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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.