The Bungled Opportunity
This Was Supposed to Be a Useful Pre-Election 'Analysis,' but Then Again, We Were Supposed to Have a Useful Clean-Politics Candidate 10 Years Ago...
Tabloid.net, November 7, 2000
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "I'm fiscally conservative and socially liberal," Jesse Ventura said on Larry King last night. "And so are most of the American people."
There is a skewed way of reading modern U.S. politics, where you can easily conclude that the last 10 years of presidential campaigns have been plagued by the most damnable bad luck in failing to produce a candidate that 60% of the population has been aching to vote for. OK, maybe not 60%. Or even 5%. In fact, maybe it's just one person who has been so frustrated with this enormous missed opportunity: me.
First, let's accept two probable fictions that I nonetheless stand by, because believing the opposite is too depressing to contemplate: 1) that Americans are sickened, or insulted, or at least annoyed by our corrupting system for financing elections, and 2) that there is indeed some mythical "Third Way," a political path that both splits the difference and renders anachronistic the creaky Cold War split between compassionate, aesthetically inclined war-hating liberals, and pragmatic, quasi-Puritanical hawkish commie-hunters.
These people, and their, uh, "ideological" descendants, still dominate the wearisome "column left/column right" discourse, and their five-decade-long blood grudges percolate under the surface of nearly every political campaign, including this one. Scratch hard on the arm of one of those Ralph Nader-bashing, Supreme-Court-citing fiftysomethings, and you will find someone who fought important fights -- or nursed important wounds -- during the civil rights and anti-establishment revolutions in the 1950s and '60s. Do the same with some 61-year-old Southern California aerospace engineer (OK, my father), and you will likewise find someone who was probably doing honorable, patriotic work while the rabble was getting stoned, humping in public and spitting on Vietnam veterans.
I grant them all their histories and prejudices, and I ask them politely to shut the hell up. At least until I finish this column (this means I will have to switch off the MSNBC/CNN/Fox, which may be biologically infeasible at this late point).
I was 21 when the Cold War ended, and nothing filled me with more delight than the concept that the crimes and ideologically-driven exaggerations of both entrenched camps would be forcibly ripped up by the roots in an uncomfortable purge of national self-criticism. The Republicans would have to come clean on their nasty racism, opposition to free speech and murderous power-mad adventures in Third World countries; the Democrats would have to confront their sympathies with murderous Communism, knee-jerk opposition to all foreign military exercises and open hostility to most things capitalistic.
After the Truth Commission Years, according to my hopelessly naive theorem, each individual would be free to choose a politics based entirely on the following question: what functions should a government perform on behalf of its taxpayers? Meanwhile, I would spend the awkward era watching countries from the other side of the one-time dividing line, as they thrashed around with changes more enormous than anything we here can imagine.
There's a point to all this, and it will eventually get back to Ralph Nader. When the political rhetoric on both sides lagged behind the wildly changing times, the disconnect became professionalized. Politicians were invested in the hierarchies and patronage systems within the 40-year-old super-structures of partisan conflict, which were now being sustained by a combination of intractable belief and pragmatic self-interest. What were once lung-ripping disputes were now stylized squabbles between increasingly unconvincing actors, who chummed around just fine when the Crossfire cameras were turned off.
Add to this cocktail a campaign finance system run absolutely amok, expanding exponentially from one election cycle to the next. So not only were the politics getting more abstract and insulting, the geysers of liquidity were financing even more elaborate and foolish fortresses from which to throw all those toy darts.
Jesus, 20-hour-days in Washington, D.C. on the eve of the most contested election in 40 years, coupled with the most immovable deadline of all, does not help one's bad writing habits....
Right, well, since no one's publishing this but me, let's continue.
By 1991, the stench of the burlesque was enough to cause the first great rumblings of discontent in the supposedly dormant American electorate. On the Democrat side, there was a hunger for a politician who wasn't some kind of apologetic soft-bodied liberal whose idea of economics was "more chickens in more pots" or whatever. The Republicans -- then in power for 12 horribly long wilderness years for us younguns -- were also somehow dissatisfied with the Country Club Cold Warriors in a world that suddenly called for a new line of thinking. I felt personally, and detected among the rest of the country, a discernible yearning for some new damned politics, already. (I was also 23 years old and living in Prague, but let's put those disqualifications aside for the moment.)
This collective urge, if memory serves, was reduced to "It's the Economy, Stupid." But squeeze your eyes shut and think back to the Democratic primary seasons of 1991-92. Remember? There were a bunch of guys like Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Bruce Babbitt, maybe Gary Hart ... they all blur, but were taken quite seriously in their day. And then there was Bill Clinton, who we'll get to later, and then some total nut-job named Jerry Brown, who had spent much of his adult life being known as "Governor Moonbeam."
I knew he was a nut-job, because the New York Times' R.W. Apple, Jr. -- known to 120% of the entire working press by his real name of "Johnny" -- wrote "News Analysis" pieces on the front page of the International Herald Tribune telling us that Brown's candidacy was "not serious." Sometimes he was "the fringe candidate," but usually he wasn't mentioned at all, either by Apple or the poor schleps that worked under him. Now, it's important to note that the man is one of the fruitiest, spaciest narcissists I have ever met -- he once flounced down at my table in a Berkeley restaurant, and proceeded to blurble the most marvelously indecipherable 30 minutes of Buddhist bullshit I have ever heard a grown man utter. But what's notable about his 1992 bid for the Democratic nomination is that, all his past political iterations aside, his run was based on exactly one theme: campaign finance reform. Brown said that the system was corrupt, and told very specific anecdotes from his career as California governor and head of the California Democratic Party that proved it. He refused to accept more than a $100 campaign contribution from any individual. This made him so poor, that all his television appearances were amusing cartoons where he kept interrupting the journalist and himself to blurt out his 1-800 number (this was in the days before the Web, remember).
Seeing him bounce up and down on his chair like a circus monkey, with his dark blazer and white turtleneck, certainly didn't shore up his reputation in the rest of the country as that wacko liberal who used to date Linda Ronstandt. Johnny Apple, being a self-described "dean" of campaign journalism (at least, north of the Washington Post's 113-year-old David Broder), was quick to pick up on Brown's ludicrousness, and pilloried him thusly.
Problem was, he kept on getting more votes than all the solid Democrats who the New York Times were taking so seriously ... except for Bill Clinton. One by one, bimbo eruption after bimbo eruption, Bill kept winning, challengers kept dropping out, and near the finish line of the primary marathon the only Democrat left standing beside the Bubba was none other than Jerry Brown. He even won the state of Colorado.
At the exact same time, the Paper of Record was leading the fight on its editorial pages against the abysmal corruption of the campaign finance system. Yet for reasons I will never properly understand -- the nutter who, despite himself, came in second place based entirely on a single issue with which the New York Times totally agreed -- was never treated as anything more than an annoying lunatic. A theme was established. On the Republican side, the aerospace crowd and Reagan Democrats were getting all fired up by the no-nonsense deficit-reduction campaign-corruption straight talk being spit out by a tiny Texas man who was quite possibly insane: Ross Perot, another funny circus monkey. The Perot phenomenon was more serious because people could actually imagine him running something besides some self-actualization center. Besides, he was actually launching a Third Party -- the first time such a thing had been heard of since Teddy freakin' Roosevelt.
There was much teeth gnashing about what this all meant, especially since it was coming just 18 months after George Bush Sr. had a record-setting 90% approval rating in the wake of the Gulf War. Many commentators reasoned that there was some new intellectual unrest brought on by the New World Order, but soon enough the bulk of the weirdness was pinned on The Economy, Stupid.
Before we get into Bubba, let's sum up: at a time of post-Cold War ferment, when the politics were unsatisfyingly abstracted from reality and greased up by sleazy campaign money, Americans went out of their heads in record numbers for two certified crackpots who agreed on one thing: campaign finance reform. What if, instead of Jerry Brown, the single-issue Democrat was a sane Vietnam vet like Bob Kerrey? What if, instead of Ross Perot, the single issue quasi-Republican was John McCain? We'll never know.
Enter the New Democrats
Clinton was our first successful Third Way politician. He would be sensibly pro-business, he wouldn't truck with commies (especially the ones in China), he supported victims, not criminals; and his vision of racial tolerance was toughened up by some tasteful bashing of offensive rap music. I should have loved the guy.
A quick word about my politics, to get it out of the way: At age 18, when I was hanging out inappropriately with the infamous political strategist Pat Caddell -- as I typed in "Pat Caddell" I looked up at the Chris Matthews show and saw ... blimey Pat Caddell, with that terrible mangy salt-and-pepper face of his -- anyways, back then, you could probably describe me as a Hunter Thompson/Nat Hentoff lefty. Vaguely libertarian, offended by the racist right, obsessed with civil liberties (those luxuries we somehow stopped worrying about once the Republicans left office), and highly critical of the flabbiness of my fellow travelers, in the spirit that truth was their best -- and most ignored -- weapon. These views moved to mindbending post-communist Europe, where they eventually morphed into Economist-style "liberalism" ... but that comes later.
So in 1992, on most counts, I should have embraced a centrist Democrat. Instead, I loathed him. He was as phony as a three-dollar bill ... ah, fuck it, I'm too tired to finish this.
Let's boil this stupid nonsense down, Power-Point style:
* Clinton won, because he was a talented politician (though I, and scores of millions of voters, thought he was a transparent phony), because he pulled some Third Way crap, because George Bush was hapless, and because Ross Perot stole Bush votes.
What that Canadian traitor Peter Jennings just called an "interminable campaign" comes down to this: there has been a huge tangible hunger for a ideologically vague Third Party candidate running on the single issue of radical campaign finance reform. It is cruel, cruel luck that everybody who has run anything resembling such a campaign has been psychotic: Jerry Brown, Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, Jay Bulworth, John McCain, and now Ralph Nader. That McCain and Ventura -- both ex-military nuts with weird physical problems and stubborn, idiotic beliefs -- are probably the two most electable of the bunch, shows what an unpalatable lot they have been.
This abject failure to produce one halfway reasonable Third Party or campaign finance candidate, has meant eight years of reasonable governance mixed with atrocious corruption, indefensible and flippant dismantling of our constitutional liberties, vicious expansion of the evil Death Penalty and the civil-rights-violating Drug War, and a paralyzing gutlessness to establish universal health care. Everything that was bad in 1992 -- with the notable exception of overt racism -- is five times worse today.
Ralph Nader is running against 80% of what I detest, but he's also running for 40% of what keeps me up at night. We will have some kind of economic downturn in the next four years, and I am very worried that the far right and far left will spread the populist anti-trade nonsense and create a dangerous new round of protectionism and xenophobia. If all three candidates truly had an equal shot at the presidency, I think Nader would make the worst president, based on his stoic, distant, not-recognizably-human leadership style. At the same time he is also quite clearly the only great man running. I am, in my way, fond of him -- he's funny, occasionally moving (as one time in San Antonio he shared a long, painful anecdote "for only the second time in my life" about trying to get Cesar Chavez off the hunger strike that would eventually kill him).
Bush is from a class of American I detest, and he would make an embarrassing president. Gore is ritually insincere, hostile toward free expression, and I don't like the idea of man using the presidency as a means of self-discovery. The teevee polls say it's suddenly neck-and-neck in California. For 10 full minutes earlier today, I had convinced myself to vote for Al Gore, despite the fact that I didn't even vote for Clinton after 12 years of rotten Republicans.
Then I got up from this hateful Holiday Inn desk, stretched out my destroyed back, and walked to the grim dining room downstairs and read the last two New Republics.
I am sick of these frauds. Nader, I think, is wrong about quite a few things, he is bound to an ideology that warps his views, he would make an awful president. But he says what he means, runs about the best paleo-lib campaign you probably could (I doubt that there are much more than 7% of the populace who believe that corporations, if not restrained, would reimpose slavery), and when he is right -- which is often -- it is almost thrilling to hear him mumble.
Dubya: "I like what I feel!"
Robot: "I'm gonna tell the truth, and they'll think it's hell!"
Matt: "I am going to wake up at sunrise, take a long slow walk around the monuments, try hard to remember all that Declaration of Independence/Constitution stuff I once found so inspiring, and then call my gorgeous wife, and tell her to submit my vote. For Thomas Jefferson."
Matt Welch is "taking a cure."