Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Nader for President?

I applaud Ralph Nader’s entry into the 2008 presidential race -- not just because he has every “right” to run, but because Obama (or, God forbid, Clinton) will run to the right once they have the nomination in hand – unless there is a powerful pole of attraction to their left that threatens to draw voters away. John Edwards’campaign pulled Obama and even Clinton out of the mushy middle – ever so slightly. That’s gone now. When the primary season is over, there will be no need for the Nominee Apparent to play to the Democratic base either. If nothing happens to derail an otherwise inevitable trajectory, even vacuous talk of “change” will look good.

However, I have three concerns about the wisdom of another Nader campaign. Two of them are broadly strategic, the other has more to do with long-range political objectives. None of them, singly or together, are decisive. Because I live in a safe “blue” state [I still can’t get over how they got “red”], I’ll probably vote for Nader, as I did in 1996 and again in 2000. It’s even more likely that I will contribute to his campaign. I can imagine circumstances where I might do even more. But I am ambivalent about the prospect.

1) The time to reject the “liberal” Democratic narrative according to which Nader was a “spoiler” in 2000 was from the moment it surfaced. The case against that self-serving story is well told here. But it is very likely true that had Nader not run, Gore would have won despite himself and despite the ineptitude of his campaign. In retrospect, therefore, it would have been better had Nader not run – because it would have been better had Gore not lost. That was not how it seemed prospectively. In 2000, the country was at peace (more or less) and the economy was (apparently) booming. Gore’s opponent was a bumbling fool. [That perception, at least, was sound!] Therefore Gore ought easily to have won by a landslide even if Nader had garnered 5% of the vote, which was all that anybody hoped he would. [5% was the magic number that would assure public funding for the Green Party in ensuing years.] The fact that it didn’t work out that way is not Nader’s fault. It was Gore’s election to lose and, with more than a little help from his liberal Democratic friends, he was up to the task.

In 2004, I voted for John Kerry because he seemed to have a better chance of losing to George Bush than Gore had four years earlier, and because it seemed the best way to “express” opposition to the Bush government and its wars. However, in 2008, a Democratic victory again seems assured, though for very different reasons than eight years ago. Belatedly, but unmistakably, a large majority of Americans have become fed up with Cheney and Bush, fed up with their wars, and fed up with their not so compassionate conservatism. Everyone knows that the Democrats, especially the ones in the House and Senate leadership, are a feckless lot – and that they’ve done more to aid and abet Cheney and Bush than to impede their criminal enterprises. But at least they compete with Bush’s party electorally. That was enough to sweep the Democrats to victory in 2006. It should be more than enough in 2008.

BUT it might not work out that way. Even Hillary Clinton, running ineptly, should be able to trounce any of the Republicans who sought the nomination except John McCain – the only one who isn’t easily depicted as a bad joke. McCain’s adventures with lobbyists could yet be his undoing. So could his rifts with anti-immigrant nativist racists, tax cutting free market theologians, and theocrats in his own party. But it isn’t likely. That’s why it is fair to say that there is reason to fear that, were she to run against McCain, Clinton could lose. Why go for a national security, neo-liberal Democrat, a McCain Lite, when the real article is available? Obama is less vulnerable on this account because he is not perceived as a pale approximation of an unrepentant Vietnam warrior and Iraq warmonger. However he has other, potentially graver liabilities.

There is first of all the persistence of racist attitudes, and the possibility that the electorate as a whole will be less likely to vote for an African-American than the subset of Americans who vote in Democratic primaries and caucuses. Then there is the fact that before his national political ambitions crystallized, Obama was, if not pro-Palestinian at least not shamelessly anti-Palestinian. In a saner country than ours, that would be a mark in his favor. But in the real world of American politics, it is a liability. In recent years, Obama has pandered to the Israel lobby with due diligence. Still, we can count on McCain to make an issue of his erstwhile good moral and political sense. Already right wing Zionists are complaining that Obama’s foreign policy advisors are insufficiently sensitive to the interests of the tribal state. Would that it were so; the ones they single out – Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, and Semantha Power – hardly fit that description. No matter; for the Zionist right, only the truly servile will do. Obama has more of a credibility problem in that regard than Clinton does; she’s been pandering longer and more sincerely and her husband’s legacy counts in her favor. But she’ll soon be out of the picture – one hopes. That’s why the Zionist right could be a problem. I wonder how much of a problem, though, because saner heads within the Zionist movement will probably prevail, and they’ll not want to get on Obama’s bad side. In any case, Obama’s ancient virtues will not cost him many votes, though they could cost the Democrats some money. The larger problem is that Obama’s ostensible unreliability on Israel/Palestine, will feed into a perception that he, with his Muslim relatives and extended Kenyan family, is somehow unfit to lead the Home of the Brave. The Clintons have already laid the groundwork: implying that the Obama campaign has taken on a cult-like aspect. All the Republicans need to do is amplify the imputed perception that there is something off. With a last name that sounds like Osama, and with Hussein for a middle name, the heirs of Karl Rove should not have too hard a time of it.

These are reasons not to do anything that might even remotely jeopardize Obama’s chances for winning in November. It’s not splitting hairs to say that voting strategically with this thought in mind is different from faulting Nader as a “spoiler.” With Nader and Obama (or Clinton) in the race, Obama (or Clinton) is likely to take more votes away from Nader than vice versa. If anybody is a spoiler, it would therefore be Obama, not Nader. But “spoiler” talk is silly. Strategic voting is not. We are in uncharted territory with an Obama candidacy. In the circumstances, exercising extreme caution may be the wisest course. This is not a decisive reason to keep Nadar at bay, but it is a consideration.

2) Nader was a far more charismatic candidate than Al Gore; his supporters were far more enthusiastic – even if many of them were ultimately scared away by “liberal” Democrats. For a Nader campaign to be worth the effort, he will need enthusiastic supporters again. As in 2000, the corporate and corporate friendly (NPR) media will ignore a Nader campaign as much as they can; they will deride it to the extent they cannot. Look at what they did to John Edwards! Expect worse, much worse, as they deal with someone who has the temerity to challenge the party duopoly that serves their interests so well. To fight back, the Green Party will need people, lots of them, to force attention on the campaign. It will need to appeal to youth. That happened to a considerable degree in 2000. But how likely is to happen again in this Age of Obamamania? If the enthusiasts, the young ones especially, are elsewhere, a Nader campaign would be futile. The need for it would be as great as ever, but the people who can carry it forward would be missing. In these circumstances, it might make more sense to push a progressive agenda without running any candidate at all. I emphasize the word “might.” This is not a decisive consideration either, but it is a powerful one.

3) Arguably, the prospects for party-building, for moving the Green Party closer to the point where it can seriously challenge the Republicrat duopoly, trump these considerations. This was the main reason why I supported Nader in 2000. But Nader has never been much of a party builder. In 2000, he ran as the Green candidate, but never joined the party. In 2004, he ran an independent campaign; the Greens ran somebody else. Now it seems that he will run for the Green nomination again, but only because it will facilitate the daunting task of gaining ballot access. I’ve come around to the view that he may have a point. The Green Party has been around for some time. It has gone precisely nowhere. Of course, an energized Nader campaign could jump start it. But that seems unlikely – given Nader’s lack of enthusiasm for the Greens, and the enthusiasm many potential Green voters have for Barack Obama.

Of course, there is still an “educational” reason to run. Elections focus attention. To the extent it is not ignored, a Nader campaign would force attention on issues Obama is sure to ignore. [Were anyone else, including Cynthia McKinney, the Green candidate, the campaign would be even more thoroughly ignored.] The issues Nader would emphasize would be roughly the ones Dennis Kucinich did: single-payer, not for profit health insurance; defunding the Bush wars, impeachment; pro-labor legislation and the like. A Green campaign would also be able to raise questions about America’s policies in Israel/Palestine. Kucinich was good on these issues too; he wanted the U.S. to join forces with the Israeli left. Nader is better; he wants the U.S. to treat Israel the way it would any other state. But even if Nader gets some attention -- because the media, ever focused on the “horse race” aspect of the campaign will obsess again on the “spoiler” theme -- don’t count on these or other “issues” to expand political consciousness. To the degree they are not ignored, they’ll be used to disparage the Nader campaign. Especially if the atmosphere is already poisoned because Obama once showed good sense, look forward to charges of anti-Semitism and even more ludicrous castigations of “self-hating” Jews.

However even if sanity prevails, a Nader campaign would just be a Kucinich campaign – with a more charismatic candidate and with a take on the issues less constrained by the exigencies of running within the framework of the Democratic Party. This raises an important question – for those of us who are more red (in the old-fashioned sense of the term) than green. Given the prevailing distribution of economic and political power, the Kucinich-Nader program probably exceeds the horizons of the politically possible. It is therefore, in one sense of the term, utopian. That’s not a bad thing. As Nader has repeatedly explained, it is eminently worthwhile to put “impossible” ideas out for consideration, to expand the range of discourse. But if that’s the point, why stop where Nader does?

One reason might be that this is where Nader thinks it is best to stop. Nader does not, and never has, challenged underlying economic or political structures. That’s why in the good old days, leftists sometimes faulted his “reformism.” He is not for left alternatives to capitalism, but for left alternatives within capitalism; he sees corporate power, not capitalism itself, as the root of the evils that afflict us. He also has no notion of transforming the political regime; only of making it truer to its “promise.” This is not the place to engage these questions, but it is appropriate to raise them and to say that I think he is wrong – that Nader’s (and Kucinich’s) utopianism is not radical enough.

Those of us who would challenge the underlying structures that govern our economic and political life therefore have reason to cavil; to question why, once worries about feasibility are cast aside in favor of political education, we should “teach” Nader’s (or Kucinich’s) lessons rather than our own. This is why I am hesitant to identify unequivocally with Nader’s anti-corporate but not anti-capitalist, politics -- despite the plain fact that, for anyone who thinks as I do, the world Nader (and Kucinich) envision would be vastly preferable to the best we have any chance of getting under an Obama presidency.

So it is with genuinely mixed feelings that I welcome Nader’s candidacy. On balance, I think it is probably a good thing, but I say this without great confidence. Perhaps in time, the problems I’ve sketched will sort themselves out. I certainly hope so. For now they leave me conflicted.

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