Nader is pretty ebullient these days. I chatted with him on the phone last week just after he'd got back from Columbus, OH, where he told he'd had a crowd of more than 1000. A bunch of steelworkers had come to cheer him on, and he reckons that if it was up to union locals to do endorsements he'd make a very good showing among organized labor in places like Michigan, where he's already showing well. He also reckons that when Pat Buchanan comes out of the Reform Party convention next month with more than $10 million under his belt and a lot of organizing, the whole dynamics of the campaign will change, and the impact of his and Buchanan's drives could be major.
As things are, it's only July, and Nader is terrifying the Gore crowd. Omens of their disquiet have come in the form of attacks on Nader by Anthony Lewis in The New York Times and Katha Pollitt in The Nation. Pollitt came right out and said it: If Nader draws support from Gore and Bush wins, then Bush'll load up the U.S. Supreme Court with clones of Antonin Scalia, and it will be bye-bye Roe v. Wade. She also threw in some stuff about the hideous menace posed by the whole Bush agenda, but I can't imagine her heart was really in anything much beyond abortion.
Trying to prove that Gore is substantively to the left of Bush is a difficult business, particularly now that the Democratic National Committee is attacking Bush for being soft on crime. The arguments about Gore, Bush and who they will put on the court are intense, but in the end an empty exercise in hypotheticals. The two most progressive people on the present court, Stevens and Souter, were both put there by Republican presidents. The man who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision was Blackmun, put in by Nixon, and the man who most bitterly dissented from it was Whizzer White, put in by Kennedy. If Gore got into the White House and the Senate was held by Republicans, he'd have to get his nominees past Orrin Hatch. On the political plane, will the Republican Party ever end abortion, for middle-class women? Of course not.
Pollitt didn't really talk about economic performance or redistribution, which used to be a concern of the left. What could she say? Robert Pollin, a very good economist at the University of Massachusetts, has an "Anatomy of Clintonomics" in the New Left Review for May/June of this year, and it doesn't offer much comfort to those trying to run the "Gore is the lesser of two evils" flag up the pole one more time.
Pollin concludes his survey thus: "As Clinton's incumbency draws to a close, there has been a sustained effort by liberal media to burnish his tarnished credentials as a leader, with solemn eulogies of his record in office. The reality is far from these euphemistic images. The core of Clinton's economic program has been global economic integration, with minimum interventions to promote equity in labor markets or stability in financial markets. Gestures to the least well-off have been slight and back-handed, while wages for the majority have either stagnated or declined. Wealth at the top, meanwhile, has exploded. But a stratospheric rise in stock prices and a debt-financed consumption spree are a mortgaged legacy. Clinton will hand over to his successor the most precarious financial pyramid of the post-war epoch."
There's the ambush for you. Put the Republicans in for four years, during which the boom falls apart, just as it did when George W.'s dad was in the White House back at the start of the 90s. Then the Democrats storm back into control of both sides of Congress in 2002 or 2004.
Pollin ticks off the detailed record: "The Clinton Administration has done virtually nothing to advance the interests of working people or organized labor." What about the two-step rise in the minimum wage? Answer: The overall rise from $4.25 to the current $5.15 has done little to offset the plunge in the real value of the minimum wage. Even at the rate of $5.15 set in September 1997, Pollin calculates this is more than 30 percent below its real value in 1968?even though the economy has become 50 percent more productive across that 29 years.
Nor can it be said that under Clinton-Gore organized labor enjoyed much of a renaissance. In 1988, Reagan's last year, the percentage of the total workforce in unions stood at 16.8. In 1998 it had fallen to 13.9.
How about antipoverty programs? Pollin looks at all the claims made by the administration for the glories of the earned income tax credit, offsets these against the destruction of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), factors in the decline in the number of people getting food stamps (five times greater than the decline in the number of people in poverty) and spells out the conclusion that a low minimum wage and a widening of the earned income tax credit "have allowed business to continue to offer rock-bottom wages, while shifting onto taxpayers the cost of alleviating the poverty of even those holding full-time jobs." In sum, "the overall conditions of life for America's most destitute households may have worsened during the Clinton administration."
So much for the destitute. What about working people and the poor? Both the average wages of nonsupervisory workers and the earnings of those in the lowest 10 percentile of wage distribution remain, according to Pollin, well below those of the Nixon-Ford and Carter administrations, and are actually lower than those of the Reagan-Bush years as well. Wage inequalities have also shot up. "If low rates of unemployment have been a positive feature of the 1990s," Pollin writes, "it is still quite possible that the overall condition of the poor will prove to have worsened in Clinton's final years of office."
Gore is also the man, don't forget, who tried to effectively gut affirmative action at the federal level, with his Reinventing Government initiatives in 1993. How can any "leftist" defend this sort of record, or argue that Al Gore, a man to the right of Bill Clinton, will preside over any improvement? It's impossible.
So what about Gore's performance on the environment? By mid-1999 many greens were beginning to review the Gore record and ask what he'd done for the environment in all those White House years, when supposedly green America had as its most ardent champion the most influential vice president in American history. As so often, the grand old man of American environmentalism, the arch-druid himself, David Brower, put it pithily: "Environmentalists and progressives cannot endorse rhetoric and that's the greenest thing we've seen from the vice president. I first thought he was just keeping bad company. So I created the bumpersticker 'Free Al Gore!' and even got him delivered a sweatshirt with the slogan on it. But things have gotten even worse since then. And Gore seems to have fumbled the ball even on an issue as noncontroversial as offshore oil drilling."
In the fall of 1999, Michael Dorsey, a progressive environmentalist and the only black member of the Sierra Club board, began to raising serious questions as to whether or not the board should endorse Gore in 2000. He drew up a bleak list of Gore's failures. Among them:
? Gore had failed to save forests both in this country and worldwide, and was instead pushing for a global free trade agreement on timber with no conservation measures.
? At the start of 1999 the administration killed the Biosafety Convention being negotiated in Cartagena because it wanted to protect the interests of biotechnology firms.
? Although Gore launched an initiative against sprawl in 1999, he was simultaneously promoting sprawl in Florida by supporting the scandal-ridden expansion of Homestead Air Force base into another major airport situated between Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park.
? Gore had broken his commitment to clean water in Appalachia. Further, the failure of the administration to enforce the strip mine law had resulted in the removal of entire tops of mountains, the filling of valleys with rubble and the obliteration of more than 1000 miles of streams.
? In 1992 Gore promised to keep offshore oil and gas drilling away from the Florida coastline. Yet he never followed through on this promise, despite opposition to such drilling by both Florida Democrats and Republicans.
? Gore had demanded that chemical manufacturers begin new tests on nearly 2800 chemicals. If they wouldn't volunteer to do the tests, he'd force them to do so in what is called the High Production Volume (HPV) challenge. The tests include the lethal dose-50 percent test (LD50), in which animals are forced to ingest or inhale a chemical in increasing doses until half are dead, as well as longer-term tests. In all, Gore's plan would kill an estimated 800,000 birds, fish, rats, mice and other animals. The price tag to taxpayers would be at least $14 million.
? Gore had quit on his commitment to protect marine mammals. The Clinton-Gore administration had undermined protections for giant sea turtles and dolphins as it bowed to pressure from Mexico, Thailand, India and Pakistan to weaken U.S. laws.
Dorsey wasn't alone. Friends of the Earth issued its own list of Gore's failures and endorsed Bill Bradley, saying that "when Gore got into a unique position of power to lead, he failed in serious and perplexing ways and even opened the way for Draconian erosions of existing environmental protections at home and abroad."
Even on the subject of global warming, a supposed threat to which Gore had devoted much of his book, greens found grave fault with the Vice President. At the crucial conference in December 1997 he brokered a deal that pledged the United States would reduce its so-called greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below what they were in 1990 by the year 2012?a signal backsliding from targets Gore himself had proclaimed in earlier years, and below a European proposal of 15 percent. Moreover, the levels themselves would be "voluntary" in developing nations, and the industrial nations could meet them by using pollution credits, thus solving the crisis on paper while exacerbating it in the atmosphere. Not only was the agreement weak, greens charged, but the U.S. was doing nothing to implement the Kyoto accords, disappointing though they were.
Last weekend the board of the Sierra Club met in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah to ponder its endorsement. Steve Cobble of the Nader campaign sent along a request for Nader to be heard by the board, noting that the most recent act of the Clinton-Gore administration had been to announce that it will not breach dams along the Snake River to save salmon. Would this bulletin be followed, Cobble asked sarcastically, with newspaper headlines stating, "As expected, Sierra Club endorses Gore"? If the club were to do that, Cobble pointed out, "the Sierra Club will be ignored the rest of the campaign; key environmental issues will be left off the agenda?and the Sierra Club will gain the image of a special interest group that will subsume its core principles at the behest of the Democratic Party."
Even the mere fact that Nader is in the race has prompted Gore to try to do something to protect his green flank. In January of 2000 the administration used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect the Grand Canyon Parashant and Agua Fria in Arizona, plus California's coastline. In April, after Nader said he was going to raise money and campaign in all 50 states, the administration said it would protect the Giant Sequoia area. In June, after Nader started showing well along the West Coast, the administration invoked the Antiquities Act once again for the Ironwood Forest in Arizona, Hanford Reach in Washington, the Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado and the Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon.
As Cobble put it to the Sierra Club board, "Notice the pattern: environmental conservation in swing states, personified by announcing the Utah set-aside in Arizona. Notice the other, more basic pattern: years in which Nader is running, millions of acres saved; years in which Nader is not running?zero acres are saved."
None of this made any difference. The executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, has been a Gore man since the 1970s. And Cobble made a tactical mistake, suggesting the club's board had the options of endorsing Nader, or of endorsing both Gore and Nader, or of deferring the endorsement or, at minimum, of publicly declaring that Nader should be included in the debates. Seizing on this, Pope told the board that if they endorsed Gore strongly, then it would be okay to argue for Nader's presence in the debates. If it had been a firm either/or, Nader might have picked up four or five votes; as it was, he got two.
Even as Nader made a strong showing at the National Press Club last week, Rep. Barney Frank took a swipe at him, saying that Gore would be a more vigilant defender of civil rights. It's odd to hear the openly gay representative from Massachusetts defend Gore on these grounds. After all, the Vice President's biographer Bill Turque discloses in his book that Gore, a born-again Christian, has referred to homosexuals as being "abnormal."
Pollitt also said Nader is weak on women's issues. The feminists still smart at Nader's tactless put-down of "gonadal" politics back in 1996. But Gore? Even a cursory cruise through Gore's congressional career would surely have brought Pollitt up short. As a congressman Gore endorsed the most reactionary of Reagan-era erosions of choice, and then repeatedly voted against federal funding for abortions for poor women. Of all the laws in the Clinton-Gore years affecting women, none was more devastating and punitive than the Welfare Reform Bill, passed in the summer of 1996. Gore was the one who pushed Clinton into signing the bill over the opposition of virtually the whole cabinet. In consequence, 2.6 million people faced direst poverty, of whom 1.1 million were children. The federal entitlement for welfare, one of the cornerstones of the New Deal, was ended and 14 million on welfare were put on a three-year limit.
Anthony Lewis also lashed out at Nader for his opposition to the WTO and for permitting one of his groups to accept money from the textile magnate Roger Milliken. At this point one has to start laughing. Over the past 23 years Gore has solicited and accepted campaign cash from arms companies, the nuclear industry, bond traders, runaway firms to Mexico like Mattel, exploiters of child labor like Disney. Occidental, in which the Gore family has a stake now worth more than half a million, is trying to drill in the Colombian rainforest on land belonging to the Uwa Indians, who are being murdered by Colombian soldiers now about to receive another billion?courtesy of the Clinton-Gore administration.