James K. Galbraith

Defending Democrats . . . and Democracy


Forgive me if I do not join the applause for Michael Moore and his they-all-do-it defense of George W. Bush, prominently excerpted on these pages on April 12 (“Democrats…DOA”).

Moore doesn’t mention it, but Federal regulations require drafting, publication, public comment, hearings. It’s a process that takes many months. Bill Clinton did not just “decide” on January 19, 2001 to do something about carpal tunnel syndrome, or arsenic in drinking water. The planning started years back. It was managed meticulously from the White House by John Podesta, Clinton’s chief of staff. There was specific intent to time the final rules for the very end of Clinton’s term, after the 2000 election, and after the adjournment of a hostile Republican Congress.

What’s more, had Al Gore assumed the Presidency on January 20, 2001, the ergonomics standards and other good things for working people would have taken effect. They would be law today. And it remains true that one man, more than any other single person, prevented that outcome. That man is Moore’s hero, Ralph Nader.

As it happens, I’m not personally hostile to Nader. Actually, I admire the man. Nader makes a serious and substantial critique of the Democratic Party. But his presidential candidacy was a disaster. And the attempt to pretend otherwise is a delusion.

I worked on Capitol Hill during the early years of Ronald Reagan. I didn’t like that administration. But the government of George W. Bush is worse. Reagan at least won his elections, having campaigned on his own ideas. Bush’s strategy is to confuse the issues and to conceal his actions. His is government by mendacity and subterfuge, well suited to the manner of his taking power.

And don’t kid yourselves: It could get worse. The fate of the Republic hangs, so far, on one vote in the Senate. Should the Republicans win that body back in November, watch what will happen to what remains of environmental protection, judicial integrity, civil liberties, the national parks and reserves, and budgets for everything except military procurement. You don’t think these things are important? Wait until they’re completely gone.

Recent events in Venezuela showed well the attitude of this government toward democracy–and its shamelessness when caught out by genuine popular anger. At least The New York Times, which welcomed the coup at first, managed to utter a flannel-mouthed apology when it collapsed. Condoleeza Rice, on the other hand, had the gall to call on President Hugo Chavez to respect “constitutional processes.” This, to a constitutionally elected President, from an administration that favors military tribunals!

Another recent lesson comes from France, where the dowdy but effective Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin–the man who brought French workers a 35-hour work week (can you imagine?)–was driven from the Presidential race by Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s Pat Buchanan.

How did it happen? Jospin was not unpopular. Polls actually showed that he might have won the Presidency had he made it to the second round. No, the reason was that the left behaved without discipline–running a Green, a Communist, a Trotskyite, a left Gaullist, and god-knows-what-all against Jospin in the first round. The right, with fewer candidates, had a strategic advantage–and they used it.

Something similar could happen–again–to the Democrats in 2004. The Republicans know this playbook. In 2000, Buchanan ran the Reform Party into the ground, taking away an alternative for the far right, just as Nader was providing one for the progressive left. True, the combination wasn’t quite enough to win the election for George W. Bush. But it did bring the result to within stealing range.

And that brings me back to the man who actually won the popular vote in 2000–by one half-million votes.

Al Gore ran a much-maligned campaign in 2000. Many of us did not like his style. But the underlying fact is that, without Perot and with Nader, Gore was running under far more difficult conditions than Clinton ever faced. And Gore, nevertheless, won the election–but for the disenfranchisement of thousands of Florida’s black voters and the failure to count, in full, the ballots that were actually cast in that state.

Al Gore reappeared last month, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Gore stated our problem directly: This is an administration of and for Big Oil. No surprise, except in the clarity and candor of the message, and in the lucid spelling out of the implications, from foreign policy to the environment.

Is Al Gore running again? It seems that he is. Does he have a moral right to another chance? Let me suggest that he does. Will he be a better candidate than Edwards, Kerry, Lieberman, and the others? I suspect he will. Can he win? He did it once. Will he make a better President than George W. Bush? Of course.

And beating George W. Bush, in 2002 and 2004, is not merely the highest political objective. It’s the only one.

James K. Galbraith teaches at the LBJ School.