Don't blame Ralph

If Gore fails, that failure will belong to him and the Democrats -- not to Nader or his supporters.

Published November 5, 2000 9:00AM (EST)

How has Al Gore managed to blow all the advantages of incumbency, prosperity and the Joe Lieberman bounce? How has a sure winner ended up in every national poll trailing a man once universally mocked as an incompetent loser? A daily chorus of Gore surrogates, pundits and editorialists is already chanting the answer: BLAME IT ON RALPH, BLAME IT ON RALPH.

Scapegoating is a long and honored political tradition. A candidate gets in trouble and you find somebody on the team -- of course, never the candidate -- to take the hit: Every pollster or campaign manager worth hiring is also worth firing.

But with Gore's once-comfortable presidential prospects growing ever more desperate, the usual rules of scapegoating have taken a new spin: Fingers are pointing to political activist Ralph Nader. New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines decries Nader for "mischief," and compares Nader supporters like Phil Donahue to children in need of a "reprimand" and a "civics lesson." Liberal Gore supporters like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin attack Nader and anyone who votes for him as self-destructive "left fundamentalists" who will be responsible for a victory by George W. Bush. Democratic attack ads make the same point.

I am a skeptic about Nader's presidential run, largely because of the stakes of the federal courts, and I doubt I will vote for him.

But in a campaign between two such midgets of history as Gore and Bish, the venom of attacks on Nader -- an American hero, someone who has made a career of speaking truth to power -- is nothing but a symptom of everything wrong with the Democrats, and why Gore's campaign seems locked in a downward spiral to disaster.

I went to hear Nader when he came a couple of weeks ago to New Haven, Conn., the old industrial city where I live. As everywhere else in the country, Nader packed one of the largest venues in town, Yale's Battell Chapel, while hundreds more were turned away. Raised not far away in the northwestern Connecticut town of Winsted, Nader spoke quietly, movingly, about the poison of growing up in a corporate culture, about the way privatization of public resources is eroding democracy, about the need to forge alternatives to corporate globalization.

Afterward, I spoke to many of the people in that crowd -- some students, some activists, some people who came simply because they were curious. What startled me was that half the people who leapt to their feet to cheer Nader told me they had no intention of voting for him.

So why were they there? "This isn't really about the election, about Gore vs. Nader or Democrats vs. Greens," said one young woman. "I may vote for Gore, but Nader speaks for me anyway."

"Nader speaks for me anyway." Can you honestly imagine any Democrat anywhere feeling such an affinity for Gore -- or, for that matter, any Republican for Bush? That woman's remark suggests that there is something far more essential going on with Nader's campaign than can be understood by the number of votes he pulls on Tuesday.

Nader's Green partisans and the Democratic Nader-bashers have both got it wrong. Whether Nader ends up drawing Gore's margin of defeat, as Democrats fear, and whether he can get 5 percent of the vote and so qualify for federal matching funds, as Greens hope, are both utterly irrelevant to his campaign's genuine achievement -- and to Gore's prospects.

What Nader has done -- and he has done this already, regardless of whether a single voter pulls the lever for him -- is give voters permission to articulate two words never uttered during the three televised presidential debates: corporate globalization.

Globalization is the elephant in the room of American politics, the unavoidable subject everyone turns away from in embarrassed silence. This elephant in the room is why Nader's campaign has been the only source of energy and wild-card unpredictability in an election otherwise marked by fatalism on all sides.

The 1,500 or so people who crowded into that New Haven hall for Nader were not "fundamentalists," fruitcakes or sectarians. They were, for the most part, seeking ratification for their own sense that corporations have too much power.

The large crowds drawn to Nader in battleground states like Michigan are struggling to balance pragmatism and protest. Many, like the people I spoke with in New Haven, will end up voting for Gore. But like that woman in New Haven, they are drawn to Nader as a way to participate, on a small scale and locally, in the arc of anti-corporate demonstrations extending from Seattle to Prague.

If Gore really wants to win, his campaigners need to realize that by making Nader the enemy they are shooting the messenger. Gore himself, not Nader, is the big problem in this campaign.

If Gore is losing ground, it is not because Nader is draining natural support. It is because Gore himself has driven voters away in droves with his patronizing drone. It is because he has failed to motivate middle-class women or to portray his education plan as more than bricks and mortar. It is because his years of feints to the right have left key Democratic constituencies supporting him out of fear rather than enthusiasm: a sure recipe for disaster, whether or not Ralph Nader petitioned his way onto a single ballot line.

Gore seems to have run his campaign on the presumption that voters would be dazzled by his intelligence and by Bush's stupidity. Instead, Bush has turned out to be the better verbal tactician, dyslexia or no. Where Gore uses language to communicate facts and programs, Bush understands language as both strategy and symbol.

To understand why Gore's decline should hardly be blamed on Nader, consider one small moment in the final Nader-free presidential debate. Bush and Gore were asked the great softball question of the evening, about popular culture and family values. Both talked about their own children, and both promised to pressure entertainment companies. But it was Bush, not Gore, who recognized that voters might have the sophistication to be as alarmed by government regulation of speech as by Hollywood marketing.

"I don't support cen-so-ship," the governor declared, punctuating the syllables with emphatic silences, and reminding parents that "the best weapon is the off/on button and paying attention to your children."

Gore, by contrast, made "respect the First Amendment" an aside at the end of a long, muddy stream of policy proposals: "negotiations with the Internet service providers to get a parents' protection page ... and a feature that allows parents to automatically check, with one click, what sites your kids have visited lately." (Memo to inventor of the Internet: Doesn't my browser's history button allow that already?)

An accumulation of such seemingly small moments is what has landed Gore in the tightest presidential race in 40 years.

A week after Nader, Jesse Jackson was in New Haven and spoke at a get-out-the-vote rally in the same hall. On the one hand Jackson's speech put on display much that has been absent from Nader's campaign. He was introduced by unionized hospital workers who stand to lose big time if Bush is put in charge of labor laws. His audience included many African-Americans, who have not backed Nader for the simple reason that truly dispossessed constituencies can't afford protest without attainable victory. Jackson made that point in his speech, unfavorably comparing Nader's unwinnable campaign to the 1964 "Freedom Democratic Party," which challenged the Democrats at their Atlantic City, N.J., convention to drop their segregationist allies.

Good points, all. But the real trump for many of Nader's most vociferous Democratic critics is not Mississippi but 1968, the year Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey, as Jackson puts it, by "the margin of our despair." The New York Times played the Humphrey card in its second anti-Nader editorial, as have a host of other writers.

It's time to retire this tired comparison, which can only lead the Gore campaign further down a desperate, angry road. Back in August, C-Span showed Humphrey's acceptance speech at the tear-gas-drenched Chicago '68 convention. I had not seen that speech since -- well, probably since then. What was most disturbing was to realize how utterly inadequate Humphrey really was to the crisis at hand, offering up bromides in the face of Vietnam, the fighting in the streets and the rupture of his own party.

Humphrey was at sea that night, trapped and paralyzed by his earlier refusal as vice president and candidate to make hard choices. It was Humphrey's weakness -- his inability to reach beyond conventional politics or forge a new consensus at a critical moment -- that cost the election, not the irresponsibility of a few Eugene McCarthy protest voters.

It is a weird kind of historical egotism to say that radicals' abstention cost the Democrats the 1968 election. So again this year.

It is tempting to think that the left can save Gore. But the reality is that while "we" -- that is, progressives, unions, African-Americans, pro-choicers, enivronmentalists, gays, all the varied cultures of opposition -- may lose out because of Gore's failure, the failure is borne of his choices, not ours. And not of Nader's, either.

As for Nader himself, if the purpose of his campaign, rather than to "get power," has been to continue the arc of consciousness-raising protest begun in Seattle and to keep corporate globalization on the table, then it has done more-than-honorable work. Most of those attracted to Nader, like that woman in New Haven, are not deeply committed to third-party politics per se. Instead, they want to change the parameters of debate in which all candidates operate.

I can cheer Nader on for doing that -- and still vote for Gore with an unhappy but clean conscience.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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Al Gore Democratic Party Environment George W. Bush Globalization