On the eve of electing the president who will lead this nation into--drum roll, please--the next millennium, I find myself thinking, "Damn, this is the best we can do in a country of more than 300 million people?" All hail the infallible Constitution, our leadership choices have been winnowed down to Al Gorp, the monotonous corporate robot drone from the 2-Sirius star system, and George "What Me Worry?" Bush, the goofy political scion born with a silver spoon in his nose, who manages to keep a straight face while casting himself as a Washington outsider with strong character. Arrgh!
One of the United States' fundamental philosophical tenets is a vehement opposition to totalitarianism and dictatorship. The telltale sign of one of those despised systems of government is de facto one-party rule, and yet we are perennially provided only one more choice than the hapless citizens of such regimes. Forgive me if I'm not emotionally detached enough this year to appreciate the irony of it all. I would have at least gotten some satisfaction if I'd been given the chance to meaningfully participate in the primaries, but by the time they rolled around to North Carolina, both the Republican and Democratic nominations were securely sewn up. John McCain's aspirations were crushed under the weight of Dubya's big-time name recognition and overflowing campaign coffers, while Bill Bradley's idealism was rendered void by the fact that he was not the sitting veep.
All these circumstances led me to where I found myself a little earlier this election year; a political columnist on the verge of being a poster boy for political disaffection. I didn't come to this place naively. I mean, it's not that I really expected an "electable" candidate to be openly campaigning and talking about putting an end to corporate welfare as we know it, reining in the military-industrial complex, or addressing the horrible social cost of the fraudulent war on drugs. But whyyy (as my 4-year-old says) has the "mainstream" discourse during this campaign been limited to such an infinitesimally slim sliver of political possibility: social security, prescription drugs and tax cuts? (That's a rhetorical question. The rhetorical answer is that older Americans vote in high numbers, and Gore needs to promise some goodies of his own to prevent the all-important middle class from voting their immediate self-interest, given Bush's Santa Clause tax-cut plan.)
"You have options, Derek!" cry the progressives in unison, "You can vote for Ralph Nader." Umm, yeah, right. No disrespect at all to Nader, who has talked a great deal about the very issues that are important to me, but he can't win. I'm not saying that to be a downer, man, it's just that the winner- takes-all electoral system (which we've been deluded into believing is equivalent to one person, one vote) guarantees that he can't win. Therefore, a vote for Ralph Nader is either: (a) an act of idealistic symbolism; (b) a rebuke of the Democratic party; (c) a protest against the entire political system; or (d) a strategic attempt at party building (aiming for the critical 5 percent popular vote that will bring the Green Party federal matching funds in the 2004 elections).
I view option "d" as better accomplished through grassroots organizing on the state and local level, where there is a greater chance of success and less chance of progressive "friendly fire" inflicting collateral damage on the at least moderately liberal agenda achievable under a Democratic administration. To their credit, the Greens, whom Nader represents, as well as Perot's--I mean, Pat Buchanan's--Reform Party have done a good job of that grassroots organization. Even those who feel, however, that the matching-funds issue trumps the possibility of turning over all three branches of government to the Republicans should be aware that a write-in vote cast for Nader from North Carolina, due to the peculiarities of this state's political machinery, will not count toward achieving matching funds for the Green party. In fact, a write-in vote for Nader in this state won't be counted at all.
I suppose you could vote for Ralph Nader as a protest, or symbolic gesture (options "c" or "a"). If you want to do that, then by all means, do the write-in thing, but hey, you might as well select Louis Farrakhan, Elizabeth Dole or Elmo from Sesame Street. By the way, I don't buy the whole "not voting is sending a message" thing, since you conveniently send the same message as someone who just doesn't care enough to get out to the polls, while simultaneously missing out on the chance to make a difference in electing local officials and approving or rejecting ballot initiatives like school-bond referendums.
Which leaves option "b," voting for a third-party candidate as a direct rebuke of the policies of the Gore-Clinton right-centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Been there. Done that. In 1992 I voted against the democratic nominee, and conventional wisdom, and wrote in Ron Daniels, a former director of the Rainbow Coalition and a much more progressive candidate than Bill Clinton. Misgivings about Clinton notwithstanding, I voted for his reelection in '96, on the strength of his administration's record in office. (Some of his accomplishments were symbolic, some were substantial, but all were infinitely better than Reagan and Bush in terms of economic and social policy.)
In the year 2000, I'm probably less enamored of Vice President Al Gore than I ever was of Bill Clinton. Like the current president, Gore's in favor of continuing our longstanding policy of ludicrously unnecessary increases for the Pentagon. (For the record, all the troops should get a sizable raise, but if anyone paid half as much attention to military expenditures as they do to "entitlement programs," they could probably cut 10 percent from the federal budget with only a few pissed-off generals and contractors to show for it.) Gore has pandered on several high-profile issues (remember the Elian Gonzalez case), and his vows to bring about campaign finance reform ring somewhat hollow given his pedigree as a world-champion fundraiser. And with her past crusades on behalf of the PMRC, I don't trust Tipper to resist the temptation to set herself up as supreme arbiter of American popular culture. (Then again, Pat Boone probably would be better than some of the crap that gets regular radio play.)
Nonetheless, after forcing myself to endure the first and third presidential debates (I should get some kind of tax break for that), I've come to the conclusion that (1) George Bush is just too damned simple to be president; and (2) differences between Gore and Bush on important issues do exist, and are substantial enough to make Al Gore an exponentially better choice.
During the first debate, Bush airily (or air-headedly) dismissed Gore's barrage of statistics and comparative policy analyses as "fuzzy math." Huh? I could've used an excuse like that during a college calculus final or two. With the frenetic pace and increasing complexity of technology and economics, with the house of cards built on dot-com stock capitalization threatening to collapse (and taking our era of prosperity with it), we'll have need for rapid and informed policy decisions. Do we really want to entrust our fate to a guy unable to defend the details of his own policy proposals? I also find it incredible how forgiving the public is of Bush's numerous slips of the tongue, when we collectively sniggle at 18-year-old basketball players who display less-than-masterful command of the Queen's English during post-game interviews. Do we have higher standards for athletes than we do for someone we're about to choose to represent us before foreign heads of state?
In the last debate, George Bush bobbed and weaved under a direct question from Al Gore regarding his support for what the Supreme Court has decided is the law of the land for Affirmative Action. (Bush replied that he supported his own definition of "Affirmative Access.") On a later question about his feelings toward the death penalty, however, Bush was decidedly more forthcoming, offering that he was merely carrying out his duty to enforce the laws of the state of Texas. Taken together, these two answers apparently indicate that the laws of Texas supercede the laws of the United States. One can't beat up Bush on the death penalty, though (despite the conveyor-belt pace of executions in the Lone Star State), without also beating up our pal Al, since Gore is so "me too" on the issue.
And then there's the big, big tax giveaway that George W. has in store for the whole country, with the lion's share going to the wealthy. He declares it proudly (with that grin on his face, playing into the media-created lotto mentality of Joe Sixpack) and with evident success. Everyone repeat after me: "Duh, yeah, let's cut taxes for folks making millions of dollars a year. That way, when we hit the number some day, we won't have to give half of it to the greedy government."
With all of the money floating around these days, we still have hungry children in this country, and people with no insurance who can't afford medical care. And homelessness. You know, those issues our government told us we couldn't afford to do anything about back when we were in a recession. Back when Bush's father was running against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primaries, he called Reagan's "trickle down" economic theory "voodoo economics." Both terms are equally apropos. The unprecedented and ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in this country is testament to the fact that the wealthiest Americans are trickling on the rest of us, while politicians continue to stick pins into the heads of the middle class and working poor. And while we're on the subject of giveaways and the fruits of previous Republican administrations, let's not forget the multi-trillion dollar national debt and the trillion-dollar S&L bailout. Perhaps it's a quirk that Bush The Younger has managed to inherit his father's name recognition but not his shared culpability for those economic debacles (maybe that went to his brother, Neil Bush, who was a little more "involved" in the whole S&L thing).
I know, I know, the deficit and the S&L fiascos took place with at least the complicity of the then-Democratically controlled Congress. And yes, the rich-poor gap has reached its current record proportions during a Democratic administration. All of this makes it extremely tempting to subscribe to the "Tweedledee-Tweedledum" characterization of our choices this year, as voiced by the disenchanted, and most vociferously by the Naderites. But I still can't ignore the differences.
The half-billion dollars that the United States is providing as debt relief for poor countries, which will largely benefit nations in sub-Saharan Africa fighting the ravages of AIDS, would have been unthinkable under a Republican administration. And on education, where Gore has pledged to provide federal funds to aid in school construction and teacher salaries, Bush instead would take resources from our public schools and give them to private schools in the form of vouchers. And in instances like health care, where Bush couldn't cut programs outright, he's in favor of letting each state have control over how money is spent, with little to no oversight from the federal government. I always have to laugh at the folks who think the federal government knows nothing, and that state and local governments are all-knowing and wise. Follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion and we'd still have slavery in the South, and I'd be writing this column for an abolitionist paper in Massachusetts or something. Hmm, maybe that's the point.
Without any of the other differences that I discern between the two candidates, there is one which would, by itself, obligate me to vote for Al Gore: the upcoming appointments to the Supreme Court (as well as the rest of the federal judiciary). With most, but not all Supreme Court cases being decided nowadays by a slim 5-4 majority, the impact of one, two or three nominees over the course of the next four to eight years should be of paramount concern to every citizen of this nation. We can reasonably expect Al Gore to appoint judges who'll be in the moderate to slightly liberal range, like Clinton before him. I certainly wouldn't expect him to nominate any wild-eyed leftists (as if they would be approved), although that would provide some needed counterbalance to the two raging right-wingers in robes who are currently on the court. George W. here says he favors "strict constructionists". I had a problem with that phrase when his father was president, given that the original, un-amended Constitution would strictly consider me three-fifths of a human being. I'm all too aware that folks who look like me will bear the brunt of the assault on civil liberties that Judges Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would unleash with the aid of a few more allies.
So here I am. Despite my inner desire for alt.politics this year, I find myself reluctantly resigned: poised to log on to www.same ol-sameol.com and click on what many progressives consider the lesser of two evils. I'm feeling better about my choice, though, than I would if I just accepted unconventional wisdom and opted out of the process, or chose symbolism over pragmatism this time around. Of course, I have a nagging doubt about whether my conscientious consent will amount to much in the big picture. I certainly haven't been energized enough by the prospect of a Gore presidency to actually campaign on his behalf--I had enough trouble making up my mind.
The polls that I try to ignore show that a sizable portion of the country is more inclined to put their future in the hands of an affable, albeit vacuous, dude with a crooked smile, than a boring, but capable technocrat. I look back on the first Clinton election, the one where he was victorious despite my protest vote (in balloting terms, I smoked but didn't inhale). Was he elected as a genuine result of public dissatisfaction with the economic and social policies of Reagan and Bush the Elder? Or was it the boxers and the saxophone? If the drawers are really what did it, congratulations in advance to George Dubya--and to everyone else. We'll get what we collectively deserve.