Three Billion Dollar Campaign Ends in Gridlock

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Mark Weisbrot
The Roanoke Times & World News, November 14, 2000
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, November 14, 2000

If George W. Bush becomes our next president, as appears likely, it will prove once again that any product can be marketed. I learned this a couple of years ago when I found some potato chips in the local convenience store that were made with olestra. Olestra is a petroleum product-- that should have killed it right there. I mean, who wants to eat oil, the kind that comes out of an oil well in Saudi Arabia? It can't be digested. But the makers of this product were required to put a warning on the package: "This product contains olestra, which may cause anal leakage." Right there on the package! If they could sell this to millions of people, then-- with a few hundred million dollars for advertising-- George W. Bush was a piece of cake. For all his flaws, Mr. W. hasn't caused any anal leakage, at least as far as I know.

Of course this election was Al Gore's to lose, and he blew it. Sitting on top of the nation's longest running economic expansion, unemployment at a thirty-year low, running against someone is not sure whether Social Security is a federal program-- the pundits surely have reason to shake their heads and sigh. Who was it that told Al Gore he couldn't campaign on the strength of the economy, because it was more important to distance himself from anything having to do with Bill Clinton? And they pay these people for their advice.

Of course, the gains from this remarkable economic growth have yet to trickle down. Even during the current expansion, the typical wage has hardly grown at all-- about 0.3 percent a year since 1993.

Tactical goofs aside, that is the heart of the Democrats' long-term problem: they have abandoned their base, and replaced it with a wad of corporate cash with which to purchase campaign commercials. Al Gore offered very little to the majority of voters, who have literally not shared in the gains from economic growth. Paying off the national debt over the next 12 years-- a policy that until recently was advocated only by politicians of the extreme right-- isn't going to do much of anything for anyone.

So most of these voters stayed home, as they have been doing since President Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress in 1993-- thereby giving us a Republican Congress. The WTO and its expansion this year to include China gave labor and its allies more reason not to vote.

There are some bright spots on the electoral screen. If George W. Bush wins the electoral vote but Gore takes the popular vote, we may finally get rid of the electoral college-- an institution whose main reason for existence is its originators' fear of letting the people choose the President.

Many people fear that gridlock will result from a Congress that is closely divided-- as well as a President who lost the popular vote. But gridlock is not so bad, if we look at the reality of American politics today. As might be expected after a $3 billion election extravaganza financed mainly by corporations and rich people, the leadership of both parties has no positive agenda.

And they have a lot of harmful changes they want to make: on the Republican side, privatizing Social Security and cutting taxes for the richest people in the country. In the bi-partisan column, increased military spending, more trade and commercial agreements that will hurt labor and the environment, and billions to support war and atrocities in places like Colombia. Partisan fighting and gridlock would be welcome in these and other areas, and if the Democrats want to play a constructive role in Congress, they should be prepared to filibuster in the Senate.

The best news is that 2.7 million people voted for Ralph Nader, proving that democracy still exists in America, even if only in embryonic form. Most of Nader's support peeled off to Gore at the last minute, as people saw the election was going to be close. Still, it is encouraging to see that millions of people were able to vote for universal health insurance, responsible trade and foreign policy, an end to the brutal and destructive incarceration explosion in America, and all the urgent changes that the overwhelming majority of Americans want but never get to vote for on election day.

If the media had given Nader coverage anywhere near proportionate to his standing in the polls, there's no telling how many votes he would have gotten. Nonetheless his showing, which may have made the difference in the presidential election, may force the Democrats to pay more attention to their base. And it will give a boost to the Green Party, which will field increasing numbers of local and statewide candidates in the next few years.

If we're lucky, the United States could become a multi-party democracy.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy