Where is Ralph Nader when we need him?
Another weak debate advertises the absence of an effective third force in American politics
You would not have had an inkling from the presidential candidates' third and final debate last night that Wednesday had been a day of fearful carnage on Wall Street, throwing into question the desperate efforts of the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve to stabilise the situation.
You would not have known that in a month the Dow Jones industrial index has lost 25 per cent of its value. You would not have known that in the considered estimation of many economists, the United States could well be entering a prolonged recession without much chance of recovery for many years.
There were, to be sure, dutiful references by both Obama and McCain to crisis, but mostly it was as though they were talking about a troublesome traffic accident a couple of blocks away. McCain flourished a proposal to bail out homeowners. Obama claimed that the bankers' bail-out bill for which they had both voted contained exactly such provisions. Then the two retreated to mechanical reiteration of their tax plans, their health plans, their plans for energy independence, all of them topics interminably raked over in the earlier debates.
Three instant polls showed that the all-important independent voters thought Obama had had the best of it. After a spritely beginning, McCain soon looked puffy and tired. His little jabs at Obama sounded peevish rather than fierce. Obama somewhat unconvincingly assumed the role of genial sparring partner, plastering a smile across his face as McCain flailed away.
Given the political news yesterday, Obama could afford to smile. A poll conducted by the New York Times found the Democrat with commanding leads in crucial states. The margins are beginning to suggest a stampede to Obama and the Democrats.
The morning of the third presidential debate a friend of mine in Landrum, South Carolina conducted an informal survey of voter sentiment in this rural town in the heart of Dixie. He pulled over at a convenience store-cum-coffee shop, and walked in with a wad of McCain/Palin stickers. "Don't you bring those things in here," said the man behind the cash register.
My friend strolled among the regulars sipping their coffee, most of them retired, and could find no takers. "Not one, and these were people who voted 100 per cent for Bush in 2004. They're angry." Why? After a terrible summer of soaring gas prices and plunging stock portfolios "a lot of them have lost their retirement funds and health savings". He added that all the talk about Obama's links to terror, to Islam, to bombers, has also had the effect of intimidating elderly Republicans from even putting McCain-Palin signs in their yards. They fear Obama's Islamic bully boys will come knocking on their doors.
My friend's experience in Landrum came amid the inglorious tailspin of the disastrous strategy of trying to sink Obama by hanging former Weatherman Bill Ayers round his neck.
When Republican consultants like Mary Matalin and Steve Schmidt first pondered this tactic in the late summer, it must have seemed to them like a no-brainer.
In the final weeks of Campaign 2008, Barack Hussein Obama would be hit with accusations (actually first aired by Hillary Clinton last April) of being an alien radical with intimate ties to a man who had tried to blow up Congress and the Pentagon.
It might have worked, but for the fact which apparently escaped the notice of the McCain campaign – that Americans are entirely consumed by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. There has been a total disconnect between the financial hurricane hitting America and some archaeology about a Sixties radical sitting with Obama on the board of a non-profit foundation.
Across the three debates Obama has been the default winner, if only because McCain has been irritable and repetitive, a cranky old geezer. But has the Democrat taken command, persuading his vast audiences that amid the loom of adversity and ruin for many Americans he is prepared to lead and has a plan? The answer here is surely no. He's got less inspiring as the weeks tick by.
This election has advertised not only McCain's political ineptness, but also the absence of an effective third force in American politics, at a moment when the credibility of both parties and of both major candidates is open to sweeping challenge. Voters are disgusted with the entire system and the direction the country is taking. Disapproval of Bush and of the Democrats running Congress is at the same high level. Yet Obama and McCain share many positions, starting with the bail-out and continuing with endorsement of a belligerent foreign policy from Georgia to Iran, total fealty to Israel and a ramp-up of the doomed Afghan campaign.
Ralph Nader is a man for whom the economic crisis has come as total vindication of everything he has been proclaiming for decades: about the corruption of Wall Street, the ties between Wall Street and Congress, the economic sell-outs of the Clinton era, from free trade deals to the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
Yet Nader has no party and so despite being on the ballot this year in over 40 states suffers from hugely diminished political purchase on everything from volunteers to finance to media presence, at a moment when his message could have resonated hugely with the furious and fearful electorate.
The political groups and coalitions that rallied to Nader in 2000 are all shadows of their former selves. Eight years of Bush have pushed the environmental and labour lobbies back into the Democratic Party, where their voices are inaudible and political influence scarcely visible to the naked eye.
Has Obama changed the political landscape? On September 23 he stated on NBC that the crisis and prospect of a huge bail-out required bipartisan action and meant he likely would have to delay expansive spending programmes outlined during his campaign for the White House. In addition, he said that his proposed economic stimulus program "is not necessarily something that we should have in this package".
Thus did he surrender power even before he gained it. As an instigator of beneficial change, the Clinton administration was over six months after election day 1992, when Clinton turned to Al Gore and said, "You mean my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and some fucking bond traders?" Gore nodded and Clinton promptly abandoned his economic plan to follow the dictates of Wall Street tycoons like Robert Rubin, now a top advisor to Obama. Assuming he wins, Obama beat the speed of Bill Clinton's 1993 collapse by almost seven months. ·
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