Touting The Race
Back in 1996, I attended the Reform Party convention in Long Beach, and let me tell you, it was an interesting experience. Here I was, an unabashed liberal, formerly a Democrat, surrounded by hordes of disgruntled ex-Republicans, many of whom were headed to the Republican Party convention in San Diego the next day. There were actually some issues we agreed upon - eliminating federal deficit spending as a normal practice, for example - but generally I felt like a fish out of water.
When I read the next article, I felt like I was almost back in Long Beach again - surrounded by disgruntled Republicans.
Independent Ralph Nader, reviled by some Democrats for his presidential bid, was endorsed Wednesday by the national Reform Party, giving him ballot access in at least seven states, including the battlegrounds of Florida and Michigan. Nader won the Reform Party endorsement shortly after midnight Tuesday, when more than two-thirds of its national and executive committee members who participated in the vote chose the consumer advocate, said party chairman Shawn O'Hara, who called Nader "a man of peace." Nader had courted Reform Party leaders since March, O'Hara said. Six other lesser-known candidates sought the party's nod. The leading contender, Tylertown, Miss., businessman Ted Weill, threw his support to Nader on Monday.
Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese said the candidate welcomes the support but plans to continue running as an independent. He said Nader would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to accept the Reform Party's ballot lines in each state, or try to gain ballot access through other means. Nader is not yet on the ballot in any state. Nader has struggled to win ballot access in some early states, such as Texas, where a deadline passed Monday without him collecting enough signatures to appear on the ballot. Nader filed a federal lawsuit Monday challenging the signature requirement in Texas. Nader also missed an early opportunity to get on Oregon's ballot, although he has time to try again. In Florida, Nader faced the daunting task of collecting more than 92,000 signatures to gain ballot access. If he runs as the Reform Party's candidate, he will not need any signatures.
In an interview with Associated Press Radio, Nader said he is counting on Reform Party members to help him get on the ballot in other states. "We'll get a greater get-out-the-vote drive -- there are tens of thousands of Reform Party people in California alone," he said. Other states in which the Reform Party has already secured ballot access for its nominee are Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana and South Carolina. The Reform Party said it also had ballot access in Wisconsin, but Kevin Kennedy, executive director for the state's elections board, said the party has not yet qualified for the 2004 presidential race. Zeese said Nader also would consider gaining ballot access through other third-party political organizations that might endorse him. In Florida, for example, both the Green Party and the Populist Party have secured access to the ballot. If either or both decide to endorse Nader, he would choose the party that makes the best fit.
"For a struggling, independent campaign, ballot access is everything," said Allan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University in Washington. "Guaranteed ballot access in eight states is like someone making a multimillion-dollar contribution to the campaign."
I can't rule out that Republican-leaning Reform Party members, the majority by far, aren't behind this endorsement as a way to water-down support for John F. Kerry. Nader's platform hardly matches that of fiscal and social conservatives who feel that the Republican Party is too liberal (a common comment back in 1996) - it has to be too liberal for them. Therefore, as a Reform party member since it began, I have to say this is an effort to aid Bush, who seems to need all the help he can get lately!
But there are those who aren't inclined to throw away what remains unthinkingly. Take the comments of the following author as an example.
I am ideologically aligned with Ralph Nader, not John Kerry. I agree with Nader on virtually every issue, while agreeing with only about half of Kerry's positions (or what can be deciphered as Kerry's positions). Like other peace and justice activists, I am distressed that Kerry -- who spoke so eloquently decades ago against a war based on racism and lies -- has given support to the current war that is based on racism and lies.
I'm also distressed by the deception coming from the Nader campaign. We keep being told that Nader will draw votes away from the Evildoer-in-Chief, George W. Bush; yet poll after poll shows the Nader vote depleting Kerry and helping Bush, and tipping swing states and their electoral votes to Bush. In my view, Kerry vs. Bush is not Coke vs. Pepsi. It's more like Coke vs. Arsenic (quite literally, in the environmental sense). The Bush/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft regime is far more dangerous than the regimes of Nixon/Kissinger/Mitchell or Reagan/Weinberger/Meese.
This election is not about Kerry. Nor Nader. It's about putting Bush out to pasture before he does any more damage.
2004 is a crucial juncture in our country's history, with millions of people in our evenly divided country -- especially people of color, labor, feminists, enviros -- yearning for a path to end the national nightmare of George Bush. Progressives need to be a bridge forward, not an obstruction. Noam Chomsky has described the choice we face: "Help elect Bush, or do something to try to prevent it." There can be no greater imperative for progressives this year than to Vote Bush Out. In the 17 or so competitive states, that means building the Kerry vote to defeat Bush.
I agree fully that Bush has to go, that it's folly to assume this is a time to make a statement in the face of the threats that Bush represents, and that pragmatism must overrule idealism. But others won't hear of this. Are there enough of these people to cause John F. Kerry to worry about his election prospects?
One of the more revealing tidbits in Bob Woodward's tidbit-laden new book, "Plan of Attack," concerns Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's master political tactician.
"The good news for us," Rove told Woodward, "is that Dean is not the nominee." Dean's unconditional opposition to the war, Rove said, would have made him a more formidable opponent for Bush than a candidate like John Kerry, who voted to authorize the war and remains committed to a U.S. military presence in Iraq. There is a growing antiwar constituency among the U.S. electorate, and the candidate who would normally inherit it, John Kerry, can't. But there is a candidate who can.
And so the conventional view of Ralph Nader is changing, too. When he announced his candidacy earlier this year, it was dismissed as the hopeless gesture of an egocentric crank trying to revive the glory of 2000, when he drained enough liberal votes from Al Gore to swing the election to Bush. "We doubt," wrote the New York Times editorial board at the time, "that (liberal voters) will make the same mistake twice."
Now many referees of the conventional wisdom -- political analysts Norman Ornstein and Stanley Greenberg, for example -- think the worsening war has at last handed Nader a rationale for his run. Unlike Kerry, who said he would even consider increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Nader favors a total withdrawal within six months. "This is Nader's moment," says Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in political third parties. "Suddenly his sails are filling out."
Consider Nader's showing four years ago in a few of the "battleground states" where polls suggest a Bush-Kerry contest will be close this year. If Gore had grabbed just 600 of the 97,488 votes that went to Nader in Florida, Gore would have won the state and the election. Ditto New Hampshire, which Gore lost to Bush by less than a percentage point while Nader took 4 percent of the state's voters. Other states that lean Democratic -- New Mexico, for example, where Gore won by fewer than 400 votes while Nader scored 21,251 -- may once again be up for grabs if Nader refines his anti-establishment message into a protest against the Iraq war.
If the war continues to sink in popularity, says the University of Minnesota's Jacobs, we could see Nader rise to 8 or 10 percent in national polls as election day approaches, compared with the 3 or 5 percent he's scoring now. "Can that support last?" Jacob asks. "Probably not. Nader was at 8 percent in some polls in the run-up to the 2000 election. He got less than 3 percent."
Three percent may not sound like much. But it's far more than political analysts would have expected of a Nader candidacy six months ago -- and easily enough to satisfy Rove's fondest dream: an antiwar candidate who guarantees the re-election of a war president.
I guess the answer to the question is: Yes, John F. Kerry has a problem. What's a candidate to do?
Ralph Nader, according to many who say they used to admire him, has become the self-centered star whose press clippings have gone to his head, the dog in the manger, the skunk at the Democratic garden party. After all, the man whose name comes to mind at the mention of the phrase "consumer advocate" is also the man who almost certainly helped elect President Bush -- by siphoning away a few thousand Florida votes that otherwise would have gone to Al Gore. And now he's running for president again!
Well, the advice here is that the Democrats -- very much including presumptive nominee John Kerry -- would do well to pause in their brick-throwing long enough to listen. Because what Nader is offering, he genuinely believes, is a road map to a Kerry victory. "A part of the problem," Nader said in an interview last week, "is that the Democrats have become too cautious -- too indentured to the same money the Republicans are dialing for. Kerry's consultants and handlers are telling him to tone it down, and he has. For example, he's now saying `I'm not a redistributionist, I'm a centrist,' and that speaks volumes. Because the issue isn't redistributing wealth in the old-fashioned sense but stopping the redistribution that's already going on through corporate welfare."
In fact, ending corporate welfare is one of 10 elements of what Nader is certain would be a winning campaign. "Democrats would like it, but so would lots of conservatives, liberals and progressives who don't like the way wealth is being redistributed in this country." Here are some other ideas on Nader's list:
* Support a living wage. Kerry should propose a living wage -- and act as though he means it. Huge numbers of Americans -- 10 million households -- earn less than $10,000 a year. Those workers would be substantially better off if the minimum wage had simply been indexed for inflation -- "like congressional salaries" -- over the last 35 years.
* Go after corporate crime
* Repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The prospective yield turns out to be "almost exactly what the American Society of Civil Engineers said last year it would take to restore America's deteriorating infrastructure" -- roads and bridges, schools, libraries, water and sewer systems, public buildings. "Everybody could get behind this, from labor unions to the Rotary, from workers to the corporate suppliers. And the best part is that it would create thousands of good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced to China."
* Protect the poor. Low-income Americans have no legal protection for many of their ordinary transactions -- either because the appropriate legislation hasn't been enacted or because of "a congealed lawlessness that goes unprosecuted." Nader's list includes check-cashing businesses for people who don't have access to bank accounts, tax-refund loans at usurious rates, rent-to-own schemes, dumping of tainted meat and shoddy merchandise in inner-city outlets, bank redlining and all manner of predatory lending.
"Democrats should flock to this issue, and the Republican blur machine couldn't do a thing about it. You know how they blur issues -- passing an inadequate prescription bill and saying that takes care of the elderly, or passing No Child Left Behind and saying that takes care of education."
Nader says Kerry should demand reform of a tax code that taxes work more than it taxes wealth; promote reduced reliance on fossil and nuclear energy; and support a reversal of policies that "make it almost impossible to form a union in the private sector any more."
As for the war in Iraq: Kerry needs to set a date for withdrawal of American troops and American companies. "The way to separate mainstream Iraqis from the insurgents is to make clear that there will be no American occupation -- stop building those 14 military bases -- and no puppet government. Bring in peacekeepers from neutral countries, and from Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, until Iraqi forces take hold with internationally supervised elections."
"If Kerry takes these positions," Nader concludes, "the only thing he'll have to worry about is how big will be his landslide."
Maybe. At the very least, it would provide an answer to those who've been looking for some reason to support Kerry beside the fact that he isn't Bush.
This is a situation in progress, so we'll have to wait and see how this one turns out. What do the pollsters have to say about this campaign?
You can hardly blame the Democrats if they seem a bit confused. After all, as the situation in Iraq has worsened over the past six weeks and national polls have shown a steep decline in President Bush's job-approval ratings (some, including the latest CBS/New York Times survey, have him registering well below the 50 percent mark), John Kerry can't seem to pull ahead of the president the national horse-race polls.
Last week's Gallup, Fox News and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys — all taken well after the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib — continued to show registered voters split about evenly between the president and the senator. New surveys by CNN/USA Today/Gallup and by my colleagues at the Pew Center did show the senator gaining a small lead, but that edge disappeared in the Gallup poll when the sampling was narrowed from registered voters to "likely" voters, and in the Pew poll when respondents were asked to also consider the candidacy of Ralph Nader.
Understandably, many Democrats have begun to despair — if Mr. Kerry can't gain ground when the president is in trouble, when can he?
His defenders suggest that the evenly divided, highly polarized electorate is so dug in that neither candidate can break away. Others attribute Mr. Kerry's lack of progress to the multimillion-dollar Bush advertising blitz in swing states.
These explanations may have some merit, but the data show there is still a sizable independent swing vote that could drive the election one way or the other. And the declines in the senator's favorable ratings have been modest — even in the swing states, where the Bush-Cheney advertising hit him hardest, polls show that most voters still hold positive or neutral views of him.
The real reason that Mr. Kerry is making so little progress is that voters are now focused almost exclusively on the president. This is typical: as an election approaches, voters first decide whether the incumbent deserves re-election; only later do they think about whether it is worth taking a chance on the challenger. There is no reason to expect a one-to-one relationship between public disaffection with the incumbent and an immediate surge in public support for his challenger.
We saw the same dynamic in the 1980 race. President Jimmy Carter's favorable rating in the Gallup surveys sank from 56 percent in January to 38 percent in June, yet he still led Ronald Reagan in Gallup's horse-race measures. For much of the rest of the campaign, voters who disapproved of Mr. Carter couldn't decide whether Mr. Reagan was an acceptable alternative. Through the summer and early fall, the lead changed back and forth, and CBS/New York Times and Gallup polls showed conflicting results — at one point in August, Gallup found Mr. Reagan ahead of President Carter by 16 percentage points, yet just two weeks later it registered a dead heat. It was not until the two men held a televised debate eight days before the election that Ronald Reagan gained legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate.
Similarly, in May 1992 President George H. W. Bush had only a 37 percent approval rating according to a Times Mirror Center survey, but the same poll showed him with a modest lead, 46 percent to 43 percent, over Bill Clinton. Only the Democratic convention and the debates brought about an acceptance of Mr. Clinton (even though his negative ratings were higher than Mr. Kerry's are now). It took a long time for him to be seen as an acceptable alternative to Mr. Bush.
Should the voters' disillusionment with the current President Bush continue, they will evaluate John Kerry and decide whether he is worth a chance. But, as in the past, the focus at this stage is on the man in the White House — and given the events in Iraq, it is unlikely to come off him any time soon. Mr. Kerry's lack of progress should not, for now, be cause for concern to Democrats. Public opinion about Mr. Bush is the far more important barometer — and if it remains low, Mr. Kerry will have a chance to make his case.
Do we need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows? Check the barometer.
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