Who is the real left alternative in the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination race? If you are only following the mainstream press, you might conclude this honour belongs to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, an opponent of the war in Iraq.
But the record of this contender verifies this assessment from University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson: "He's really a classic Rockefeller Republican - a fiscal conservative and social liberal." During the early 1990s, Dean spearheaded a new "workfare" state law requiring labour from welfare recipients. The Vermont program later won praise as more humane "welfare reform" than what occurred in most other states. But in the summer of 1996, Dean put his weight behind the push for President Clinton's national "welfare reform" law, a draconian measure slashing at an already shabby safety net while forcing impoverished mothers to work low-wage jobs.
"Conservative Vermont business leaders praise Dean's record and his unceasing efforts to balance the budget, even though Vermont is the only state where a balanced budget is not constitutionally required," Business Week reported in August. Moreover, they argue that the two most liberal policies adopted during Dean's tenure - the "civil unions" law and a radical revamping of public school financing - were instigated by Vermont's ultraliberal Supreme Court rather than Dean.
Dean supporters can point to real pluses in his record, including programs for the environment and health care. During the past year, on a wide range of issues, his tough criticisms of the Bush admin have often been articulate. And many Dean activists are glad to be supporting a candidate who came out against the war on Iraq.
Howard Dean does deserve some credit as a foe of the war. Yet it would be a mistake to view him as an opponent of militarism. I found it conspicuous that Dean did not include the word "Iraq" in the 26-minute speech he gave at his official campaign kickoff in late June, instead urging that we "are not to conquer and suppress other nations to submit to our will."
Meanwhile, Dean has declared his opposition to a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq - as though what the Pentagon is doing there now doesn't amount to continuation of the war he opposed. "We cannot permit ourselves to lose the peace in Iraq," Dean says. "If we leave and we don't get a democracy in Iraq, the result is very significant danger to the United States."
He has also opposed cutting the budget for routine U.S. military expenditures that now add up to well over $1 billion per day. Actually, he has gone out of his way to distance himself from a straightforward cut-the-military-budget position that should be integral to any progressive candidacy. At a forum this summer, another presidential candidate, House of Representatives Ohio member Dennis Kucinich, said that "the only way we're really going to close the (digital) divide is to start cutting the Pentagon budget and put that money into education."
Overall, the problem with puffing up Dean - or claiming that he represents progressive values - goes beyond a failure of truth-in-labelling. It also involves an insidious redefinition in public discourse of what it means to be progressive in the first place.
Dean activists like to say that their man has the best chance of beating Bush next year. But supporters of almost every Democratic presidential hopeful say the same thing. On a full range of issues, Dean's positions are markedly inferior to Kucinich's platform. So why not battle to get as many Democratic convention delegates as possible for Kucinich? Granted, he's very unlikely to be nominated. But a hefty Kucinich delegate count would be a strong progressive statement within the Democratic party.
Activists have plenty of good reasons to challenge the liberal Democratic party operatives who focus on election strategy while routinely betraying progressive ideals. Unfortunately, the national Green party now shows appreciable signs of the flip side, focusing on admirable ideals without a plausible strategy. Running Ralph Nader for president is on the verge of becoming a kind of habitual crutch - used even when the effect is more damaging than helpful.
It's impossible to know whether the vote margin between Bush and his Democratic challenger will be narrow or wide in November 2004. With so much at stake, do we really want to roll the dice this way?
We're told that another Nader campaign will help to build the Green party. But Nader's prospects of coming near his nationwide 2000 vote total of 2.8 million are very slim; much more probable is that a 2004 campaign would win far fewer votes.
Some activists contend that the Greens will maintain leverage over the Democratic party by conveying a firm intention to run a presidential candidate. I think that's basically an illusion. A few years ago, Nader and some others articulated the theory that throwing a scare into the Democrats would move them in a more progressive direction. That theory was disproved after November 2000. As a whole, congressional Democrats have not become more progressive since then.
California senator and lefty Tom Hayden pointed out in a recent article, "Democrats have to swallow hard and accept the right of the Green party and Ralph Nader to exist and compete." At the same time, Hayden added cogently, "Nader and the Greens need a reality check. The notion that the two major parties are somehow identical may be a rationale for building a third party, but it insults the intelligence of millions of blacks, Latinos, women, gays, environmentalists and trade unionists who can't afford the indulgence of Republican rule."
By now it's an open secret that Ralph Nader is almost certain to run for president again next year. Nader has been a brilliant and inspirational progressive for several decades. I supported his presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. I won't in 2004. The reasons are not about the past but about the future.