Gush vs. Bore
Despite New Hampshire, the primaries are a foregone conclusion
By Doug Ireland
John McCain's impressive double-digit drubbing of George W. Bush and Bill Bradley's comeback to within two whiskers of Al Gore in New Hampshire's winter of discontent are only the latest signs of massive voter disgust, however inchoate, with the corruption of our money-driven political system. Jesse Ventura's 1998 victory against the two major political parties in Minnesota was another such indicator; so was San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano's left-populist mayoral campaign last fall, which managed to snare 40 percent of the vote in a late-starting, no-money, two-week sprint against an incumbent mayor with a $3 million war chest.
Of the two primary candidates whom the voters regarded as anti-establishment, McCain had the more consistently sharp-edged approach: Relentlessly on message, he hammered away at what he called the "iron triangle" of lobbyists, campaign cash and legislation, and adopted the "reform" label for his self-proclaimed "crusade." Although New Hampshire exit polls showed only 8 percent of voters identified campaign reform as the deciding issue, it became the prism through which they arrived at the conclusion that McCain was an honest man. Bradley actually had the tougher position on paper--he'd close the gaping loophole that renders the McCain-Feingold bill meaningless by extending its soft-money ban to state political parties (through which much of the access-buying cash was pumped into the sewer that was the 1996 Clinton-Gore fundraising shakedown). But it was only after his feeble showing in the Iowa caucuses that Bradley began raising the issue of Gore's honesty and character.
That even a weak cup of tea like Bradley managed to rack up 48 percent in New Hampshire reinforces New York Sen. Pat Moynihan's conclusion that Gore "can't win" in November. Dollar Bill is, after all, a centrist gasbag who has tap-danced slightly to Gore's left for electoral advantage, calling himself the man of "big ideas" even though he has so far advanced only one--a health care plan that, although it's marginally better than Gore's, Bradley has been unable to convincingly explain or defend against Gore's megaphoned distortions.
A week before the primary vote, the chattering classes had all but written off Bradley's chances, and daily tracking polls had him losing by as much as 19 percent. Then came the Bradley-Gore New Hampshire debate, in which Bradley decided to stop acting like a punching bag and, as he diffidently put it, started "throwing a little elbow." Even then, he left the all-out frontal assault on centrist sleazebag Gore to his surrogate, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who criss-crossed the state calling the roll of the veep's serial mendacities and dirty fundraising: Gore's Temple of Doom and the Buddhist nuns, "no controlling legal authority," the Lincoln Bedroom, Love Canal, Love Story and the invention of the Internet, to name just a few. But that was nearly enough. From then on, the tracking polls began registering Gore's decline. If the Bradley campaign's tardy and half-assed attacks sufficed to bring Gore so close to losing, imagine what the GOP--whose lavishly funded attack dogs will have no Bradleyish reticences--will do to him by November.
Moreover, the New Hampshire results suggest that Gore can't win the votes of independents in the fall. They made up a third of voters in both party primaries, and Bradley carried them with a solid majority (while losing regular Democrats). All that said, it will still be nearly impossible for either McCain or Bradley to win their parties' nominations. New Hampshire's Republican electorate is less conservative than those in most of the three dozen other GOP primaries where McCain will have to compete simultaneously in just a few short weeks. Plus, McCain, unlike Bush, will have enough money to contest only a few chosen battleground states (and won't have the luxury of campaigning full time in them for two and a half months, as he did in New Hampshire). Of course, if the Vietnam vet wins South Carolina, Bush will have a real fight on his hands.
As for Bradley, he has enough money on hand--at least $20 million--to allow him to go on to California and New York on March 7. But Gore has Bradley out-organized big-time in those states--especially among electorally potent racial and sexual minorities--where electoral interest in the contest is not at the hothouse New Hampshire primary levels. And though California, too, allows independents to vote in its open primary, with their help Bradley could win the Big Enchilada beauty contest and not gain a single delegate--only the votes of registered Democrats count in determining delegate totals. Add to that the Democratic "super-delegates"--party regulars, officials and fat cats who are stacked in advance for Gore and make up a fifth of the convention delegate totals--and Bradley's chances are further reduced.
So, as these lines are written on the morning after New Hampshire, it still looks like the November contest will be between Gush and Bore. But the results of the first primary suggest that there is enough discontent with big-money establishment politics, even in this over-heated paper economy, to provide fertile ground for the impending candidacy of Ralph Nader. Unlike his suicidal non-campaign in a handful of states four years ago, this time Nader is expected to run an all-out, 50-state effort and try to raise serious money to fund it. Nader's rousing anti-WTO and pro-working-class crusading shows that he still has the ability to bring audiences to their feet cheering--especially younger voters disengaged from the two major parties, who provided thousands of footsoldiers in the McCain, Bradley, Ammiano and Ventura campaigns.
Nader could well get the 5 percent of the vote needed to give the fledgling Green Party recognition by the Federal Election Commission, winning it campaign matching funds and making it a permanent part of the national political discourse. That might be just enough to begin--ever so slightly--nudging the political center of gravity in this country back toward the left.
Doug Ireland is a contributing editor of In These Times.