Over at The Left Coaster, paradox gets upset about the seeming inevitability of the coming health care cave-in by Obama and Congressional Democrats to the industry forces and the still-deeply unpopular GOP. He describes himself, not without reason, as “politically hurt, profoundly ashamed, and fundamentally bewildered how the Democratic Party could go so stupidly wrong.” And he makes the obviously-true observation that
…doofus offensive Senators from nowhere drive the Democratic Party crown jewel accomplishment [health care] metric so they can compromise with loathed and hated Republicans.
Yup, that about sums it up. As the Summer of Hate blazes on, and wingnuts assault their representatives with pictures of Obama defaced to look like Hitler (and even sillier actual arguments), the Democratic party, holder of sixty Senate seats, the White House, and an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives, appears yet again poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, through nothing more than a simple lack of vision and spine. I was so simultaneously in-sympathy with paradox’s agony and so irritated by the recollection of the treatment I and others received for having voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 because we saw this sickness full-blown in then-candidate Gore, that I began writing a reply to paradox’s post. And, as is my wont, it turned into a bit more than I’d originally intended. Heh. Who’d-a thunk? So, considering a) I’m no longer on the Left Coast and b) this really turned into what should be its own post, I’m going to re-post it here, after the jump:
Y’know, I can’t tell you how much crap I’ve received over the years in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) since, let’s say, DailyKos started up or thereabouts, every time I reveal – and heaven forbid if I should ever even think about trying to defend – that I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000.
I’ve been called what’s wrong with the Democratic party, what’s wrong with liberals, what’s eating Gilbert Grape, you name it. I’ve been accused of being soft-headed, not thinking clearly, lacking vision or focus, etc. And those were the tame ones. In general, I tend not to mind, since I’ve no regrets at all about my decision even at this late date, and with the benefit of hindsight – though it does get awfully monotonous and tiring, hearing the same old inaccurate and tired accusations over and over again. I’m not accusing you of having made any of these accusations, per se – I don’t really know how you personally feel about those who “went Nader” in 2000 – but certainly there are those right here on this very blog who didn’t bother holding back their venom towards people who went Obama this time, let alone Nader in 2000.
The reason I’ve found so many of the complaints about “people like me” so tiresome isn’t just because of their ubiquity and uniformity, though: it’s because of their collective missing of the most basic point of all. It’s this inability on the part of those doing such complaining to get at what’s genuinely wrong – and still continues to be wrong – that is why I find all the vitriol more a depressing annoyance (like persistent mosquitos at an outside event I can’t leave) than a mortal wounding. And I suspect you’ve already figured out why I chose to put this here, in reply to your post: because your post perfectly demonstrates, highlights and laments what remains wrong to this day with the institutional left in the form of the Democratic party.
Because you were absolutely right (or, I guess, Digby was) when you said that it’s complete bullshit that “the liberal base has nowhere to go.” Five-hundred-and-thirty-seven fucking votes, gang. 537. How many did Ralph Nader get in Florida that year, again? 90,000? Anyone who’s still saying – and especially any elected leader who’s operating under the principle (RahmBo, I’m looking at your scheming ass) – that the liberal base has nowhere to go is forgetting the recent past to such an alarming degree that it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of reasonability to wonder if they’re simply ideologically incapable of observing and reacting appropriately to reality any longer.
If I sound almost exultant about having cost Al Gore the election in 2000, I am. I hated the Bush years as much as anyone here, perhaps even more so because I knew going in that it was people like me who were quite possibly going to cause Bush’s election, and therefore some of the then-unknowable but certain-to-follow shit-storm of incompetence and patriotism-plated mendacity would be on my head; that I would be responsible for some of it. But before anyone pulls out the flame-quills, stop and ask yourselves this question: did you really – heck, did anyone really, truly think that Lucy wasn’t going to pull the football away again this time, if we elected the still-Beltway-insider and sometime environmentalist Al Gore in 2000? Or, for that matter, whether we elected either the plucky mixed-race dude with the unlikely personal story and the soaring rhetorical skills, or the cast-iron consummate insider, tempered in the fires of her husband’s administration, with the world’s deepest rolodex?
What’s most annoying about the people who’ve consistently castigated Nader voters since 2000 is that they do so on the basis of being clearly able to see that we – Nader voters – have some of the responsibility for the train wreck of the Bush years (just as I pointed out that I already knew going into the 2000 election), but they either can’t see – or don’t accept – that we would have already arrived at some of the very same places you’re now so upset about if we had elected Gore in 2000: a popular(ish) President, but a media still dominated by mendacious conservatives memes, and a congress which – regardless of the actual balance of power – simply would not stand up and fight for the reforms we all know are so desperately needed in the way they need to be fought for.
For crying out loud, does anyone really need any further proof than the current health-care “debate” debacle, that electing the Al Gore of the 2000 campaign, where the early Presidential debates with candidate Bush were marked more by their inability to find substantial points of disagreement than they were by heated arguments (support for death penalty, increasing military budget, etc.) would have resulted only in getting to exactly where we are now…but with even greater timidity and ineffectiveness than currently? Think about it: we’ve got one of the most telegenic, articulate, intelligent Presidents in years. We’ve got sixty seats in the Senate. We’ve got an enormous majority in the house. And – as you say – we’re STILL “unable to beat even these horrible chumps.” And yet we’re supposed to believe that if only those feckless liberal base idiots hadn’t voted for Nader, that things would REALLY have gotten done under a President Gore?
Please. That kick-ass speech of Gore’s at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, the one which sounded so much like the voice of the guy we all thought we were voting for when we cast votes for Gore in 2000? That came only AFTER the heartbreaking loss, the time in the wilderness, the growth of the facial hair, and the freedom that comes from not being part of the political mainstream any more, specifically, of the Democratic party insiders machine anymore. Candidate Gore, if he’d become President, would no more have made a speech like that one than he would have sprouted wings and flown. Or, perhaps – put better – would not have made such a speech any more than bipartisanship-loving President Obama would, with Rahm Emanuel whispering in his ear, stand up and make one of those soaring speeches from the campaign trail in unapologetic support of real health care reform. Instead, you get the nearly-instinctive flinching of the elected modern Democrat, always looking over his shoulder to figure out what the Luntz-primed Republicans are saying – or might say – on a given topic.
It’s a fair point to note that candidate Gore, had he become President, would not have made such a speech as the powerfully anti-Iraq war one that ex-candidate Gore gave at the Commonwealth Club because he would not have needed to make such a speech: that the only reason Gore gave that speech was because Bush was President, and that if Gore had been, we wouldn’t have even been IN such a mess. It’s a fair point…but I wouldn’t be too sure. While I will stipulate that even the triangulating, far-more-craven VP/candidate Gore would have been nowhere near the proactive disaster that Bush was, I don’t think it follows that he would have been any great shakes as a President, either. Again, I’ll refer you to the current health care push: that’s among the top priorities for most liberals/progressives I know. As I write this, I sit here in my “health care for all, yes on 186″ t-shirt from the 1994 California single-payer initiative attempt. Many of us have been pushing on this and other goals for decades.
And what have we got to show for it? The Republicans aren’t wrong when they point out that things like DOMA and DADT and the Commodities Futures Modernization Act and various other hideous pieces of legislation were all passed under a Democratic President. Of course, most of those things were all led by Republicans and conservative think-tanks. But they couldn’t have happened over a veto, likely, nor without at least some Democratic congressional support (or at least acquiescence). Bill Clinton recently told the throngs at Netroots Nation: “You wanna talk about ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. You couldn’t deliver me any support in the Congress…” In other words, according to Clinton, it’s our fault. Think about that for a moment before you continue. And, of course, the thought of vetoing a piece of legislation simply because it was, you know, WRONG, doesn’t enter into the Big Dog’s calculus. It never has. This is the DLC-led, triangulating, appease-the-Republicans, bipartisanship-over-good-law Democratic party which you’re complaining about, in full flower. It’s been on display, for anyone who cared to observe it, since Reagan.
It isn’t that the GoOPers are unbeatable, either, or that institutionalized or structural forces are so arrayed against progressive and liberal ideas that no amount of electoral victory would allow passage of landmark legislation, whether it be on health care, environmental protections or labor laws (or any of dozens of other issues). They’re not unbeatable. As you correctly observe, today’s Republicans are eminently beatable, especially right now. But what it will take is exactly what has been lacking in mainstream Democratic party proper since Reagan (and certainly since Gingrich’s “Class of ’94″) – and the reason I, with eyes open, voted for Nader instead of Gore in 2000: there’s no spine. There’s no clarity of vision enough to see that what’s required is someone to LEAD, not triangulate. Contrary to Clinton’s formulation at the Netroots Nation to answer the “heckler” (in other words: disappointed liberal) over DADT and DOMA, it isnt’ that our elected leaders (Democrats) don’t receive any support from US, the base, it’s instead that, once elected, we dont’ receive any support from them. And it is this lack of either vision, spine or both, that leads to the GOP perennially eating our lunches, even when they’re in as much disarray as they are currently.
Henry Ford once said “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” And, while this isn’t the deepest quote I’ve ever come across, it’s perfectly suitable for the problem the Democratic party has faced for some time now. On something as large and, frankly, boring to most people as the details of health care policy, those wishing to pass effective and comprehensive reform (which I do believe includes most of the Democrats currently in office) need to LEAD. Democrats and liberals are great at listening to the people and figuring out what they want (unlike Ford, I don’t think that’s useless, I just think you have to discern what’s really upsetting them and what are false issues or distractions). Democrats have always have been good at listening to people. In fact, they’re too good at it; where they fall down is when it comes time to put those identified needs of the public – and the Democrats’ own values – into action. They get so caught up in listening, whether to the loonballs at town hall meetings whining about Hitler’s “T4″ plan, or disingenuous Republicans on the hill who are negotiating in bad faith from the get-go (and, frankly, they’re also too scared of another anti-Democratic wave like in 1994) that they compromise away not just their ideas but their principles before the game’s really even begun.
I’m far from the first amateur health care wonk to point out that it was a colossal blunder to not even include the single-payer folks at the table in the early stages of negotiations on health care. Not because I think there was any chance that single-payer would have been the plan that would have emerged from the committee process, but because, without those single-payer people represented as part of the spectrum of ideas worthy of consideration, there’s far less to compromise from. In one fell, unthinking blunder, the public option suddenly – and needlessly – became the most “radical” idea on the table, leaving Democrats no wiggle room nor anything to compromise on. first by having the steel to create a good bill, and finally by mounting an aggressive campaign to tell not just the people, but perhaps recalcitrant members of their own party in congress why THIS is what they need.
And now we see the result: Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus being empowered to write our nation’s entire health care future for the foreseeable future, quite possibly returning a bill that will be “passable,” but which will be so drained of real reform that the Republicans will be able to campaign against it in 2010 and 2012 by saying that we tried it their way, and it didn’t work….and it also cost you tons of money. It won’t matter if those charges are true…all except the one about “not working.” The Republicans are going to lie and do whatever’s required to get elected, anyway, but they’re not wizards: they can’t make people disbelieve their own eyes and experiences. If health care reform were to pass – real health care reform, with a strong public option and all the other goodies we know any such bill would need to be successful, then in 2010 and 2012 and possibly for quite some time afterwards, when the Republicans’ most dire predictions don’t come true – and, in fact, people see in their own lives that it DID work – no amount of GOP spin will be able to tell people that it didn’t. They’ll still make the “socialism” and “our way would’ve been better” arguments, and the ever-popular “it cost too much.” But if people can point to success stories of health care that they know wouldn’t have happened under the old system, those arguments will fall flat, and the Republicans will continue their downward trajectory and be even more pointedly forced to choose between empowering and legitimizing the lunatic Limbaugh/Palin wing of the party (thus ensuring the death-spiral continues), or standing up within their own caucus and calling bullshit on the worst of the liars and fear-mongers and returning to something like the “loyal opposition” they’re supposed to be – heck…maybe even to win elections again sometime in the future.
But that isn’t going to happen on its own if they aren’t forced to confront it; if they pay no penalty for being discredited or even for being out of power. Every time that elected Democratic leaders reflexively cave to ideas which are not only contrary to core party values but are also simply insane (removing end-of-life counseling because of the “death panels” nonsense), they not only legitimize the worst of the GoOPers charges in the eyes of both the media and the public, they also ensure that sooner or later (and probably sooner) that much of the low-information or “swing” voters will decided (largely correctly) “what’s the frigging point in electing these guys, even as just an “anyone but the GOP” vote, if they can’t accomplish any of the nice stuff they campaign on, no matter how large a majority we give them?”
And to the degree that we – the progressives and liberals who’ve known what time it is in America for a long time – allow it to flourish by continuing to pour our energy, resources, money, time and our audacity of hope into those elected Democrats who make such compromises, we only solidify the notion – in them (the elected officials), in the media, in the electorate and even in ourselves, that there is no other way (certainly no better way) to work towards these goals; we reinforce these officials’ belief that they owe the liberal base – and ideas – of the party no respect, and no loyalty. I saw this cancer of timidity, of refusal to lead on crucial, core issues back in 2000, and it’s why I voted for Ralph Nader: not because I thought he had any chance to win, but because I was tired of voting for candidates who I was only lukewarm on anyway, and who experience had taught me would fold like a lawn chair on any initiatives that smelled remotely of liberalism at the first sign of mean ol’ Republican attack ads or charges of socialism. The Democratic party needed a good, swift kick in the ass, in order to throw off their reflexive instinct to appease ever-crazier right-wing demands and become the ideologically resolute party that could prevent the Republicans being able to elect people like Bush and Palin whenever they chose. Perhaps spending four or eight years out-of-power, with that idiot in charge would provide the necessary impetus (not to mention embarrassment) to bring the Democrats back to recognizing that their base was not only not disposable, but essential to their success. After the heartbreaking loss of 2000 by 537 votes, for a time I thought that President Bush’s election might have provided that kick in the ass. And, in truth, it DID (along with the happy coincidence of the rise of blogging) literally create the much-renewed progressive activist base we see today in communities like this one and DailyKos and MoveOn. Imagine how much of this would even EXIST today, had we had four or eight years of President Gore? But apparently, even though no one should forget the primary lesson of 2000: that the liberal base does indeed matter in elections, it seems as if that needed kick in the ass may have yet to produce the result that’s truly needed: elected Democrats who are willing to LEAD, in the manner of FDR, and to bang heads in the manner of LBJ – not coincidentally, the last two Democratic Presidents who achieved major, sweeping legislation.