Ground Zero for Gore
CLEVELAND—Al Gore’s campaign workers sit by the phones here, desperately hoping that Nashville will call to tell them the vice president will fly in for a quickie photo-op, or, best of all, that the immensely popular Bill Clinton will descend to energize the huge but lethargic black base and lift Gore to the 100,000 plurality he needs in Cuyahoga County to win Ohio. So far, the call has not come.
As things stand, Gore’s struggle in Cleveland is being waged largely as part of the reelection campaign of 10th District congressman and former mayor Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich is a shoo-in, but hauling Gore along will be a daunting task.
Shuttling back and forth from Washington, Kucinich has put together an old-fashioned canvassing operation throughout Cleveland and its suburbs that is one of the largest such efforts in the nation. By election day, 400 to 500 people will be on the streets. They’ve already distributed 20,000 brochures, and Kucinich aims to blanket the city with 40,000 flyers and 20,000 yard signs (a common campaign tactic in Ohio) by next Tuesday.
Day after day, members of the laborers, electricians, plumbers, and steelworkers unions crowd into Kucinich’s tiny office on Lorain Avenue, piling signs into the backs of cars and pickups before hitting the neighborhoods. The general approach is for volunteers to use Kucinich’s name to get a foot in the door, then ask for support for a Democratic judge before uttering the vice president’s name.
Last Saturday, canvassing the white middle-class suburb of Brooklyn, where Democratic seniors who once voted for FDR live next to union families, state representative Dale Miller was greeted warmly. People listened to his pitch “to reelect Dennis Kucinich, support Judge Resnick, and back Gore along with all the other candidates on this wonderful Democratic ticket,” then responded with a deadpan “thank you” or “you bet.”
On election day, sound trucks will move through town playing spiels by Kucinich in English, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, or Arabic, depending on the neighborhood. Everyone knows the former mayor, who is simply called Dennis. In Parma, a suburb that was one of the original homes of the Reagan Democrats, Kucinich has mounted a feverish drive.
But although Kucinich’s operation reaches into African American neighborhoods, apathy seems to hang over black strongholds like Hough and East Cleveland. Local pols are increasingly uneasy. Gore has been in Cleveland only three times this campaign. In 1992, Clinton was here seven times. Instead of visits by either Clinton or Gore, Nashville plugs in automated Clinton phone calls or computer-driven calls from Ed Asner. Or the administration sends out an uninspiring surrogate. Last week, it was HHS secretary Donna Shalala. She got wiped out by Barbara Bush, who drew attention with a sound bite alleging that Gore was frightening old people.
When you talk to volunteers, they scoff at the idea of canned phone calls turning out the vote. As for large numbers of union people voting for Nader, the idea is almost laughable. They like Nader, but they won’t bolt the party for him. Gore won’t lose Cleveland because of Nader. If he loses, it’ll be because the campaign hasn’t reached out to the black community.
Already, the press and political insiders are saying Gore has written off Ohio. If this feeling grows, Nader could pick up more support from disillusioned Gore supporters who feel they have nowhere to turn. Nader polls at 4 percent statewide, but in Cleveland he gets as high as 8 percent. Audiences have jammed his recent appearances here.
After inexplicably cutting the ad budget in Ohio, the campaign finally put some money back into the state last week, outspending the Republicans $960,000 to $650,000 for TV ads. Meanwhile, the Gore operatives wait by the phones.
My first memories of Ralph Nader are pretty dim. It was about 40 years ago during basic training at Fort Dix. I was peeling potatoes. Nader was frying bacon. I was on KP duty. Nader seemed at home in the kitchen. The son of a restaurant owner, he had been assigned a job as cook. I don’t recall anything special about Nader’s cooking, but I don’t remember that anyone ever accused him of spoiling the pot.
Today, of course, that’s what everyone is doing, from well-heeled Washington lobbyists to the self-proclaimed liberal press. Nader’s threat to the establishment has prompted name-calling and fear-mongering on a grand scale, with the eminent reformer depicted alternately as a has-been, a messianic kook, and a wild-eyed socialist who threatens to spoil things for Clinton’s successor and hand the White House to Dubya.
As a practical matter, it’s true that Nader will draw some votes from Gore. However, a key segment of Nader’s support, coming from young college-aged voters, will actually help the Democratic Party by electing Democrats in local elections. This could be crucial in regard to the battle for control of the House.
In all the furor, many people seem to be discounting the electoral college. Given the electoral system, voting for Nader in New York won’t hurt Gore, who is far ahead in state polls. And Nader won’t hurt Gore in most states. Only in a handful, where the race is tight, might people who prefer Nader rationally consider voting Democratic to block Bush. In such scenarios, Nader himself has come close to hinting that that’s the thing to do.
Indeed, it’s the Democrats who are being spoilers, insisting that voters are unwitting Bush supporters if they pull the lever for Nader no matter where they live. They don’t want the Green Party to get 5 percent because it will illustrate the depth of dissatisfaction progressive voters feel with the Clinton-Gore agenda. Progressive New Yorkers, especially, ought to turn out en masse for Nader. It’s worth remembering that it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who, as an assistant secretary of labor during the Kennedy administration, backed Nader’s early research and gave him a foothold in Washington. It was Robert Kennedy, when he was a senator from New York, who first made auto safety a major issue with his hearings on the Corvair about the same time that GM was using private detectives in an attempt to silence Nader.
It’s particularly ironic that Gore has called on Teddy Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy Jr. in the campaign against Nader. And it’s cynical to use Jesse Jackson, when it was Gore himself (ably abetted by Ed Koch) who brought down Jackson in the 1988 New York primary by fueling accusations of anti-Semitism. Many of the same people who lined up behind Jackson’s candidacy are behind Nader.
As for the content of the smear campaign, Nader is hardly a socialist. He believes in small business competition, and, if anything, relies excessively on lawyers to broker the interests of ordinary people against corporate interests and government red tape. He has been shaped by the values of his hardworking immigrant family. He wants the government to regulate private enterprise, not abolish it. From the beginning he has based his programs on the idea that the most important thing he can do is to encourage an educated citizenry.
Since the Clinton administration took office, groups associated with Nader have led the fight against NAFTA in the House, narrowly losing the first time to Clinton and two years ago beating back the fast-track legislation supported by the combined forces of Clinton and Gingrich. For this campaign, Nader put together an unusual left-right coalition that presages future political alignments. Two years ago, he took up the Microsoft case, then languishing in the Justice Department, and pushed the antitrust division into vigorous prosecution. In that effort, he supported the cause of a free Internet that could run on inexpensive Linux software. Few politicians have had such far-reaching effect.
Nader has been through it all. He has been taken up by the press and thrown down by the press. In recent years, he’s been written off as an odd and irrelevant loser. Now he is back as a force to be reckoned with. As always, Nader’s fight is for long-term institutional change. Clinton and Gore, through the Democratic Leadership Council, have kicked out the left wing of the Democratic Party and have wallowed in the hog trough of opportunism. The votes they’re losing to Nader are votes they don’t deserve to keep.
“Much is written about the eligible voters who don’t bother to show up at the polls,” writes New Right founder Paul Weyrich on Newsmax.com. “Considering what is at stake, thank God they don’t come. It is already bad enough that so many uneducated, ill-informed and, when it comes to the candidates, just plain stupid, voters are going to be in that booth November 7th. We don’t need any more, thank you.”
Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz and Theresa Crapanzano