Well’here we are. After two years, half a billion bucks, a forest of press releases, a tsunami of polling data, an avalanche of TV ads, a pile-on of punditry, and enough hype to burn a new hole in the ozone layer, America’s political, financial, and media establishment is proud to present you a choice of (cue the trumpets): Al Gore and George W. Bush. Miller Lite or Bud Light. Mighty small beer.
Imagine you had a desire one day to quaff your thirst with a good, strong brewski. So you belly up to a bar in hopes of getting a yeasty taste of the brewer’s art, maybe a fine dark beer with plenty of malt, a good head, and some real punch to it. Instead, the bartender of the establishment informs you of your choices: “Miller Lite or Bud Light?” You’d walk out! And that’s exactly what about 60% of the American electorate will do on November 7th, either not voting at all or finding third-party choices that offer some real oomph for their vote.
Of course, the establishment has rushed forward in the last few weeks of the election to pretend that their Gore-Bush offering is a collision of ideologies, a clash of titans, a slugfest of differences! (The New York Times wailed in an editorial that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and other third-paty contenders were doing a disservice to the Republic with their assertions that Al and George are Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber, and lectured its readers that the Democrat and Republican really, really, really represent the “clear-cut choice” that Americans deserve in this millennial presidential election. Really? What did we do to deserve this?)
In dubious prattle
If you watched the second presidential debate (and not many did—it drew the second-lowest number of viewers in the history of TV debates, beating only the Clinton-Dole bore-off in 1996), you would have been perplexed by the establishment media’s insistence that these two pugs are all about giving us a clear-cut choice.
From issues of foreign policy to the question of drilling for natural gas in the pristine wilderness of Alaska, Gore and Bush said the equivalent of “I agree with you” 40 times in this so-called debate. Even Milquetoast moderator Jim Lehrer finally asked in exasperation: “Is there any difference?” You could almost hear the clicks of TV remote controls across the country, switching in unison to the baseball game, as Gore responded, “I haven’t heard a big difference in the last few exchanges,” and as Bush replied, “Well, I think it’s hard to tell.”
Nader was right on target when he described the debates as “an interminable tedium of platitudinous dittos, garnished by relentless evasions and marinated in cowardly escapes from challenging the entrenched corporate interests.” (This is why we needed Ralph in the debates—a little pointed humor, not to mention substance, would’ve done wonders for the ratings.)
17 cents worth of difference
Still, the media drumbeat has continuously pushed the theme that Gore-Bush is a matchoff of profound differences that should satisfy the need of the masses for democratic choice. A writer for Slate, an influential on-line magazine among the political cognoscenti, took Nader to task for his insistence that Gore-Bush are in lockstep on the basic corporate agenda.
The writer pointed to the congressional fight over increasing America’s minimum wage as his aha!—proof that Gore’s Democrats and Bush’s Republicans are miles apart on whom they represent. He was taking issue with the old contention that there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the parties-and technically, he’s right.
Let’s do the math: Republicans are willing to hike the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage by a buck, but they want to phase it in over three years—33 1/3 cents per year. Democrats, however, are adamant that this is inadequate. They also support a $1 increase in the hourly wage, but they insist that it be phased in over two years—50 cents per year So there you have it: There’s actually 17 cents worth of difference between the two parties.
This is a choice? Does the Gore campaign actually think that a 50-cent, two-year phase-in is going to turn on and turn out America’s working stiffs, 25% of whom are laboring in jobs that pay less than a poverty wage?
The $1 hike that Gore supports means that someone working full-time at the minimum wage will be paid about $12,000 a year gross in the year 2002. And this from the Democrats! Notice that Gore, lately campaigning as the “populist” champion of working families, has made no pledge to push for a living wage, one that would reward America’s work ethic by declaring that full-time employment will at least lift you above poverty.
Indeed, in the midst of his highly ballyhooed “working families tour,” Gore was joined by Robert Rubin, the Wall Street hardliner who was Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, the man who worked hand-in-glove with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to hold down wages for working folks throughout the nineties (average wages, in terms of buying power, are lower today than when Richard Nixon was president, thanks to Greenspan’s and Rubin’s economic stratagems—a point that Gore fails to mention when he brags that America is wallowing in “prosperity”). Standing side-by-side on the stump, Gore proudly trumpeted that Rubin is the architect of his ten-year economic blueprint for the country. It’s like being told that Captain Hook will be in charge of your prostate exam.
Gore’s real problem
This disconnect from working-class reality is why Gore is gener- ating no enthusiasm among the core constituency of his party (not, as the media fatuously portrays it, because his ‘style’ is too stiff). The workaday majority of Americans who have not prospered in the Clinton-Gore-Rubin Wall Street boom are not looking for a warm puppy to hug-they want someone who is unabashedly, unequivocally on their side.
Meet three of these disenchanted voters, from Cross City, Florida: Cindy Lamb, Aundray Dogain, and Tracy Hunt. These three hardscrabble working women would be leading the charge for a real Democrat, but they told the New York Times that they’re turned off by both Gore and Bush: “I don’t think they. think about people like us,” said Lamb, 41, who runs the bus station in town. “Maybe if they had ever lived in a two-bedroom trailer it would be different. I don’t think either one of these men has ever had to worry about where their next paychecks are coming from.”
Aundray Dogain,31, is a shift manager at McDonald’s: “They look the same to me,” she says of Gore-Bush, adding that no matter which one wins, “my life won’t change.”
Tracy Hunt, 25, manages the Hardee’s restaurant and knows in her heart that neither of the Big Two nominees will fight for her family: “They say they care. This is just to get in. This time next year it’ll be a different ball game.”
The emperor has no clothes, and a majority of Americans see it. Cindy, Aundrey, and Tracy are right—George W. sure won’t be on their side, but neither will Gore stand up for these women… or family farmers, or even the environment (see last month’s Lowdown). It’s not that he’s at all venal or harbors any ill will toward such folks; it’s just business. Gore’s already taken the money and made his commit- ment to dance with the devil (see p.3 box), just as he’d done as vice president—the people be damned.
it’s time for a new politics of, by, and for the Cindy Lambs, Aundray Dogains, and Tracy Hunts, one that rallies the majority of ordinary people to take their country back from the greedheads and boneheads, the speculators and spoilers.
I hope that this will be done by my party, the Democrats-and there are plenty of Democratic candidates who are true to our party’s populist principles and constituency, Democrats I’m proudly campaigning for across the country.
Hijacking the debates
Yet there were the Democratic Party authorities, in collusion with the Republicans, using the shameful sham of the National Commission on Presidential Debates to avoid any questioning of the WTO and NAFRA, the downsizing of the middle class, the theft of nearly a thousand family farms a week, the wholesale corporate invasion of people’s privacy, the genetic contamination of our food supply, the corporatization of our health- care system, the merger mania that’s crushing consumers, workers, small businesses, and communities across the country, the democracy-shriveling conglomeration of the public airwaves, the big-money corruption of the democratic process, or any of the other cherished items on the corporate agenda.
Of course, neither Gore nor Bush questioned the legitimacy of the commission itself. Despite its name, the National Commission on Presidential Debates is noza public body with any authority of law. It’s a totally private entity created by the Democrats and the G.O.P. parties, with two former chairs of the Big Two parties at the head of the commission and only card-carrying Republicans and Democrats serving on it—no independents or third-party members allowed. It doesn’t even have its own headquarters—its offices are squirreled away in the D.C. office of a bipartisan lobbying/PR firm that represents major corporate clients.
Nor is the NCPD publicly financed-its funding has come from such disinterested friends of democracy as Anheuser-Busch, ARCO, AT&T, Dun & Bradstreet, Ford, Hallmark, IBM, ].P. Morgan, Lucent Technologies, Philip Morris, Prudential, Sara Lee, Sprint, Sun Microsystems, 3Com, U.S. Airways, and Yahoo Inc.
No wonder a debate-commission official, accompanied by three armed police officers, physically barred Ralph Nader in Boston as he attempted to enter the television- viewing area simply to watch the second debate (Ralph had a legitimate ticket for entry). The officious official declared authoritatively: “It’s already been decided that whether or not you have a ticket, you are not welcome.” In so saying, he was also declaring that any and all citizens who are non-subscribers to the two-party duopoly are also not welcome in America’s closed political process.
And they wonder why people aren’t voting?
Where to from here?
Despite being officially shut out by the political, money, and media powers, Nader’s insurgent candidacy is drawing the support of throngs of people who have been similarly discarded by the system. In my city of Austin ” some 6,000 people recently came to a Nader rally—a phenomenal turnout! There was a preponderance of young people there, and no more than 10% of this wildly enthusiastic gathering were people I’ve ever seen at an Austin political event. These are not voters he’s “subtracting” from Gore, but people who’ve not been involved before-people he’s adding to the process.
The same holds true in other cities: There were 10,000 in Portland, 12,000 in Minneapolis, 10,000 in Seattle, 12,000 in Boston, 15,000 in New York, and on and on- people who paid ten bucks or so to get in to a political rally and stayed four hours to hear the speeches and revel in a new politics being born. Gore-Bush would have to drop big bucks at the local Rent-a-Crowd before they got such a turnout.
Nader offers a historic chance this year to build something positive for progressives. Ultimately, I hope this movement ends up in the Democratic party, but it’s abundantly clear that it’s not going to start there-not with the corporately owned Democratic Leadership Council and the Clinton-Gore crowd in charge.
I appreciate the dilemma that my more cautious progressive friends talk about. Well, they say, I so fear Bush that I’m willing to hunker down in a defensive posture behind Gore. Fine. But finally, we’re all going to have to take a risk and show a bit of political derring-do—just as the founders, the abolitionists, the suffragists, the populists, the labor organizers, the civil-rights activists and other movements have dared to do, challenging the existing political powers from the outside.
Though Gore seems to be doinq everything he can to lose, I certainly hope that he beats Bush (no one has done more to pound The Shrub for the past five years than me, and I’ll have to find an obscure island hideaway if this vindictive bastard takes power). But if Gore wins, the most important date for his progressive supporters is not November 7th, but the day after. What will you do then? You’ll have avoided Bush, but you’ll have won nothing.
Gore and Nader aside, on November 8th Progressives of all stripes must come together to build a new, grassroots political channel for the populist constituency that is wandering homeless. If we don’t link arms and build on the good start that Nader, the Greens, the New Party, the Working Families Party, the Labor Party, populist Democrats, and others have made, we’ll be back in this same butt- scratching, taken-for-granted position of powerlessness in 2004, 2008, 2012… and beyond. Let’s go on the offensive! Let’s build a politics that’ll make us feel proud.
Behind The Shrub
UNDER BUSH, TEXAS GOVERNMENT IS A MESS
George W. Bush has been saying all along that he wants to do for the national government what he’s done for Texas. This is not a threat to be taken lightly!
It’s mostly been ignored by the national media (and, inexplicably, by the Gore campaign), but Bush’s state government is an absolute wreck, having been run into the ditch by mismanagement and ethics scandals. The Texas governorship is one of the weakest in America, yet W. has proven inadequate to handle even this light load.
Let’s start with the Tex@s Department of Housing, one of the few state agencies directly under the governor. “It’s a genuine, certifiable mess,” says a Bush financial backer who has dealt with it. He says he brought the agency’s problems to the attention of Bush’s office two years ago, but was ignored.
Other officials are not ignoring them, however—the state auditor, a bipartisan legislative committee, the FBI, the IRS, and a grand jury have been probing into the department, which seems to be more interested in dolin,g out taxpayer benefits to favored developers than in building houses for poor folks.
Even the head of the department—a developer hand-picked by Bush—resigned amid charges that he was ramming through inferior projects and giving preference to a select few developers, including some of his former business cronies.
In 1999, another top housing official steered a million-dollar contract to a particular company, and shortly thereafter got a job with the very same firm. Then came Florita Bell Griffin, a Bush appointee to the housing board, who was arrested and indicted in June for awarding lucrative agency tax credits to a company in which she secretly was a partner—a deal worth half a million bucks to her.
Asked about Bush’s housing mess, an aide airily replied that the governor “can’t make everything a priority.”
OK, but how about the mess in his Department of Economic Development, another agency directly under him? In January, it received a scathing audit report that started with three scary words: “Gross fiscal mismanagement.” DED was unable to account for millions of taxpayers’ dollars supposed to be used for job training. It had shoved public funds at the likes of General Motors and Southwestern Bell without having written policies or contracts.
The audit found that the companies overbilled, did inadequate training, and trained only about a third of the workers they were Daid to train—one company was paid $260,000 but trained only three people! The auditor recommended that all of Bush’s DED board members be replaced and that the department’s two major functions be moved to agencies outside the governor’s control.
Such other state agencies as the environmental commission, health department, University of Texas investment board, lottery commission, and the funeral industry commission have also been rocked by scandal and mismanagement under George W., including outrageous cases of conflict of interest, self-dealing, and cronyism among Bush’s appointees—most of whom also happen to be major contributors and fund-raisers for the governor.
In addition, there was an embarrassing revelation this summer that—oops!—the state budget was not balanced, as Bush had so frequently bragged, but, in fact, showed a $610 million shortfall.
A couple of months later, word came that hundreds of thousands of Texas children would not get health coverage because the state government had done such a poor job of enrolling low-income children in a federal insurance program that Bush returned $446 million in unspent federal funds- the second-worst performance in the U.S.
As Molly Ivins reported in her column, a Republican state legislator who is less than charmed by all of this remarked rather bluntly: “I actually hope Bush loses just so he’ll have to be here to face the mess he’s made.” Me too.