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Support for Nader Undercuts the Progressive Cause

October 29, 2000|ROBERT L. BOROSAGE | Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future and co-editor of the forthcoming book, "The Next Agenda" (Westview Press)

In the movie classic "Blazing Saddles," Cleavon Little plays a black sheriff who finds himself surrounded by a menacing white lynch mob. Pulling his gun from his holster, he points it at his own head and says, in effect, "Don't move, or I'll shoot." This may be the best summary of the threat that the Ralph Nader protest vote poses: that it will make the difference in enough states to throw a tight election to George W. Bush. Faced with the menace of the two major parties, Nader voters may blow a hole in the causes that they hold most dear.

Every progressive with a pulse is tempted to vote for Nader. He's the only great man in the election. And his radical analysis--now getting a rock-star reception on campuses--exposes just how corrupt and conservative our politics has become. But his premise that there is no difference between the two major candidates is wrong, dangerously so.

Take, for example, the centerpiece of any Nader jeremiad: his critique of "economic apartheid" in the U.S.--the growing divide between rich and poor, the outrage that in this wealthy country every fifth child is still raised in poverty. Many progressives will never forgive Bill Clinton for his craven embrace of a welfare repeal that put poor women and children at risk.

But one thing is clear: The election of Bush will make this divide much worse. His tax cut not only sends the bulk of its benefits to the very wealthy, it offers virtually no benefits to the working poor. Worse, it will drain away the very funds needed for public investment in schools, health care and public transportation. Gore's smaller tax cuts include refunds to low-wage workers and enable him to commit to universal preschool, universal children's health insurance and public investment in schools.

Nader sensibly calls for increasing the minimum wage, as does Gore. Bush opposes the minimum wage itself; he thinks it should be left to the states and will block any increase.

Bush's Social Security privatization plan will be particularly harmful to younger low-wage workers. They will face a higher retirement age and deep cuts in guaranteed benefits. Management costs will take a disproportionate bite out of their private contributions. Gore's plan would subsidize low-wage workers to save in addition to Social Security. Bush will leave many worse off and further behind.

Nader sensibly calls for strengthening unions to lift wages and benefits, as does Gore. Bush comes from an anti-union state and would lead a concerted assault on organized labor, correctly viewed by corporations and conservatives as their largest political opponent.

This all makes a difference for the poor child without preschool, the mother without health insurance, the worker who takes the early bus. If the Nader protest helps to elect Bush, the most vulnerable in the nation will be the first casualties.

Similarly, the election result will make a difference to the fragile progressive movements that have begun to stir. Consider the "Seattle coalition" that brought "turtles and Teamsters together" against untrammeled corporate globalization. Still in its infancy, the movement has the potential to be a coalition that links workers, environmentalists and citizen activists together. The Nader campaign now threatens to split it apart. The unions, public enemy No. 1 of a Bush presidency, are going full out for Gore and are angered by Nader's diversion. If Bush does win, unions will be in a fight for their very existence. Under Gore, labor will have the space to continue its revival, increase its organizing, build its political strength and reach out to new allies.

The same is true of virtually every progressive movement. That's why liberal environmentalists, civil rights and women's groups aren't with Nader. It is not that they are "scared liberals." If Gore wins, progressives can be on the offensive, pushing--with allies in a Democratic Congress--against the limits of Gore's agenda. If Bush wins with a Republican Congress, we will have to fight old battles all over again. We will be fighting not for a living wage but against attacks on the minimum wage. Not for meeting the challenge of global warming but against a rollback of environmental regulation. Not for an end to racial profiling and the wrong-headed drug war but against repeal of affirmative action and other civil rights laws. Not for universal health care but against voucherization and cuts in Medicare. Not for pay equity and day care but against an effort to overturn a woman's right to choose.

Naderites urge liberals in states where the race is not close to listen to their hearts and cast a protest vote for Ralph. But the argument has another side. In states where the race is close, Nader supporters should use their heads and vote for Gore. To do otherwise is to put a pistol to the head of the very progressive causes and coalitions that have only begun to stir. That works only in the movies.

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