Kerry and the Left

by Randy Shaw on June 1, 2004

As President Bush sinks in polls, the national media has begun focusing on the Nader candidacy. But Nader will prove politically irrelevant in November, and not just because of the closeness of the last election. Rather, John Kerry shares a very different political history from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or Al Gore in 2000, and would become the first Democrat elected in forty years to come from the Party’s progressive wing.

The emerging theory of Nader’s influence in the 2004 race is that anti-war progressives will support the only candidate committed to immediately bringing the troops home from Iraq. Some commentators see echoes of 1968, when some progressives could not abide Democratic Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey’s support for the Vietnam War and sat out a race won by Republican Richard Nixon.

But Humphrey, like Gore, was part of an Administration that many progressives could not stomach. Johnson’s leadership in the “war” on poverty and fight for civil rights were tragically undermined by his escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1968 two sitting US Senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, successfully campaigned against Johnson’s pro-war stance, and helped force the incumbent out of the nomination race.

By June 1968, many progressives felt that the Democratic Party had an anti-war majority. After Kennedy’s assassination that month and the subsequent nomination of the pro-war Humphrey, activists’ feelings of betrayal and disenfranchisement were understandable It was as if Howard Dean had been killed before the Iowa caucuses—his supporters would never have witnessed the voters rejection of their anti-war candidate in favor of the eventual Party nominee, and might not have voted for Kerry in November.

Humphrey was the Vice-President in an Administration that dramatically broadened the Vietnam conflict, and he encouraged progressive inaction by waiting until a week before the election before criticizing the war. In contrast, Kerry did not initiate the invasion of Iraq and he criticizes Bush’s handling of Iraq in virtually every speech.

Simply put, the flight of anti-war activists from the Democratic candidate in 1968 will not be repeated in 2004.

Nor will the exodus of many progressives from Al Gore in 2000 be repeated this November.

Progressive disaffection with Al Gore in 2000 was really aimed at the prior eight years of Clinton Administration policies. Some activists could not help sing the Peggy Lee hit “Is that all there is?” after having waited sixteen long years for a Democrat to control the White House.

Al Gore’s problem in 2000 was that he had long ago weakened his ties to the core progressive constituencies. Gore’s father, Albert Gore Sr., was a true progressive and likely lost his Tennessee Senate seat due to his commitment to civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Gore began his Senate career in 1984 as a progressive but joined the rest of his region in moving rightward. He battled Michael Dukakis for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, when he ran to the right of the Massachusetts Governor. By the time Bill Clinton chose him to be his Vice-President, Gore had retained close ties with African-Americans, environmentalists, and some unions but he had consciously moved away from his liberal roots and repositioned himself as a Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC) centrist Democrat.

During his eight years as Vice-President, Gore adopted the Clinton, Democratic-lite view on welfare reform, free trade, and even on environmental protection. Fairly or not, it was Hillary Clinton, not Al Gore, who was seen as the only liberal in President Clinton’s inner circle.

John Kerry comes from the same privileged background as Al Gore, but chose a different political path. His anti-war activism after he returned from Vietnam has no parallel in the Al Gore biography. During the past two decades it is hard to think of any Democratic Senator other than Kerry and the late Paul Wellstone who launched their political careers through grassroots activism.

Unlike Gore, Kerry has never sacrificed his environmental leadership He has taken tough stands against politically popular SUV’s, and is seen by environmental groups as a trusted ally. This sense of trust was missing for Gore, and environmentalists who voted for Nader in 2000 will largely be voting for Kerry in 2004.

NAFTA, globalization and free trade were huge issues for progressives in 2000. Gore had actively lobbied for free trade measures and, as with the environment, was not trusted by some progressives on these issues. Kerry also voted for NAFTA and supports free trade, but three factors prevent these issues from helping Nader.

First, Howard Dean also supported NAFTA. The young progressives who backed Dean accepted their candidate’s explanation for his vote, and will not break from Kerry on this issue. Kerry’s tough challenge from Dick Gephardt in Iowa also forced him to move toward a much stronger fair trade stance

Second, Bush has done Kerry a favor in choosing the current moment to push for a new Central American free trade pact, CAFTA. Labeled the “Trojan Calf” by opponents, Kerry has pledged to vote against the trade agreement and likely looks forward to doing so before the election. Kerry’s strong stand against CAFTA will earn him the goodwill of anti-globalization activists who did not trust Gore.

Third, the globalization debate in 2004 is about outsourcing Unlike free trade agreements, outsourcing unifies Democrats but causes rifts among Republicans. Whereas Gore had to tiptoe around his support for free trade, Kerry regularly denounces outsourcing, which is the critical issue in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other swing states. Unlike the anti-globalization activists in 2000, voters most concerned about outsourcing will feel comfortable voting for the Democratic nominee in 2004.

Ralph Nader himself has recently pointed out the differences in the political histories of Gore and Kerry. Noting Kerry’s progressive voting record (which by some counts is even more liberal than Ted Kennedy’s) and his support for consumer and environmental protection, Nader had only good words for the Democratic nominee. One gets the sense that Nader does not feel he would be ignored in a Kerry Administration, as he clearly felt would have been the case with Gore.

The polls showing Nader getting as high as 6% are entirely irrelevant, as most of those expressing such sentiments are likely trying to send a message to Kerry. With all of the fanfare and celebrity support he got in 2000, Nader could not break 3%. He will be lucky to break 1% in November, and, like the second go-round of Ross Perot, will be irrelevant to the outcome of the contest.

Randy Shaw is the editor of Beyond Chron and can be reached at rshaw@beyondchron.org

Filed under: Archive