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Review by Tom Gallagher
The 1984 Democratic National Platform Committee might have been the last one to have issues voted up or down on their own merits. As amendments came up for votes in subcommittee, the Walter Mondale delegates, who constituted the majority, would turn to see which direction the thumb of their person-in-charge was pointing and vote accordingly. Mondale amendments won; Gary Hart amendments lost. Jesse Jackson amendments went both ways.
George McGovern's brief presidential candidacy had also won about 25 convention delegates, entitling his campaign to a single platform committee member—me. I offered three amendments. Each time the Mondale delegates looked for a sign, but Paul Tully, the late Democratic Party operative, didn't lift a thumb, having made no prior plans regarding the delegation of one. So they, and the rest, voted them as they saw them and adopted two of them, including one calling for legislation requiring companies to provide advance notice of employee layoffs. Mondale delegates later explained that although this was one of their central issues, labor had agreed not to offer it that year in order to keep the platform document less “controversial.”
By 1988, the party platform's importance was ratcheted down yet another notch and no more surprises would be found. By 2000, when Ralph Nader picks up the story in Crashing the Party, a Platform Committee ad hoc Progressive Caucus, including Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, California State Senator Tom Hayden, and Los Angeles civil rights attorney Gloria Allred, could not garner more than five votes for universal health care; democratization of the World Trade Organization (WTO); a moratorium on the death penalty; or elimination of tax breaks to corporations paying “below living wages.” They couldn't even muster the support of 15 of the committee's 180 members required to discuss the issues.
Despite the fact that Clinton had been the candidate of the Democratic Leadership Council that espoused a Democratic Party more closely resembling the Republicans, a lot of leftish Friends of Bill's—to the second and third degree—still believed that he winked knowingly their way. If his national health care plan was torturously distorted to placate an insurance industry that proceeded to sink it; well, at least he had tried, and hopefully, in his second term, with no more elections to win, he would be the kind of president they wanted to believe that he always wanted to be. But, by then there was Gore's future to consider.
The result was an Administration that saw the gap between rich and poor increase, both within the U.S. and worldwide, and did not object; that went all-out for the North American Free Trade Agreement, but not for a raise in the minimum wage; that oversaw the abolition of “welfare as we know it;” and on whose watch the U.S. military bombed four countries. Sometimes the Administration seemed to be just along for the ride on the Ship of State: California Congressperson Henry Waxman reports Clinton's telling him, “Henry, I know the WTO sucks”—in a phone call asking him to vote for it.
Nader was once actually offered the Democratic vice-presidential nomination by McGovern in 1972, after Tom Eagleton's withdrawal. But by the second term of the Clinton-Gore administration, he considered the Democrats so far from what they stood for then, that not only would he be the Green Party presidential candidate in 2000, as he had been four years earlier, but this time he'd actually campaign.
You couldn't pay most people to go see Gore or Bush; but those who paid $20 to fill arenas for Nader's “super rallies” found a candidate with far broader vision and grasp of American history than his prior “consumer advocate” public persona might have suggested. But unfortunately, as he writes, “a fifty-state campaign would only personally reach the population equivalent of several large football stadiums.”
Few people realize that the American presidential debates are controlled by a private corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates, corporate-funded and jointly controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Not only would Nader not be permitted to participate in the debates, he was not allowed to even attend them. At the behest of this private corporation, local police barred him from the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, during the last debate—despite the fact that he was scheduled to conduct an interview there. If the lawsuit he subsequently filed against the Commission succeeds in forcing a change in the conduct of presidential debates, that alone would justify his candidacy.
There were other frustrations. Neither the famously dissatified- with-the-Democrats, Warren Beat- ty nor the famously Independent-not-Democrat Congressperson from Vermont, Bernie Sanders nor the equally independent Mayor of Oakland, California, Jerry Brown ultimately supported Nader. There were the Gore campaign surrogates like Michigan Congress-person John Conyers, National Organization for Women President Pat Ireland, and Ms. Magazine founder and femininst activist Gloria Steinem, who, not satisfied with pushing Gore on practical grounds, made disingenuous arguments that Nader was actually not very good on the issues that concerned them. (Of course, in defense of the consistency of Steinem's poor judgment, we might note that she once seemed to think Henry Kissinger was an okay guy.)
In the end, the fear of his liberal detractors was realized, as his candidacy proved to be one of a number of factors that combined to put Bush in the White House. But Nader also points out the crucial impact of the Washington State Green turnout in Democrat Maria Cantwell's 2,300 vote win in a U.S. Senate race in which the Greens fielded no candidate of their own, that gave the Democrats a 50-50 tie in the Senate, setting up their eventual control when Republican Jim Jeffords switched to independent—a connection that U.S. Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid told Nader that he was “well aware” of.
Ultimately, Nader's own vote total was disappointing—only 2.7 percent nationwide. In California, he got “4 percent of the total turnout. Because Gore was so far ahead of Bush, we had expected twice that number.” But many people did not grasp the concept that the British refer to as “tactical voting,” and did not understand that Gore winning a state by a single vote would give him as many electoral votes as if he won it by a million.
Was Nader's campaign worth it? If you consider the best discussion of the real issues in any post-primary campaign since Mc Govern in 1972 to be of value, absolutely. Should Nader, or someone like him do it again? Not so clear. In part that depends on what impact, if any, his 2000 candidacy has on the Democrats, because whether it likes it or not, the fate and issues of the formless American Left are for now connected with those of the Democratic Party.
Above all, what ought not to happen is for Third Party and the within-the-Democratic Party advocates to harden their positions. After all, both sides have much to be modest about. Z
Tom Gallagher is a freelance writer and activist.