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Choosing Kerry, Again

I did not attend Ralph Nader’s campaign rally last Thursday expecting much. Since before the Democratic primary, I, like so many others, had made a decision that this time around I would be voting for Bush’s Democratic opponent. I had decided that the mind-numbingly shameless atrocities of the Bush administration had to be stopped sooner rather than later. You know the drill.

So it was a little surprising, and either heartening or embarrassing, or maybe some of both, to find myself drinking up his words. Oh, thank God, someone is still talking bluntly about overweening corporate power and the hypocrisy behind so-called free-market capitalist patriots (but that’s a column for another time), about living wages and single-payer health care and the existence of an Israeli peace movement. And doing it well, may I add.

John Kerry’s performance in the debate on Friday, at times inspiring and at other times nauseatingly like a candidate in the Republican primary, didn’t help that much.

But I’m still voting for Kerry. Actions speak louder than words, and what’s especially loud is how those actions do or don’t match up with your words. There have been a lot of people calling Nader’s campaign this time an ego trip. His supporters argue that it’s a sad state of affairs when someone is accused of an ego trip for exercising his right to run for office and offer the voters a choice. They’re right. But what if that’s not why people are saying that?

One of the worst things about the Bush administration is its sense of entitlement. Rather than let the voters have their say, they turned to the Supreme Court because the presidency was too important to leave to the unreliable people of the country. They’re doing it again this year already, attempting to suppress voter turnout in ways large and small.

There is a similar feeling of entitlement about the Nader campaign’s quests to get on the ballot. In accepting petitions, nominations, and money from Republicans whose express purpose is drawing votes away from Kerry, he is not actually sticking up for the rights of third-party candidates. He is saying that he feels he deserves to be on the ballot even in states where he doesn’t actually have enough supporters to put him there. That seems like exactly the kind of shortcut around grassroots organizing and listening to the voters that Nader folks like to blame the out-of-touch major parties for.

Nader argued that the Democrats should be focusing on voter registration in minority communities rather than legal battles over ballots. He’s absolutely right. So should he. Not to mention that he should be fighting for instant runoff voting and other voting reforms that would strengthen the voices and chances of all third-party candidates. Long-term strategy demands it.

I don’t think he should be vilified, derided or constantly made to defend his choice to run in 2000. But I don’t think his campaign this year is strategic in either the short or long term. Here’s my level of Nader support right now: my partner’s brilliant idea that the Kerry campaign should make it known that they will nominate Nader to be attorney general, where he can do what he does best and prosecute corporate wrongdoing to his heart’s content. After all, if characters like Cheney and Ashcroft can carry out their agenda through the Bush administration, a Kerry administration could surely afford the same opportunities.

Meanwhile, I have had varying success with my attempts to feel enthusiastic about Kerry rather than dutiful. My activist friend who gave me a walking tour of Kerry’s neighborhood this summer has compared Kerry to the “foul but reluctantly necessary odor of a commercial cleaning product,” and I think many of us feel the same (chemotherapy and tourniquet analogies come to mind as well). Sometimes the pace of change has to be slowed down before it can be reversed.

It’s not that there aren’t things to like about Kerry. His voting record on many of the core progressive issues—campaign finance reform, environmental issues, reproductive rights—while not a dream come true, are more worthy of the (apparently still dreaded, given his reaction to it in the second debate) word “liberal” than “centrist.” I’m impressed with his work investigating the Iran-
Contra affair, his testimony after the Vietnam war, and perhaps especially some of the analysis out there that posits that his public presentation sometimes suffers because he is obsessed with nuance and complexity that doesn’t make good sound bites. If any image is heartening to me, it’s that final one.

I think, in fact, that it’s not that Kerry tends to be so centrist that is tiring. It’s constantly being reminded that if he wins, the relief will be brief, and then we’ll have to dig in to both repair the messes of the last four years and do the slogging work of convincing a president who is nominally in support of the people against the corporations to actually act on that. No easy task, and a hard thing to be busting our butts through a bitter election for. But it’s one I’d far rather be involved in than trying to stop the speeding train of Bush’s wanton destruction.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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