Don't Blame Ralph
by Katha Pollitt
The Nation magazine, November 20, 2000
If Gore loses the White House-and some of you reading this
will know whether or not he did- he'll have no one but himself
to blame. Readers of this page know I've been something of a Nader-skeptic
all along (I'm planning a tactical vote for him here in Gore-solid
New York, but if I lived in a toss-up state I'd vote Democratic
and hope you would-or did-too). Still, it's not Nader's fault
that huge numbers of voters don't care if Bush is a reactionary
moron and find his Christian frat boy act appealing. Ralph didn't
tell Gore to go after the dithering undecideds and to forget about
energizing his base and reaching out to suburban and working women.
Remember when abortion and gun control were going to be key issues?
When the Million Moms were going to sway the election? Ralph didn't
make Gore distance himself so far from Clinton-a genius campaigner
with a 60 percent approval rating-that he couldn't plausibly claim
the "good" economy as his own, even as he also wasn't
willing to acknowledge the millions who have been victimized by
Clinton's policies on prisons, welfare, drugs, civil liberties,
privacy. Who was stopping Gore from announcing that on second
thought, sending a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package to Colombia
was a terrible idea? Wouldn't that have been a better way to prove
he was his "own man," not Clinton's, than spouting sanctimonious
pieties about faith and family?
Or take capital punishment: When the issue came up in the
debates, Gore and Bush both said they were for the death penalty.
Gore could easily have said that, like Republican Governor Ryan
of Illinois, he supported the death penalty but was troubled by
studies showing an alarming number of false convictions in capital
cases, and so he also supported a moratorium on executions. Sure,
some of the undecideds would have peeled off to Bush-you can imagine
the campaign ads in which relatives retell ghastly murders of
loved ones and accuse the Vice President of denying them "closure."
But then Gore could have run ads highlighting Bush's appalling
record as death-penalty king of Texas, and his lazy and frivolous
approach to the whole issue, which troubles some conservatives
and has even become a standard laugh line for David Letterman.
By taking a political risk-in a righteous cause Gore would have
been able to counteract the popular view of him as calculating
and expedient, which is doing him more harm than his actual positions,
which voters tell pollsters they like.
The same could be said of Gore's problems to his left. If
Gore wants to defuse Nader, why doesn't he fire back on a whole
range of substantive issues instead of acting like Nader has stolen
votes that somehow belong to Gore by right? Gore has a record
as Vice President, and he presumably believes in the positions
that drive Naderites wild-for NAFTA, for military interventions
around the globe, for welfare reform, for ladling vast sums of
money into the Pentagon. He could take the trouble to explain
why he is right and Nader is wrong on the issues that divide them,
or why he is being wrongly blamed for policies that were actually
the work of a Republican Congress, or why he is the best person
to undo the damage Nader has identified.
Nader's not perfect, after all-Gore could ask why he doesn't
belong to the party whose ticket he heads, why he told Outside
magazine he would prefer a win for Bush (readers will remember
he told me the opposite), why he has so little support among the
people-minorities, women, blue-collar workers-whose interests
he claims to represent. He could point out that while four years
of Republicanism may move a few to the left, it may also drive
far more people to embrace the Democrats, any Democrats, so the
whole Nader phenomenon contains the seeds of its own destruction,
in which case why not cut to the chase and vote for the Democrat
now? He could make plenty of hay out of Nader's ill-informed and
self-serving insistence that a Bush win will not endanger reproductive
rights-most recently, Nader told Sam Donaldson that even if the
Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, "it just reverts it
back to the states." Just! As if there aren't at least fourteen
states ready to criminalize abortion the minute they get the go-ahead.
As if there aren't already more than 300 restrictions on abortion
already on the books! At one time Gore's ferocity as a debater
was going to be his decisive strength. It may have backfired with
the feel-good nincompoop Bush, but Gore could always try getting
down off his high horse and asking Ralph how he would feel about
letting other freedoms lose their constitutional protection. Should
fifty state legislatures decide every year how much freedom of
speech Ralph Nader is going to have?
It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack
him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore-by,
for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore
said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story.
But it's absurd and kind of pathetic for Toby Moffett and the
"Nader's Raiders for Gore" to wring their hands and
beg Nader to step aside for the good of the country-it would make
more sense to beg Gore to address the concerns of Nader voters.
It would even make more sense for them to address-since Gore isn't
doing the job-the fence-sitters who are moving toward Bush: pro-choice
women, for instance, who think Bush isn't serious about working
to limit abortion (an illusion not shared by the Christian Coalition,
one might add), and union men who are having trouble choosing
between their guns and their job protection.
According to a group of seven academic political forecasters,
Gore is supposed to win because the man and the campaign and the
issues are unimportant: Whether the incumbent party stays in the
White House all depends on the state of the economy, both actual
and perceived. This alone can explain the outcome of every election
since 1948. If Gore loses despite his tremendous structural advantages,
what can you say except he screwed up monumentally? Clinton triangulated
against the left, but Gore acted as if the left didn't exist.
You can't blame the left if it came back to bite him on the behind.