Pro-Choice: Make Nader a Debater

"Disillusioned by their leaders and a system that still heavily favors vested interests, Hong Kong residents turned out in smaller numbers than expected on Sunday to vote in the second legislative election since this former British colony reverted to Chinese rule," the New York Times reported on Sept. 11.

Does this story sound familiar?

The turnout of 43.6% of registered voters in Hong Kong beats turnouts in most US elections. The lack of popular excitement about the Hong Kong election perhaps was understandable since regular voters only got to pick 24 of the province's 60 legislators. Chinese rulers stacked the deck by reserving 30 seats for representatives of Hong Kong's business and professional elite while six slots go to reps named by a committee vetted by Communist Party leaders on the mainland. Tung Chee-hwa, the province's chief executive who is appointed by Beijing, said Hong Kong's political system would "slowly mature."

Perhaps they aspire to the 49% turnout recorded in the 1996 US presidential election. But the Chinese territory actually has as many lively races as the United States, where only a couple dozen of the 435 House seats have competitive races this year. Perhaps a dozen of the 33 Senate seats up for election this year really are up for grabs. And even if voters turn over the management of the House and Senate to the Democrats, pro-business conservatives likely will still hold the balance of power. If he steps up to president, Al Gore will continue to build up the military while providing incremental improvements to health care, education and Social Security. Like Bill Clinton before him, Gore will take care of big business first because they paid the bills for the election. We just have to hope that workers, small businesses and family farmers also get a little help.

As in Hong Kong, candidates in the USA are vetted, in our case by corporate executives and media. If political aspirants are not inclined to do the sorts of things that politicians must do to aggrandize themselves with the wealthy folks with deep pockets that finance political races, then those would-be pols are stigmatized as idealists. Ralph Nader is the case in point this year.

For a while there was hope that George W. Bush might insist on including Nader and even Pat Buchanan in the "bipartisan" debates, figuring that an appearance by Nader would pull support from Gore while Buchanan would make Bush look moderate in comparison. Unfortunately, it appears that neither Bush nor Gore want to broaden the national discussion beyond the "safe" issues on which they have run polls and focus groups.

For example, while both Bush and Gore are for "free trade," neither wants to talk about the impact of the World Trade Organization on American sovereignty, particularly after an unelected globalization tribunal in Geneva in August overturned a US law that says foreign companies cannot unfairly wipe out American industry by dumping surplus goods here at prices below what it costs to produce. [See Jim Hightower, page 3.]

Nader would make both major candidates feel uncomfortable if he managed to expand the debates to discuss issues such as: Why it is acceptable in these "boom times" to let millions of working Americans go without health coverage? Why do we continue to wage a "War on Drugs," which has put more than 500,000 non-violent users in prison in the US, while drug smugglers are enriched by the high prices for drugs that make it to the streets? Why did the federal government hand over $70 billion worth of digital TV spectrum, free of charge, to existing broadcasters in 1996, as it previously handed over the regular radio and TV spectrums? Why is the federal government allowing big corporations to take control of agriculture? Why are corporations allowed to buy their way into political races? Why are politicians required to seek these thinly veiled bribes to run for office?

Even if you plan to vote for Gore (or Bush, for that matter) you should support an expanded debate that allows Nader (and Buchanan) to raise these questions. [See Nader's open letter to family farmers and food activists on page 7 for the address of the Commission on Presidential Debates.] Nader's presence already has forced Gore to cover his left. Nader's participation in the debates would help keep Gore honest and give us the robust discussion that we deserve.

It looks as if Al Gore's "Rope a Dope" strategy is finally paying off. Gore slogged through the summer as the Republicans set up Dubya as the compassionate conservative who would restore dignity and honor to the White House after years of occupation by that roué, Bill Clinton. The national press picked up on the story line that the folksy Dubya would avenge the defeat his father suffered in 1992 and restore the family's honor. Even the hard right wing stayed quiet through the Republican National Convention, knowing that they would have plenty to say once Bush was in the Oval Office with Republican majorities in Congress and at least three Supreme Court justices expected to retire soon.

Bush was so confident of victory in July that he named Dick Cheney, his dad's former secretary of defense, then CEO of an oilfield services company, to add some heft to the ticket.

Then Gore showed up at the Democratic convention and knocked the legs out from under Bush and Cheney with a news bulletin: He's not Bill Clinton. Gore embraced his wife and then populist rhetoric in a 55-minute speech that showed that, unlike his GOP counterpart, he could talk about issues. And you know what? He quickly overtook Bush in the polls.

You could almost hear the gears grinding in the Bush campaign as they tried to change course. Bush tried to talk about education and tax cuts, but the Washington Post noted, "Bush may have set a personal record for bloopers in one speech" Aug. 22 in Des Moines. Bush "mistook 'terrors' (or was it 'terriers'?) for 'tariffs' and 'hostile' for 'hostage' (twice), and asserted that President Clinton has been in office for four &endash; not eight &endash; years." Bush also confused trillions with billions in a rambling discourse on his proposed $1.3 trillion tax cut, puzzling reporters as well as the audience.

Bush and Cheney accused the Clinton administration of ''hollowing out'' the military, only to be reminded that it was Cheney who slashed the defense budget under orders of President Bush. Dubya tried to duck the three bipartisan 90-minute debates arranged by former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, preferring instead to "debate" Gore on talk shows. When Gore balked, insisting on the regular debates, Bush complained that Gore was the one ducking the talk-show "debates," an argument which convinced few outside Dubya's immediate entourage.

Bush also defended an advertisement that challenged Gore's credibility and character despite Bush's frequent pledge to "change the tone" of politics. When he was caught calling a New York Times reporter who had written articles critical of his record as Texas governor a "major league a**hole," Dubya only regretted that the comment was recorded. Then the Bush campaign was caught running a TV ad that flashed the word "RATS" across the screen, in an apparent subliminal message attacking Gore. Alex Castellanos, who produced the advertisement for the Republican National Committee, told the Times the use of the word "RATS'' was "purely accidental.'' Not many ad pros nor political consultants were buying that dodge.

But the rats that had Bush concerned were the Republican insiders who were now whispering their doubts about the course of the Bush campaign, which were verging on panic.

Democrats kept expecting Bush to self-destruct in 1994 when he challenged Ann Richards, as Republican Clayton Williams' repeated gaffes in 1990 had allowed Richards to win election. But with a few exceptions the Texas press were not up to the task of exposing Bush's inconsistencies, his business failures, his conflicts of interest, his undemanding intellect or his temper. Unlike that New York Times reporter, it increasingly appears that George W. Bush is no major leaguer. -- JMC

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