BILL FRIST: NADER-LITE

One of the consequences of the way I chose to furnish my apartment (futon on one side of the room, table and chairs on the other), is that having the wired internet reach my laptop on the futon – which due to some trouble following the Ikea instructions only works as a bed – means that it can’t reach the table. So I’ll pull things up sitting on the bed, unhook the laptop from the internet, and then take it over to the table to read whatever web page I’ve pulled up while I eat.

I mention only because otherwise it’s unlikely I ever would have read the entire past week of blog posts from Marshall Whitmann. I say this not because I disagree with him (although on most things he chooses to write about I do), but because reading a page of Marshall Whitmann felt a lot like reading a paragraph of Marshall Whitmann several times in a row. Although there are some variations: On Friday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “blue collar, bread and butter” type unlike the “upper-crust” Ned Lamont; on Monday, Joe Lieberman was like JFK in that he’s a “pro-growth progressive” and not “the darling of liberals” like Ned Lamont.

But the most tendentious of the analogies employed repeatedly by “The Moose” is one that crops up again and again in neoconservative, neoliberal, “New Democratic” and other discourse on the internet: the comparison of left-wingers and Pat Buchanan. Lieberman’s critics, Whitmann warns, are part of a “neo-isolationist, MoveOn.org, Pat Buchanan-lite imperative to rid the Democratic Party of the centrist hawks.” And many of them “are merely Pat Buchanan lite who share the paleo-conservative animus toward America’s special relationship with the Jewish state.”

The logic seems to go something like this: Pat Buchanan is famous and really unpopular. He believes Hitler was “an individual of great courage,” that women lack “the will to succeed,” and that AIDS is “nature’s retribution for violating the laws of nature.” Also, he promotes an isolationist doctrine in which America should minimize its presence abroad. One application of that doctrine has been opposition to the invasion of Iraq and criticism of the ongoing American presence there. And he doesn’t much like neo-cons. Ergo: Anyone who is overly critical of the Iraq War is “Pat Buchanan lite” and one step away from embracing isolationism and bigotry. And since labeling lefties as Buchananite is counterintuitive, it’s guaranteed to be right – and to demonstrate the sophistication of whoever makes the charge, especially if it’s a conservative lumping another conservative in with a leftie.

The folks who trot out the Pat Buchanan slur like to pitch it as some kind of sophisticated exegesis of the philisophical first principles underlying criticism of the neoconservative project. But it’s not. Certainly, Democrats have been more comparatively more hesitant in polls to express support for phrases about government pursuing aggressive foreign policy or democracy promotion since the man who’s running the government gave both a bad name. But that doesn’t make them isolationists. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t worthwile interventions they would support, especially if they had reason to trust the people making the case for them. Plenty on the left – to the chagrin of some at The New Republic – have decided that US military intervention in Darfur would be a very good idea while remaining convinced that unilateral US military intervention in Iraq was a very bad one (as Alan Wolfe notes, unilateralism is itself the “first cousin” of isolationism).

And it should go without saying, but if you’re looking for a constituency with greater animus than most towards people who are Jewish, women, Black, or gay, the left isn’t it.

It’s hard to come up with an equal and opposite absurdity to compare to the charge that war critics on the left are like Pat Buchanan. It would need to compare people on the right based on a policy view they have to a wildly unpopular figure on the left who shares it for different reasons. Maybe “Conservatives who tried to use the federal government to re-insert Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube are Ralph Nader lite!” Difference is, Ralph Nader may be unpopular, but unlike Pat Buchanan, he’s not a bigot.

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Ralph Nader’s gotten a fair share of attention on this site, especially last spring around the time he announced his bid for President. My basic stance on this, set forth in this op-ed (and here here, here, and here), is that Nader’s run is misguided and attempts to appropriate him as a scapegoat for the recent failures of the Democratic party to energize voters are equally so. I would’ve liked to see Ralph Nader speak here last night, because he’s certainly, in my experience, a sharp and powerful speaker and more so because I’d like to see him defend his recent lurch to the right on immigration. But besides the scheduling conflict, I wasn’t going to donate money to his campaign to get in, a concern which I suspect kept many who otherwise would have attended (in his defense, Nader, unlike Bush, didn’t make anyone sign loyalty oaths to get in). According the YDN write-up, Nader said some things I agree with, like

“If you don’t make demands on [Kerry], he doesn’t get any better,” Nader said. “If he doesn’t get any better, he doesn’t get votes.”

Absolutely, the left needs to hold Kerry accountable as a candidate, and im yertzach HaShem as President, and to do so forcefully, stubbornly, and persuasively, something the left manifestly failed to do with Clinton, as Randy Shaw recounts from an environmentalist perspective in his Activist Handbook, and Thomas Geoghegan recounts from a labor perspective in Which Side Are You On. But my break with Nader comes when he conflates those who’ll vote for Kerry with those who idolize him, and those who see unseating Bush as a first priority with those who see it as the only goal:

“Universities are a den of ‘anybody but Bush, leave Kerry alone, make no demands on him,'” Nader said. “That’s a brain-closer. Give me anybody who says ‘anybody but Bush,’ and they’re incapable of talking about any other strategies, variables, nothing.”

Condescension and self-righteousness (among the qualities, like gigantic bank accounts, which Nader, Bush, and Kerry share in common) aside, this argument is effective as constructing and beating up a straw man (I know very, very few folks who really believe that getting rid of Bush would solve all our problems), and phenomenally ineffective at speaking to the concerns of the millions of Americans who’ve born the greatest portion of the burden of the Bush presidency, those faced with losing their jobs, losing their healthcare, or having the constitution desecrated to write them into second-class citizenship. For all Nader’s arguments about long-term benefits and short-term costs, he hasn’t done much of a job of garnering the support of those most likely to pay the costs for the benefits he talks so compellingly about. The truly outrage slap in the face of those who’ve judged themselves unable to take another four years of the same, though, is this:

It really is political bigotry when people say, ‘Do not run.’ When they’re saying, ‘Do not run,’ they’re saying, ‘Do not speak, do not petition, do not assemble.

This sound byte follows in the proud rhetorical tradition of George Bush’s use of the term “political hate speech” to refer to those of us who criticize his policy record. It’s equally disingenuous, and equally cheapens the real bigotry which continues to bedevil this country and the real people who make and express empirical views on the best course for progressive change for this country. The fact of the matter is that most of us who’ve said to Nader, “Do not run,” have also said, affirmatively, “Speak. Petition. Assemble.” We desperately need, before this election and after it, to demonstrate resounding consensus behind progressive change. What absolutely must challenge the Democrats from the left. But voting is more than a symbolic aesthetic act. It’s an exercise of power, a power most effectively used at this juncture to elect a candidate who would be drastically better for this country. And there are far more effective means to articulate strong progressive stances than rallying behind an electoral campaign whose couple-percentage vote draw will only provide talking points for those who deny the existence of a broad progressive constituency – a constituency which has largely turned on Nader not out of bigotry, but out of urgent insistence on immediate change in the direction of this nation.

Barney Frank has just “come clean” on behalf of GLBT Americans: “We do have an agenda” – the right to serve their country in the army, the right to be considered for jobs based on performance, the right to have their love and commitment codified in law as marriage. Shame he had to end a strong speech by condemning Nader in stronger terms than Bush.

Speaking of Ehrenreich, Jay at HipHopMusic.Com is pondering the reaction among the center-left blogging establishment to this column, in which she skewers Nader’s 2004 candidacy and repents for voting for his last one. As Jay says:

Most of the A-List lefty bloggers are not really all that far to the left, at least compared to the wild-eyed hippies I hang out with at WBAI. And I don’t have any problem with that, we need a variety of voices out there.. but it’s disappointing to see how smugly contemptuous some of these guys can be towards folks who are a little further left than themselves. Ehrenreich’s crime, evidently, was to voice her support for Ralph Nader in 2000, which so offended these guys that four years later they still disparage her mental health and (quoting Lenin) diagnose her with an “infantile disorder.” And now that Ehrenreich is joining them in rejecting Nader’s 2004 campaign, they can’t let go of their grudge, and just keep on with the sniping and condescension even when she’s on their side…sometimes you can cling to a grudge so tightly it stops the flow of blood to your brain. And if you want those who supported Nader in the past to feel welcome joining you this time, you should probably stop treating them like you think they are idiots.

That last sentence can’t be repeatedly enough. It’s something many of us have said in many fora, but it seems strangely inscrutable to a crowd all too eager (as they should be) to welcome the conversions on the way to Damascus of those who literally, willfully voted for Bush the last time but seemingly congenitally unable to organize or organize with those who cast a vote in 2000 which they see as equivalent to a Bush vote. Had this crowd – or the larger Democratic establishment – channelled a fraction of its anger against those who cast Nader votes against those who systematically expunged Gore votes, things might be very different right now.

As Jay says, one of the more perverse manifestations of this selective Nader-induced blindness has to be the refusal to understand the irony in the following Ehrenreich paragraph:

So, Ralph, sit down. Pour yourself a Diet Pepsi and rejoice in the fact that — post-Enron and post-Iraq war — millions have absorbed your message. You’re entitled to a little time out now, a few weeks on the beach catching up on back issues of The Congressional Record. Meanwhile, I’ve thrown my mighty weight behind Dennis Kucinich, who, unnoticed by the media, is still soldiering along on the campaign trail. In the event that he fails to get the Democratic nomination, I’ll have to consider my options.

Get it? In other words, I too harbor hopes for progressive national leadership of a kind we’re unlikely to see in a Kerry administration, and I continue pushing challenges to the conventional wisdom of the two-party system. But I also recognize political reality as it is now, and however reluctantly, I’m ready to make the sacrifices necessary to see Bush out of office.

Only when she says it, it’s a hell of a lot more clever. To read her paragraph and claim that it shows she hasn’t learned her lesson and isn’t ready to support Kerry is just absurd. For those who did, and who think that I’ve somehow misinterpreted it in the preceding paragraph, let me just say that I know what she means not only because the article makes it abundantly clear but also because she told me so personally six months ago when she came down to New Haven to participate in our women’s arrest. Quoth Ehrenreich: “I’m throwing whatever weight I have behind Kucinich for now, and when the time comes, I’ll throw it behind Dean or whoever the guy turns out to be.” And by the way, when she mentioned having weight to cast, in person as in writing, she clearly meant to be fecicious.

More on felons and the political process: The Associated Press apparently did some research, discovered that America Coming Together (ACT), one of the largest national groups sending canvassers out to register and educate voters for the election, had hired some former felons, and they were shocked – just shocked. ACT’s response, to their credit, has been defending its policy:

We believe it’s important to give people a second chance,” Elleithee said. “The fact that they are willing to do this work is a fairly serious indication that they want to become productive members of society.”

RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, shamefully but unsurprisingly, is claiming that having been convicted of a felony should disqualify Americans from handling official documents with private information. His essential contention – that the democratic process is too pure to be sullied by the involvement of those with crimminal records – should be all too familiar to those who saw it marshalled by a slew of dKos posters to defend Arizona’s disenfranchisement of felons in the name of keeping Nader off the ballot.

More power to ACT for hiring everyone who’s prepared and qualified for the hard, urgent work of empowering people to make demands of our democracy. I know I’ve found few people as excited about that work here in Florida as those felons who’ve been purged from the process. Everyone (almost) claims to want to see those who’ve served their time productively and smoothly reintegrated into society. Except not into my neighborhood. Not into my workplace. Not into my democracy.

An outrageous and deeply cynical comment by Kos, who should know better:

In addition to suspect signatures, entire reams of signatures can be invalidated if the person collecting them is a felon. Turns out that out of the 122 paid people who gathered the Nader signatures, at least 19 are confirmed felons. One of them was convicted for forgery. Considering that these same felonious petitioners were also soliciting signatures for an anti-immigrant initiative and an effort to invalidate Arizona’s clean election law, invalidating those petitioners and their signatures may actually serve triple duty, helping defeat Nader’s cynical presidential effort AND two nasty Republican-backed ballot efforts.

Not much new to say about this. Voting for Ralph Nader is, I firmly believe the wrong choice for someone concerned with progressive change in this country to make, and overlooks the tremendous difference between the greater and lesser of the two evils for those most directly affected by government policy be it creating jobs, protecting the right to organize, keeping bigotry out of the constitution, or sustaining the earth. But how should Kerry supporters respond? By organizing voters behind the Democratic candidate, and organizing the candidate behind a progressive agenda which co-opts Nader’s issues rather than demeaning his supporters. Not by drawing from the other side’s playbook by seeking out ways to disenfranchise voters by narrowing their democratic choices. Kos, unfortunately does this and descends one step further by lauding Democrats for taking advantage of this country’s abysmal treatment of former convicts, a group whose make-up (in case Kos has forgotten) is disproportionately minority, disproportionately poor, and shamefully swelled with first-time non-violent drug offenders. Felon disenfranchisement is the closest parallel this country maintains to a poll tax. Progressives should be working to undo it, not to exploit it for electoral gambits.

The Times is reporting that Nader will announce on Sunday whether or not he’ll be running for President in November, and that all signs point to the former:

After weeks of postponing his decision, Nader will appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to make the announcement, said Linda Schade, a spokeswoman for Nader’s presidential exploratory committee.

`He’s going to be discussing his role in the presidential election,” Schade said of the man whose run for president in 2000 is blamed by many Democrats for tilting a close election in favor of George W. Bush. `He’s felt there is a role for an independent candidate to play.’

This would be, as I argued before, an unfortunate setback for progressive change in this country. Also problematic is this quote from DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe:

I’m urging everybody to talk to Ralph Nader. I’d love him to take a role with our party, to energize people, to get out there and get the message out.

Now I’m all for Ralph Nader energizing people – but that means energizing people to fight the rightward shift of the Democratic party as well as of the country. And whatever McAuliffe thinks “the message” is, if it bears any resemblance to the message he had the party push in the 2002 elections, then it bears little resemblance to the message Nader is pushing, or to the real concerns of millions of working people who choose not to vote or who vote for the Democrats as the lesser of two evils.

So once again, Nader’s wrong to obscure that Democrats are not yet Republicans, and McAuliffe’s wrong to obscure that Democrats are not yet Greens. Both should perhaps take heed of this quote:

What’s needed is courageous leaders unwilling either to sacrifice the imperative of unseating Bush or to obscure the failure of the modern Democratic party to articulate or pursue a truly progressive vision for America.