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Looking back at the challenge to Washington's status quo
Lessons of the Nader campaign

March 29, 2002 | Page 8

BEN DALBEY looks back at the most successful left-wing campaign for the presidency in half a century.

YOU CAN'T spoil a spoiled system." That was one of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader's favorite statements on the campaign trail during Election 2000. More than a year after the election, the words still ring true.

What better way to describe the theft of the presidency by George W. Bush, who lost the nationwide vote, but won the one vote that actually mattered--the 5-4 Supreme Court decision by his father's buddies that installed him in the White House?

Is there any doubt that the political system is spoiled after the revelations of the Enron scandal--where bought-and-paid-for politicians did the bidding of corporate crooks?

Could there be a better illustration of the lack of any alternative voice in Washington than the closed ranks of Republicans and Democrats behind Bush's war drive?

Nader can be proud that he offered an alternative to this--and so can the thousands of people who worked to spread his campaign's anticorporate, pro-worker message.

Yet Nader's name is still mud among many liberals--who accuse him of handing the White House to George W. Bush by "stealing" votes from Al Gore.

In his new book Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, Nader sets the record straight. "Would I be running if I were concerned about taking votes from Al Gore?" Nader writes, recounting a typical response during the campaign to the stream of reporters demanding some expression of regret. "We're trying to start a new progressive politics in this country, that is our priority. If George Bush is elected, I would say that Al Gore blew it."

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NADER IS rightly famous as an uncompromising consumer advocate and opponent of big business greed. But for most of his political career, Nader's "activism" was centered on Washington, D.C.

His watchdog groups, like Public Citizen, focused on researching corporate crime and exposing it. Their method for winning changes in government policy was to lobby Democratic Party politicians.

With the rise of Bill Clinton's conservative "New Democrats" and the general shift to the right in Washington, Nader found himself increasingly shut out of the corridors of power in the 1990s.

In 1996, he made a half-hearted run for president as the Green Party candidate. Four years later, he decided to take the job seriously.

In Crashing the Party, Nader repeats the argument that Gore has no one to blame but himself for losing. "Gore did not make more of Bush's dismal record in Texas," he writes, "because doing so would have required him to be specific, naming company names and offending his own contributors in the business community. It would have also exposed his own administration's lackluster performance."

Ultimately, the election was so close because Gore and Bush were so much alike. As Gore's own campaign chair Bill Daley said, "To tell you the truth, I think [people] never really liked either one of them."

While Gore was busy giving away an election that was his to lose, his liberal supporters organized a vicious slander campaign against Nader. Union leaders and well-known liberals pulled out all the stops to convince people that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

One favorite tactic was to raise fears about a Republican president packing the U.S. Supreme Court. As one well-rehearsed audience member on ABC's Nightline put it to Nader just before the election: "After women are confined to back-alley abortions, our tax money is diverted to parochial school vouchers, our Bill of Rights perhaps replaced by a police state--all because President George W. Bush has appointed a few more Clarence Thomases, a few more Scalias to the U.S. Supreme Court--will you look back with pride at what you have accomplished this election?"

Never mind the fact that every Democrat in the Senate, including Al Gore, voted to confirm Scalia in 1986--and that Democrats provided the margin of victory for Thomas' confirmation.

In his book, Nader puts his finger on the bigger problem with these liberal "scare tactics," arguing that they lead to a "defensive attitude, instead of a tough self-confidence intent on preserving past gains while going on the offensive toward new realms of well-being."

Unfortunately, Nader sometimes downplayed the real threats posed by the right. He responded to the Nightline question, for example, by arguing that a Supreme Court reversal of Roe v. Wade would "send the issue back to the states"--as if this would be only a sideways step for abortion rights.

Worse, he flirts in his book with the idea of classifying all fights against racism and sexism as "identity politics"--which he says emphasizes "discriminate injustice" faced by particular groups of people at the expense of the "indiscriminate injustice" of poverty. This is a foolish dismissal of some of the most important struggles in U.S. history--the civil rights movement, for example.

In fact, Nader's own campaign was transformed when he began--under pressure from his supporters--to take up social justice issues, speaking out against racial profiling and the death penalty, for example.

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THE IMPORTANCE of tying these issues to the class questions at the core of the campaign was shown most clearly at the Nader "super rallies." Held in cities across the country, these massive festivals of progressive politics packed tens of thousands of supporters into one stadium after another.

As Nader describes the atmosphere at the last super rally in Washington, D.C., two days before the election: "The hallways outside the arena were filled with activists staffing tables that advanced D.C. statehood, living wage, health care, eliminating child poverty, an end to the death penalty, revoking the cruel life-destroying sanctions on innocent Iraqi people, protecting the global environment."

From the stage, Nader encouraged his supporters to see themselves standing in the long tradition of struggles for justice the U.S.: "The antislavery abolitionists, the women's suffrage drive…how workers and farmers threw off some of the corporate yokes on their backs--all ordinary people producing extraordinary history."

Nader was absolutely right to connect his campaign to a wider movement for fundamental social change. But his focus on this during the campaign only makes more glaring his retreat since the election.

After November 7, Nader all but disappeared from the national stage--even as the U.S. political system was being exposed as an undemocratic sham by the fraud in Florida. Nader could have taken the lead in organizing opposition to Bush's theft of the White House--helping to unite his supporters with larger numbers of people who might have voted for Gore, but who wanted to fight the right.

Likewise, when tens of thousands of people descended on Washington to protest Bush's inauguration in January 2001, Nader again was nowhere to be found.

For supporters who had been inspired by his calls to build an ongoing movement, this disappearing act was demoralizing--and it contributed to the lack of an organized opposition to Bush in the months that followed.

Nader deserves credit for seeing his campaign through to Election Day--in spite of the massive pressure on him from people who he considered his allies in Washington. For thousands of people who worked for his campaign--and many more who voted for him--his candidacy represented an opportunity to say no to the two-party "duopoly" and its grip on national politics.

But the need for an alternative to the status quo wasn't going to disappear after November 7 under any circumstances.

We can't wait for Nader to continue building that opposition. We need to take the lessons learned from the Nader campaign and use them to build a fight against Washington's right-wing agenda--and for a better world.

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