Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Contenders: H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up last night was the latest episode of The Contenders, the surprisingly addictive show on former Presidential candidates (though the next episode will be a bit of a departure in that it will be about two failed vice-presidential candidates, Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, the only women ever nominated for that position — though it’s been looking more and more like we’ll have a woman President before we have a woman Vice-President!) which this time was about “The Independents,” H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. It was impossible to avoid drawing comparisons between Perot and Donald Trump — both multi-billionaires who ran against what they perceived to be a rigged system and presented themselves as expert businessmen who could bring a fresh perspective to governing the U.S., and both of whom had spectacular mental meltdowns in public that kept them from doing as well as they might otherwise have done in the polls. Of course, there were obvious differences too: when the show played a film clip of Perot saying “diversity is America’s strength” it was impossible not to realize how utterly unlikely it would be for Trump to say those words! Still, there were striking similarities between Perot’s appeal and Trump’s; Perot often said things like, “The party’s over. It’s time for the clean-up crew,” meaning that Democrats and Republicans had made such a mess of the country in general and in particular had ran up such a fearsome level of national debt that it was time to get a new crew in there to clean house and get the country back on a sound financial footing.

That, of course, is yet another difference between Perot, who was genuinely concerned about America’s mounting national debt (and one of the few figures in American politics who seemed aware of the difference between the budget deficit — which is basically the amount by which the national debt increases in any given year — and the debt itself) — so much so that he made it the signature issue of his campaign — and Trump, whose economic policies would blow a hole in the debt and vastly increase it (as well as potentially antagonizing the countries, notably China, to whom we owe the debt) in the interest of tax cuts for the rich. Still, the basic appeal of Perot and Trump was pretty much the same: the nation is in crisis, the two major parties had run out of ideas to get us out of it, and only a fresh face untethered to the political establishments of both Republicans and Democrats could get the country back on track again. Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 despite the spectacular meltdown in which he got out of the race in July and got back into it in October, giving an interview to 60 Minutes in which he claimed he’d withdrawn in the first place because the re-election campaign of President George H. W. Bush had threatened to smear his daughter as a Lesbian on the eve of her marriage (to a man). Had he stayed in, he could well have carried enough states to deadlock the Electoral College and throw the election into the House of Representatives — though the program featured an interview with a former Perot campaign staff member in which he said actually deadlocking the election and forcing a constitutional crisis was the last thing he wanted and the real reason he withdrew (temporarily, as it turned out, because he found the TV networks wouldn’t sell him half-hour blocks of time for his infomercials about the debt crisis unless he was an active candidate) was he didn’t want to win the presidency — just to promote public attention about the debt crisis and make sure either Bush or Bill Clinton, whoever won, took it seriously.

As things turned out, Clinton won the election and Perot probably was the “spoiler” that made it possible — as a graphic shown the night of the election and reproduced on this program indicated, Clinton carried the state of Texas (a Democrat actually carried Texas in my lifetime!) by 41 to 40 percent, and Texas would almost certainly have gone to Bush if Perot hadn’t siphoned 18 percent of the vote. (One of the things that amused me about the 1992 campaign was that all three candidates came from the same part of the country — Bush from Texas, Clinton from Arkansas and Perot from Texarkana, a city so-named because it was on the Texas-Arkansas border.) At the same time, though he did five percentage points better than George Wallace had in 1968, he didn’t win any electoral votes because he didn’t carry any states (Wallace carried five, all in the Deep South) — proof that the real bias in American politics that prevents alternatives to the Republican and Democratic parties from competing fairly and effectively is the U.S. addiction to winner-take-all electoral systems and the law (not part of the Constitution but passed by Congress in 1842) that requires that the House of Representatives be elected from single-member districts. Certainly both Perot and Nader faced the difficulty of getting on the ballot at all, let alone in all 50 states (this year, of the two principal alternative-party candidates for the Presidency, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in all 50 states and Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is on the ballot in 44), and they also had the problem of getting on the Presidential debate stage (ordinarily, under the usual rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates — or, as I call it, the “Commission to Make Sure Americans Don’t Hear from Anyone Other than Republicans or Democrats in Presidential Debates” — Perot wouldn’t have qualified for the debate, but Bush insisted that he be let on because for some reason he thought Perot would hurt Clinton more than he hurt him), but the real factor that keeps American political competition so confined to two big parties is the single-member districts and winner-take-all system that ensure that all you can do by voting for an alternative-party candidate is help the major-party candidate you like least.

That, of course, was Nader’s big problem as well — this program does a good job of telling Nader’s story, from his beginnings to his rise to prominence over the issue of auto safety in general and the sloppy suspension design of the Chevrolet Corvair in particular — and the jihad General Motors, makers of the Corvair (and the Buick Roadmaster, another car Nader singled out for criticism), waged against him, including hiring women to entrap him in a sex scandal and using private detectives to follow him around. It turned out to be one of the most spectacularly counterproductive moves in the history of corporate espionage, since it transformed Nader from a minor irritant to a major gadfly, caused sales of his book Unsafe at Any Speed to zoom up and gave Nader the money he need to start the network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG’s) and other organizations that helped push through laws not only requiring the federal government to regulate auto safety but protect consumers and the environment generally. Nader is shown on this program complaining that such legislative triumphs started becoming more difficult in the early 1980’s when, in order to keep their House of Representatives majority in the face of Ronald Reagan’s political revolution, the Democrats cut deals with major corporate donors and essentially abandoned their pro-consumer, pro-environment agenda in service to their new paymasters — it’s a major oversimplification but basically accurate analysis — and that’s what disillusioned him against politics in general and the two-party system in particular, and led him to a series of Presidential candidates from outside the two major parties. Of course, the most significant of Nader’s five Presidential runs was the one in 2000, in which he won 2.7 percent of the vote and pissed off a lot of his old allies because they were afraid he would take the election from Democratic candidate Al Gore, Jr. and give it to Republican George W. Bush. This show takes the position that Nader did just that — the common perception that Nader was effectively responsible for the Bush Presidency and all that went wrong with America during it (like the squandering of the laboriously achieved budget surpluses of the last two years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency on tax cuts for the rich, and the war in Iraq) has in effect trashed his legacy to the point where if people hear the name “Ralph Nader” they no longer think of the consumer advocate without whom we wouldn’t have the federal regulations protecting auto safety and the air and water, they think of “the man who made George W. Bush President.”

Nader’s own defense against that charge, to the extent he ever made one (during the campaign itself he made the predictable argument that it was a lesser-of-two-evils vote that was the truly “wasted” one and the vote for one’s conscience that was really consequential), was that he thought Gore was so much stronger a candidate than Bush he should have won in a landslide and so a principled vote for Nader wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have hurt the Democrat any. As I’ve argued in these pages before, I’m convinced the real force that elected George W. Bush President was the National Rifle Association, which ran so-called “independent” campaigns for Bush in Tennessee and West Virginia, giving Bush both those states’ electoral votes. The real astonishing fact about the 2000 election was that, in a race that was otherwise razor-close, Gore became the first major-party nominee since George McGovern in 1972 to lose his home state (at least in the other two blowouts in recent history, Barry Goldwater won Arizona in 1964 and Walter Mondale won Minnesota in 1984), thanks to the NRA — and if Gore had carried Tennessee, he would have been President and all the fooforaw about Florida wouldn’t have mattered. What’s more, the Democrats knew it, too; that’s why gun regulation virtually disappeared from the Democratic issue list for well over a decade and how the NRA has successfully intimidated politicians into voting down every attempt at sensible gun legislation ever since. Just as one can’t watch this program in 2016 without reflecting on the similarities between H. Ross Perot and Donald Trump, it’s also hard to watch it and not notice those between Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders: both gadflies whose attacks on giant corporations and their political power were at the heart of their appeal, both candidates whose power base was among young white college students and who never “cracked” the communities of color (the bedrock of support for Gore in the 2000 general election and for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries — there’s a comment on this show from an activist of color who says that white idealists like Nader and Sanders ignore the communities of color except during election time, then suddenly appear and expect to be taken seriously without doing the years of hard work needed to build relationships with community leaders and be taken seriously by them).

The show also argues that Perot had a lasting impact on the political system while Nader, at least as a candidate, did not; the budget deficit became a major concern during Bill Clinton’s administration (even though Perot’s other main concern — opposition to so-called “free trade” agreements that grease the skids on which jobs are moved out of country and laws protecting workers and the environment are systematically trashed — a position shared by Trump, Nader and Sanders — has got exactly nowhere; but then, as I noted in my last Zenger’s blog post about this year’s election, enmeshing the world in so-called “free trade” agreements that basically subcontract the governance of the world economy from nation-states to multinational corporations is such a high priority of the international ruling class they’re not going to let minor little details like democracy or public opinion stand in its way) — though the surprising strength of Sanders’ candidacy within the Democratic Party and its power to move at least Hillary Clinton’s public positions (as opposed to her private ones!) strikingly to the Left indicates that Nader’s issues still have a lot of political resonance. There’s a sense of sadness in this episode of The Contenders, particularly in the acknowledgment that even people drawn to movements as strongly opposed to the shared priorities of the major-party establishments as Perot’s and Nader’s must now fight their battles within the major parties rather than outside of them — the Republican/Democrat duopoly and its determination of who’s allowed to be on the ballot and who’s taken “seriously” by the media (remember the MS-NBC interviewer who asked Bernie Sanders why he was running as a Democrat rather than as an independent, to which Sanders replied, “If I were running as an independent, you wouldn’t be talking to me”) is just too strong to be challenged.