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Nader v. Scumballs

by Barbara Ehrenreich

The bad news is that, either way, we are certain to elect a scumball
Many people -- the number currently hovers at about five -- have asked me to comment on the current Presidential race. Usually I decline with a modest shrug, but a pundit, no matter how minor, must eventually punditize on whatever topic comes along, no matter how tawdry or trivial that topic may be: the trend toward nose-picking while waiting for the light to change, for example. And, yes, even Campaign 2000.

Already, the primary season has confronted progressives with several challenging questions. First, is campaign finance reform really such a good idea after all, especially if it takes the form of publicly financed campaigns? I used to think, yes, by all means, level the playing field, lower the bar! But that was before the invention of modern campaign techniques like the "push-polls" deployed by George W. in South Carolina. Surely you wouldn't want your own tax money spent financing fake surveys designed to malign one's opponent with questions like, "Would your opinion of Candidate X be altered by the fact that he has been romantically involved with numerous wool-bearing animals, after which he forced them to have abortions on demand?"

No, I think we can all agree that public money should no more be spent on campaigns like these than on arming eighth graders or providing convicted sex offenders with free access to the "XXX" cable channels. But when all the candidates look like groom-material for Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? we surely need some form of campaign reform.

George W., who governs a state where 13 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition or hunger, has so far spent more than $50 million to defame his opponents and publicize his alliterative skills.

Steve Forbes, about whose home planet little is known, spent $60 million of his personal pocket money to get his face on TV, often early enough in the evening to frighten small children.

We are talking serious money here, money that could make a difference. Under the current system, it goes almost entirely for television advertising, and amounts to a major transfer of wealth from oil (Bush), beer (McCain), and the financial industry (Gore, Bradley) to the networks and their local affiliates. But there is no reason that this money could not be used to solve major social problems -- like, for example, poverty.

In my combined Campaign Finance Reform/Income Redistribution plan, candidates could spend all they want on advertising as long they let low and moderate income individuals do the advertising for them: For $5000, I would personally display a Bush bumper sticker for the better part of a day. For $10,000, I would be willing to tell the Enquirer about my nights with McCain at Motel 6; for $50,000, I might consider having a purple "W" tattooed to my forehead.

Another question posed by the primaries: Which is more deeply embarrassing to the white race -- the Republicans being their good ol' boy selves, or Al Gore doing his A.M.E. preacher routine? On the Republican side, there was McCain referring to his former bombing targets and captors as "gooks" and employing, as his top strategist in South Carolina, an editor of the journal Southern Partisan, which specializes in nostalgia for the era of floggings and lynchings. Bush embraced Bob Jones University, which prohibited not only interracial dating, but also the advocacy of interracial dating, and (although the BJU web site is unclear on this point) the dating of advocates of interracial dating or of people who may once have dated advocates of interracial dating.

And in an obvious effort to appeal to that minority of the state's population that favors the return of slavery, neither Republican candidate spoke out against the display of the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capitol. At the very least they might have pointed out that, according to CBS's recent series on the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemmings relationship, slavery was no gravy train for the white race. No indeed. In CBS's version of the antebellum South, those plantations were alot like spas, and it was the duty of the white owners to provide their slaves with multicourse meals, hairdressers, and lovely, long-flowing dresses.

But then, just when you think the white race cannot possibly sink any lower, you find Gore in black face at the Apollo, shouting in classic call-and-response fashion while making robotic chopping motions with his right arm -- and inevitably reminding one of those thirteen-year-old white boys who swagger around the mall in their gangsta outfits.

Then there is the question of the great issue shortage. As far as one can tell, there is only one issue left in America, and that is abortion. On the Republican side, the candidates have scrapped over: 1) Who is the meanest, sneakiest, scumball of a campaigner, and 2) who is the most fervently opposed to Roe v. Wade? On the Democratic side, the candidates fought to establish: 1) Who is the most mendacious, no-account, scumball of a campaigner, and 2) who has been most consistently dedicated to upholding Roe v. Wade?

The good news is that we will indeed have a choice to make in November -- a choice about choice, that is. The bad news is that, either way, we are certain to elect a scumball.

Now abortion is a very weighty issue -- especially for all those women who are too poor, too young, or too rural to obtain one. But since neither of the Democrats promised to make abortion actually available "on demand," so we can only conclude that it owes its current prominence to the fact that the parties can find nothing else to disagree about.

Neither party is proposing to end poverty, abolish the death penalty, restore the progressive income tax, or bring the U.S. military budget into line with those of our most powerful enemies -- Cuba and North Korea.

If the parties didn't have abortion to distinguish them, they'd be scrapping over whose pictures to put on postage stamps and whether the Lincoln Bedroom should be redone in forest green.

Finally, there's the question of whether progressives belong in this game in any role other than as surly pundits or numbed viewers of the candidates' debates. Ralph Nader thinks yes, and promises that he will actually campaign this time -- although given his rather austere personality, we can expect none of the usual baby-kissing and mosh-pit-diving. So here's a bit of potential relief from the dispiriting spectacle of the major party campaigns: Ralph Nader, coming soon to a church basement near you!

In November, progressives will face a daunting choice: Whether to participate in the great Democratic/Republic abortion referendum or vote for Nader, a.k.a. "None of the Above." But you'll have to make up your own mind on that, because I'm just about punditized out.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive

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Albion Monitor April 24, 2000 (

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