OK; I would have been happier (I think, nobody has a crystal ball) than I would have been with either Gore or Bush. That’s why I voted for the man. And that’s what I’ve been trying only partially successfully to explain here: I think it’s cynical and works against one’s own purposes to vote for any candidate for any OTHER reason than because you want him or her to fill the office more than any other candidate on the ballot. I think it’s equally cynical for your Nader-voting friends to have voted the way they did if you’re correct that they truly did not think he was qualified to be President and wouldn’t have wanted him to be, as it was for millions of rank-and-file progressives to have voted for Al Gore, even though they thought he was (at the time) a tepid Washington insider whose voting record at the time was quite moderate and pro-corporatist, just because he’d (probably) be somewhat better than Bush.

        Look at the caving-in that’s already gone on with regard to the health care reform bills that are making their tortuous way through Congress (particularly the Senate): Obama and the progressives didn’t even put single-payer (the Canadian-style system) on the TABLE at the beginning, which left them no room to “compromise” down to the “public option.” I’ve observed the modern GOP long enough to know that they’re gonna call whatever you bring to the table “socialism” and “dangerous” and various other things….so why not come loaded for bear? Bring the best and most progressive ideas you’ve got, and lead with THOSE. Not because you think that’s where the negotiation is going to end up at, but because that’s what you truly believe (as Obama put it a while back, himself) is the best approach, the one you’d like to see enacted most. And THEN, if you absolutely MUST compromise (politics being the “art of the possible,” as they say), you can grudgingly give up single-payer….as you make the Republicans give up the worst of their industry-enabling provisions. That’s what true compromise looks like. But what the Democrats have been practicing for years (since the late Reagan era, and certainly since 1994), is nothing of the sort: they do at least half of the Republicans’ work FOR them, before anyone even gets to the table. “Pragmatists” like Rahm Emanuel, guys for whom “getting something done” is more important than standing up for one’s beliefs, including being willing to walk away if no real compromise is possible — guys like Rahm sit back and suggest that there’s no WAY the GOP will ever even take seriously something like single-payer, so we should be “practical” and not “set up roadblocks to negotiation” by having the gall to actually propose what we believe in. Instead, guys like Emanuel argue, we should show up-front good faith, and not even mention such a thing, actually actively shut out the single-payer people from the discussions. If we do that – if we publicly show ourselves punching the progressive wing of the party in the face, the public will (we hope) see us as not-commies, and the Republicans will think us legitimate deal-makers, because we’re not endorsing “crazy” ideas.

        How’s that working for us?

        Bill Clinton ran (twice!) as essentially a moderate Republican whose genius was to put a (D) after his name instead of an R, and it drove the GOP NUTS. They hated the fact that he co-opted what few good ideas the more-moderate wing of the GOP had, re-branding them as Democratic initiatives (like welfare-reform, putting more cops on the streets, etc.). But it didn’t stop either the moderates or the hard-right wingnuts from vilifying Clinton as a murderer, coke dealer, communist, Hitler….the same crap that’s now being thrown at Obama. It’s worth remembering just how vile the campaign against Clinton was – and I don’t mean just the actual campaign, when he was running for office. Most people kind of expect that to get a bit ugly and partisan. What was unusual about the Clinton years was that the political arm of the GOP never stopped, never even slowed down, even after election day. They just kept the fires of oppo-research and campaign-style war-room tactics right on going. Plans were being made to impeach Clinton long before anyone knew who Monica Lewinsky was. From Waco and Ruby Ridge to Filegate, Travelgate….you name it, they tried to make it stick against Clinton. And they finally succeeded. I have no idea why every single Democrat in the country – let alone every progressive – didn’t learn in their very bones, that today’s GOP has absolutely no interest in compromise or coalition-building or (especially) power-sharing. They care about two things: attaining power, and crushing their opponents when they have it, so that they STAY in power. That’s why it’s been so jaw-dropping for me to witness the degree to which guys like Obama and Emanuel have been willing to go to try for “bipartisanship.” We’re now engaged in a death-struggle to retain merely the public option in the health care fight. Why? Because we WENT INTO the negotiations with that as the farthest-left position on the table….and so that became, by default, the one which the GOP (and the industry arrayed against health care reform) demonized as “socialist” and “radical” and “dangerous.” We may very well not get a bill with a decent public option…and if we don’t, then much of the rest of whatever does get passed will be ineffective window-dressing which will quickly be shown to have had little positive effect upon cost to the consumer/voter of their insurance. In fact, without introducing real competition into the health insurance marketplace by means of the public option, having an individual mandate to buy insurance will do nothing more than force more people, by law, to purchase the industry’s products, whether they can afford them or not….just like the situation in California with respect to car insurance before Prop. 103 passed: a captive marketplace which was forced by law to purchase insurance, and a private, for-profit industry which provided that product that had won unique, comprehensive exemptions from federal antitrust statutes (see: McCarran-Ferguson Act).

        And all of this is even AFTER eight years of George W. Bush’s ruinous policies. This is AFTER all the warrantless wiretapping, the torture, the rendition, the unfunded supplemental appropriations bills which, along with reckless tax cuts for the already-rich, served to turn a peacetime surplus into a two-war deficit of staggering proportions. Even AFTER every citizen and politician in America had seen just how awful the GOP mode of governance truly is for the welfare of this country, we STILL have this sort of craven triangulation on health care and various other issues. Obama’s a smart guy, and he comes from a community organizer’s background. He knows that you have to have SOME willingness to compromise. And he also knows how badly Bush and the GOP failed, and that they’d go right back to that mode of operation the instant they took power again. Widespread public dissatisfaction with the GOP, coupled with a re-energized and re-imagined activist base which were a direct result of Bush’s awful eight years have given Obama a sixty-seat majority in the Senate (almost unheard-of), and an eighty-seat margin in the House. And yet even WITH all that, look at the mess that’s being made of the push for health care.

        Now, step back and imagine for a moment – just imagine – what it would have been like had we instead elected President Gore. Would we be in Iraq? Doubtful….but don’t bet on it. But Gore would be embroiled in an endless series of scandals from which he’d have to be constantly explaining himself to a largely hostile press corps, rendering his ability to achieve much in the way of proactive, effective legislation largely nonexistent. Tom DeLay and Co. would likely still be in charge of the House — because the activist base that arose as a reaction to Bush’s failures and felonies would have remained disaffected but largely inactive if a President Gore – nominally one of them – had been in the White House. Look at Clinton’s two terms – do you see any huge rise in progressive activism during that period? No. Despite the passing of DOMA, DADT, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, “welfare reform” and numerous other initiatives which are not in any way progressive (and many of which were distinctly contrary to progressive tenets and values), we let it all go by because “at least he wasn’t a Republican.” And electing a President Gore would have virtually guaranteed four or eight years more of the same stasis, the same incremental decline of not only progressive possibilities, but also the Democratic party itself. Karl Rove famously quipped early in the Bush Presidency that he was shooting for a “permanent Republican majority” — but don’t think for a moment he was the only one. Had Bush been sent back to Texas and Rove become nothing more than yet another angry columnist or radio personality, there were already plenty of people and entrenched interests in place, working actively each day to tear down everything since (and including) the New Deal. These people want to go back to the McKinley era, the era before labor laws (most of them, anyway), the era of child labor and fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week, the era of the robber barons that made names like Rockefeller and Mellon and Morgan household names. That’s been their goal for some time. They’re quite open about it. And they’ve figured out how to Frankenstein together a coalition of wingnuts, Christian fundamentalists, stock brokers, anti-tax working class people and various otherwise-incompatible groups under one unified idea: the Democrats (and especially the Dirty Fucking Hippie left wing of the Democratic party) are responsible for all your ills. They’ve given their legions a clear and distinct “enemy” (that’d be you and me), and provided them with talking points dreamed up nonstop by the likes of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (to name only two of a rather large number of right-wing think-tanks), and pumped out onto the air by the power and money of Murdoch and hate-radio. And, like the “Reese” character in the original terminator explained in the car to a terrified Sarah Connor, they “absolutely will not stop until you are dead.” The only difference is that in this context, by “dead,” I think they would mean “politically dead” (that permanent GOP majority of which Rove and others spoke). But I wouldn’t be too sure even about that, LOL.

        The reason I say I still defend my vote for Ralph Nader is not that I think Gore wouldn’t have been, in a clinical and detached analysis, better than Bush. I think he would have been. But we don’t live in a clinical and detached political universe. Like it or not, at the time of the 2000 election, Gore was much more interested in keeping the balls bouncing with the inside-the-beltway crowd than he was in forging truly progressive or even bog-standard LBJ-style Democratic legislation. He barely asked Bill Clinton to campaign with him, because he was DEATHLY afraid that the GOP would use such campaigning to claim that Gore was “just an extension of the tawdry Clinton era.” And no doubt they would have done so. But what Gore didn’t realize was that – had he won – the GOP would STILL have done that, regardless of how assiduously he kept Bill Clinton away from himself on the campaign trail. The GOP wouldn’t even have had to dream up much of a new playbook: they could simply have kept going with the same old memes, adding to and enhancing them whenever it seemed advantageous to do so….and Gore, if his campaign-trail instincts are any indication, would have gone right on appeasing them, watering down his proposals in an effort to avoid getting labeled a socialist-o-fascist-o-terrorist-sympathizer….etc. Where would we be today? No one knows for sure. But I can tell you where we WOULDN’T be, and that’s this: we wouldn’t be in a progressive paradise after eight years of Al Gore. Likely, we wouldn’t have even HAD eight years of Al Gore. One argument the wingnuts make that is true is that because of the bust of the dot-coms in 2000, the economy was indeed already starting to slow by the time of the election, and had Gore been in office when a recession hit, I don’t have to tell you what kind of (very effective) hay the GOP strategists would have been able to make out of it. Heck, the attack ads practically write themselves. And if he hadn’t been able to bring the country out of it by 2004, we might very well be in our second term of George W. Bush RIGHT NOW. Or someone equally odious. Maybe Jeb Bush. Or perhaps a President DeLay. Or Gingrich. Who knows? Think about that for a moment, though – because we could be living it right now: President DeLay, who beat a hapless President Gore after Gore couldn’t pull the country out of recession fast enough to save his political prospects for re-election, ensuring at least four years of continued Republican dominance.

        I guess the bottom line is that – as horrible as the Bush years unquestionably were – in the last analysis, it was the disastrously bad instincts of the Democrats to try to appease and compromise with a party which has forgotten HOW to compromise, whose only goal is to utterly destroy its competition (us), that is responsible for allowing the crazies out onto the landscape, for giving them a place at the head table. If it hadn’t been George Bush in 2000, it very likely would have been some other loonball in 2004, unless Gore somehow managed to get very lucky. Allowing the disaster to unfold as it did in the Bush years reinvigorated the Democratic party base in a way that nothing else could have done at that time. Only the double-shock of a swift kick in the electoral teeth, coupled with the hideous mockery of Presidential decorum and ruinous policies that were the Bush years (or something like them) could have stirred the dispirited progressive base out of its torpor AND made many smart Democrats who might not be progressive by inclination realize that they had to stop trying to be Republican-lite and actually stand for core Democratic party principles (like health care), if they wanted to present voters with a meaningful choice. Every election, it’s the same, at base: voters go to the booth with one question underlying everything else they think about the candidates: “why should I vote for YOU?” And, for far too long, most Democrats haven’t been able to answer that question directly or with anything that’s at all convincing. Today, they’re starting to be able to again. And it’s a direct result of seeing just how bad things were getting.

        That’s why I’m still proud of my vote for Ralph Nader.

  3. LOL indeed! I finally had a chance to take a peek at your response, and so when I read “OK. I’ll try to keep this brief.” I thought maybe I’d have the time to read. I started scrolling. And scrolling. And scrolling. And laughing. And scrolling. My next thought was, “Well, he’s going to win this debate by virtue of sheer volume, but at least I made him earn it.” Y’know, Lars, a long-distance debate doesn’t mean the responses need to be long-distance. 🙂

    As usual, we agree on many things. I too, feel a 3rd party (or more) is desperately needed. I too, doubt that Gore would have been the visionary leader some now think of him as, had he taken office in 2001. I could go on.

    Unfortunately, my time really is so limited at the moment that my full response will have to wait a bit longer.

    My initial thoughts – and this isn’t yet a fully crafted and possibly not what I would write if I had more time to think about it, is that there is a lot of assumptions about what might have happened had Gore taken office, none of which hold any water in my estimation. One could just as easily argue that Gore’s time in office could have gone in any number of other directions, with an infinite number of alternative realities expanding exponentially day by day and year by year throughout his term. We could easily turn the tables, and I could postulate about the many terrible outcomes of a Nader Presidency. If you thought the opposition of the Republicans was bad, imagine how it might go with both parties aiming their weapons at a President Nader? But again, there are any number of possible scenarios, positive or negative, and we’ll never know. To me, there’s no point to that line of argument… fiction begets fiction.

    I also dislike the line of argument which suggests that Nader voters ultimately ushered in the resurgence of grassroots progressive politics because the Bush years were sooooo bad that the backlash was the natural result. There are so many problems with this, I don’t even have time to get into it.

    I think there’s nothing wrong in being proud about your vote for Nader, especially given how you put real thought into it. Indeed, I think it is even possible to be proud of one’s decision, even if it ultimately turned out bad, if, at the time, one believes they made the best choice based on the information available at the time, etc. (Not all my football picks work out, even when I factor in all the things one can, did my homework – did it all right – and my team still lost. That’s life.) So the point I’m trying to make is not that you should be ashamed or regretful for your Nader vote. Not at all.

    I can still go back to my last paragraph on my previous response, because it still feels unaddressed to me – like we’re debating different points. I’m not saying your choice back in 2000 was uninformed, ill-advised, unjustified, or illegitimate in any way. What I am saying is that in your original post, I think the arguments you made for justifying that vote were weak: that it was (and therefore remains) a valid strategy for changing the D Party, particularly in terms of legislation. You have also moved the bar on the Gore point. Originally, you argued there was little difference between Gore and Bush, now you’re saying there would’ve been little difference between Gore and Clinton. Sooooo, are you conceding that point to me? 🙂

    The essence of your original argument cannot withstand deeper inspection.

    On the first point, if you feel that the Nader vote was a way to move the Democratic legislators leftward, or eliminate the influence of Big Money, well, the evidence you yourself keep presenting (e.g., healthcare legislation) demonstrates that it didn’t work.

    On the point about no difference between Gore and Bush, well, c’mon. You ask the families of the dead, maimed, and tortured if it made a difference. No argument.

    And, the mere act of making those justifications for the Nader vote seems to suggest that maybe you haven’t felt that your belief in Nader as the best candidate in 2000 was enough. (I think it is enough. If you feel Nader was the best choice in 2000, great.) But the bigger issue for me is that by making those justifications, you actually suggest to others that voting for the one you believe in is NOT the best strategy. It suggests to the reader that instead, one should make a protest vote – to do the opposite of what you suggest – to do what I know some other Nader voters were doing. (This is why I made the assumption that you voted for Nader in protest, as opposed to truly believing in Nader as a legitimate candidate.) I’m sure you can explain why that isn’t the point you were trying to make, but, you must also acknowledge that one can certainly see it the way I did, and that it deserves clarification.

    Well, I somehow seemed to write more than I expected, even if it was rushed. Looking forward to the next 16-page response from you! 🙂

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