Issue 7 - Spring 2001
The Election That Nobody Won: American Politics & the Crisis of Strategy (page 1 of 2)
By Carl Davidson
Cy.Rev Managing Editor

The stalemated 2000 U.S. presidential election has cast a public spotlight on all the strategic and tactical weaknesses of all the political forces concerned.

It was truly an election that nobody won. To be sure, George W. Bush is now the legal president; but because of his strategic failures and the strategic failures of all the other prime players, the Bush presidency will lack legitimacy for the period ahead.

Strategy is one of the most crucial matters in politics. Success or failure here is a measure of one’s ability, first, to take an accurate measure of the overall circumstances and, second, to make an accurate and fruitful determination of adversaries and allies in each successive set of circumstances. As Alvin Toffler recently put it, any political player who doesn’t have a strategy is really a pawn in someone else’s strategy.

So how did our political players in this election measure up on their strategies? Here’s a quick review of the main points:

The Gore Campaign. The neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council was the inner core of Vice President Al Gore’s campaign. Its strategy has been, for several years, to distance itself and the Clinton-Gore team from the party’s traditional progressives, with the aim of uniting the country's political center and winning over elements of the right.

By trying to marginalize the left Democrats, however, the DLC ignored the crucial role of what can be called the critical force in building broad coalitions. Critical forces are insurgent constituencies that not only raise their own issues, but also pose broader questions against a main adversary that can help mobilize the more passive and static constituencies aligned with them. The Democrat’s left progressives, especially among African Americans, have played this militant minority role in winning earlier mass campaigns.

This race was different. This conscious push to the center, explained the Aug. 15 Christian Science Monitor, seen in Gore's choice of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, has distracted (if not alienated) many activist Democrats. Senator Lieberman is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a pro-business group (of which Clinton also is a leading figure) that has nudged the party rightward in recent years.

One example of this trend on the party's left wing: The congressional Progressive Caucus, a 53-member group of Democrats, got slapped down at the recent drafting of the party's platform.3:23 AM Among the group’s defeated proposals were those that would have limited the president's ability to negotiate trade agreements, raised pay and benefits for low?wage workers, and expanded government?funded healthcare.

They talk about a big tent, grumbled Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, a member of the Progressive Caucus. But this tent just got a bit smaller.

After spending years criticizing and dismissing the traditional progressive constituencies, Blacks, labor, feminists, greens, the DLC at the last moment expected these same activists to turn on a dime and mobilize the full strength of all those who supposedly had nowhere else to go. Some progressives responded to the call, but many others either stayed home or campaigned for Nader. One indicator: the overall voter turnout this year was about 50 percent, compared to 55 percent in 1992 when Clinton ran against Bush the elder.

“I don’t like that the DLC gets it all”, said Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect, summing up the new relation of forces in the Democratic Party, “and Gore ends up being the left wing of the ticket.”

The DLC’s policy of “distancing” its candidate from African-Americans continued even into the month-long battle over the Florida recounts and the court decisions that finally decided the election. While one exposure after another revealed GOP efforts to undercount, miscount and otherwise disenfranchise voters in Black precincts, the Gore campaign downplayed these issues and stuck to narrower technical challenges to the vote counting process. At the unprecedented protest by the Black Congressional Caucus at the time of the Congressional approval of the Electoral College vote, not one Democratic Senator could be found to join their ranks.

The Bush campaign. The GOP’s strategy was an attempt to unite the right and far right, win over the center, and defeat the progressives. The critical force for Bush was the militant insurgency around the right-wing Christian Coalition. Its only clear-cut success, however, was isolating and defeating Pat Buchanan and his wing of the Reform Party on the far right.

Bush did make some inroads in winning over the center. What was new was his campaign’s “new diversity” and “compassionate conservatism” repackaging. It made some notable gains among moderate Hispanics and Asians, while expanding the GOP’s “Reagan Democrat” blue-collar white males. In fact, Bush carried a clear majority of white males with less than a college education. (One third of all union members also voted for Bush, a point that should be pondered by AFL-CIO officials blaming Nader for their failures.)

But Bush’s strategy stumbled badly over his overall assessment of the center forces and the “Gender Gap.” The American center, in its majority, simply does not want to jail women for having abortions or to abandon the children in its public schools. In California, for instance, women voted for Gore over Bush by an eighteen percent margin. Sociologist Francis Fukiyama explained it in the November 15 Wall Street Journal:

“It is not just that women vote in greater numbers than they did, but that they constitute the key vote that has swung toward the Democrats in contemporary elections. Foreign policy, strong national defense and tax cuts were key parts of the traditional Republican formula that brought Ronald Reagan to power. But these issues are also pre-eminently male ones, and have consistently failed to gain much traction among women. Mr. Clinton woke up to the feminization of American politics and the cultural issues this spawned much sooner than the Republicans, and rode it to two election victories.... How politicians play this issue is very complex, because women are not a homogeneous voting block and have very different interests on a variety of issues. But on the whole, this shift spells trouble for conservatives more than for liberals. The single most important social change to have taken place in the United States over the past 40 years concerns sex and the social role of women, and it is from this single source that virtually all of the ‘culture wars’ stem.”

The Nader campaign. Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party line, defined victory differently than his opponents: getting five percent of the vote nationally to insure ballot status and federal funds for future elections. To win this goal, Nader tried to implement a “citizens vs. corporations” strategy that was essentially a hard-hitting, oppositionist critique of capitalism, but without a clear alternative program for restructuring both power and the production of wealth. It either ignored, attacked or ran ahead of his potential allies.

Nader’s anti-corporate vision, moreover, was distorted by an anti-China, anti-trade protectionism he shared with the AFL-CIO leadership and, to a certain extent, with Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. As Bruce Shapiro noted in the November 1 Nation,

“Buchanan’s attacks on global trade and his opposition to U.S. military adventures abroad have led some influential voices on the left to wonder whether this is a bargain they could join. Some in the Naderite orbit, for instance, now argue privately that Buchanan will not center his campaign on social issues in the 2000 election, and that a platform based on his corporation?bashing might be worthy of support.”

In practice, Nader and the Greens primarily united insurgent white youth and a portion of the older generation radicalized by the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Among 18- to 22-year-old voters, Nader ran at nearly thirty percent. This group, tied to the anti-globalist protests in Seattle and elsewhere, are crucial to future party-building efforts. He also ran slightly higher among Blacks and other minorities than among whites; and won the endorsement of Black leaders like Cornel West, Manning Marable and Adolph Reed. But instead of five percent of the vote nationwide, Nader got 2,716,231 votes, just under three percent; still not to be taken lightly.

In essence, the Greens took a get-rich-quick approach to party building. They tried prematurely to build an electoral organization from the top down before gathering sufficient strength and allies from the bottom up. While the Greens displayed some impressive mobilizing, they now face the task of consolidating their gains, but lack the infrastructure to do it systematically.

The Buchanan campaign. Splitting from the GOP and taking over Ross Perot’s Reform Party, Buchanan’s campaign was essentially a semi-fascist attempt at empowering a nationalist united front of European Americans. Its populist anti-globalism mainly targeted immigrants of color and the third world, even as it claimed to defend American workers and jobs. Thomas Edsall put it this way in a June 22 Washington Post report on a Teamster’s Union press conference:

“With Nader by his side, (Teamster President James P.) Hoffa said that ‘only Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan have stood with the American workers on trade.’ He added, however, that on the broad range of labor issues, union representation, health and safety laws and a host of other issues, Nader is on the side on the union movement, while Buchanan is not.... ‘Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan must be included in the electoral process,’ Hoffa said. “Furthermore, the (Presidential Debate Commission) should hold a debate dedicated specifically to address[ing] workers' issues and the issue of globalization.”

But Pat’s minions failed even to unite the far right. Buchanan completely underestimated the victory-hungry electoral pragmatism of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, which stayed with the GOP and left him in the lurch. When he tried to compensate this loss with a temporary alliance with Lenora Fulani and the New Alliance Party, he was further isolated even in his own base. Despite winning $12 million in federal campaign funds, he wound up with less than one percent of the vote.

In addition to Gore, Bush, Nader and Buchanan, there are a number of other players in the electoral arena that are important from the perspective of a strategy for the left:

The Left Democrats. Referred to variously as the Progressive Wing, the Rainbow Democrats or the New Deal Liberals, many in this cluster supported former Senator Bill Bradley, in the Democratic primaries. Others, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, were behind Gore from the beginning, believing he was the stronger candidate against Bush. Unlike the DLC, the Left Democrats don’t have a single center. In Congress, they are represented mainly by the Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus, but they are also represented by Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the National Organization for Women and the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education. There are also differences among them, with the Black Caucus having the most progressive overall platform.

These progressives constantly face a dilemma. On one hand, their political clout is tied to the perks and privileges they have won as members of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, they never have enough clout to displace the “Corporate Caucus,” the DLC, as the primary force with the wealth and power in the Democratic Party.

Apart from the DLC’s attempt to marginalize of organizations of the Left Democrats, the main argument between the two factions is over how to win over the “white suburban center.” According to the Dec. 16, 2000 Washington Post, “The populist wing argues that white voters without college degrees hold the balance of power while the centrist wing contends that ‘wired workers’ who use the Internet, and in many cases own stock, are the key voting bloc.” One side wants to win these constituents with economic populism while the other wants to use social conservatism. Both miss the point that Bush made his greatest inroads into this group with a message of reform, local and individual empowerment and entrepreneurism, messages that by no means have to be conceded to the right.

The Labor Party. This trade union based organization, which has corralled the electoral ambitions of a number of left groups, was not a player in 2000. It is rooted among trade union organizers and activists to the left of the AFL-CIO leadership. Its strategy is basically to unite the working class, through its unions, against any candidates of the Democrats and Republicans. It has isolated itself through its go-it-alone ultra left tactic of abstaining from electoral campaigns until it can win big races at the top first. It opposes any fusion tactic of supporting local progressive Democrats and any potential candidate on its line must first break all ties with the Democrats. Two major national unions affiliated with the Labor Party, the United Electrical Workers and California Nurses Association, supported Nader. Most other unions supported Gore. More >>


respond to this article
WELCOME! You are visitor number

Designed by ByteSized Productions © 2003-2006