PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS ARE ABOUT THE LONG GAME
Back in 2000, I stepped into a Florida polling booth and I pulled the lever for…dun dun daaaaaaah…Ralph Nader. That’s right. It’s on me. The Bush years were all my fault. Blame me.
Now, look, I don’t regret my vote for Nader in that decisive election. As far as I was concerned, I wanted to vote for Al Gore. He just didn’t give me a reason to do so. By 2000 I was solidly on the left end of the political spectrum. I was disenchanted by President Clinton’s neoliberalism and right-wing triangulation. I accepted the analysis of Al Gore as, in real terms, no different from George Bush. By which I mean, both candidates were pro-corporate, neoliberal hegemons who were not going to significantly challenge the established, elite, status quo. To this day, I believe that analysis was valid. If Gore wanted to get my vote, he would have run a different campaign. He would have made different decisions. He didn’t. He did not earn my vote…and it was MY vote, after all. As a progressive, I did not owe Al Gore or any other establishment Democrat anything.
Ralph Nader, on the other hand, had a concrete record of tilting at neoliberal, corporate hegemony. He stood for clear, left-wing values of social, economic and environmental justice. Those were the things I stood for, so he got my vote.
Despite the apparent validity of the analysis that there was little difference between Gore and Bush, the objective reality turned out to contradict this thesis. It was a fact that neither Gore nor Bush was going to challenge American corporate hegemony. That was true. In that regard, there was no light between the candidates. However, to suggest that there was no real difference between the candidates based on nothing more than their establishment status was objectively mistaken. The undeniable truth is that the United States and the world would have been much better off with a Gore victory in 2000. Voting for Nader was a feel-good vote, but strategically, it was a mistake. It was playing the political short game.
A simple, mental experiment can prove my point. Take a look at some of the major things that happened during Bush’s presidency and consider if they would have happened in the same way under a Gore presidency. First, 9/11 would almost certainly have happened, regardless of who sat in the Oval Office. Would a Gore Administration have been more prepared given the information that we had at the time? Maybe. He and the Clinton Administration did recognize bin Laden and al Qaeda as a significant threat. It’s doubtful that Gore could have prevented 9/11, however. Would this have resulted in a prolonged war in Afghanistan? I think it is probable that that result would have largely been the same. War animus was pretty high at the time.
Here’s the kicker, though. Does a Gore Administration declare war against Iraq? No. Right here is the payout. The Iraq War was a catastrophe. Thousands of Americans killed. Countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqis slaughtered. The entire region destabilized. ISIS. The regional conflict between Iran, which was empowered by the Iraq War, and Saudi Arabia, currently being played out in a growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. This one simple difference between Gore and Bush, namely the latter’s mindless animus toward Iraq, meant an increase in world suffering that could have been avoided.
This analysis can be extended to other areas. Environmental regulations and clean energy policy. Infrastructure. Surely the Great Recession would have happened regardless, but a country that had not expended so many resources in Iraq may have been in a better position to forestall the enormity of the crisis. There are quite a few analytical leaps we have to take to try to look at the alternatives. History does not reveal its couldhavebeens. A safe evaluation of some of the basics, however, should suffice to confirm that a Gore presidency would have been a better option, at least for those of us on the left.
It would not have been a Nader presidency, but a Nader presidency was not going to happen. Strategically, voting for Gore would have been the better option. From the left, more progress could have been made fighting offensively against a Gore presidency than fighting defensively against Bush. Strategically, offense is the better logistics for making progress.
Fast forward to 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost by a nose hair (yes, despite the popular vote–whatever). This was her election to lose, and…she lost it. Why? She lost for much the same reason that Al Gore did under similar circumstances. She just couldn’t get progressives to show up for her. There was disappointment over Bernie Sanders, culminating in claims of a “rigged primary.”¹ There was Hillary’s history as a pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street, hawkish neoliberal. Overall, Voters were suspicious of her reliability. After all, she and her husband were masters of the Blue Dog strategy of triangulation, which invariably meant pulling the Democratic Party to the right. Despite the fact that the Clinton Campaign had adopted one of the most progressive platforms in decades, progressives really didn’t trust that she wouldn’t tack to the right the minute the political winds prevailed in that direction.
How’s that decision looking now? Think about the hypotheticals.
Does President Clinton pull out of the Paris Agreement, the Iran Agreement? No.
Does President Clinton unsettle our allies and calm the nerves of tyrants like Vladimir Putin? No
Does President Clinton wantonly start potentially destabilizing trade wars? No.
Most crucially, does President Clinton create concentration camps for children and militarize the border against refugees fleeing murder and rape?
Now, most recently, does President Clinton’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court overturn Roe?
Many of the conservatives I know claim that they never liked Donald Trump. They only voted for him because Hillary Clinton was so much worse. I believe they are largely full of it.
That being said, many of us really did vote for Hillary because the prospects of a Trump presidency were just horrible. And it has turned out that that assessment was correct. The difference between those on the right who claimed that they only voted for Trump because…Hillary…and those of us who voted for Hillary because…Trump…is that those of us on the left who voted for Hillary were prepared to pull the lever for her on Tuesday, and start fighting her on Wednesday. The same cannot be said about those who voted for Trump with similar feelings about Hillary. They’ve largely gotten in line behind the candidate they claim to have disliked.²
Strategically, wouldn’t it have been better to fight offensively against Hillary than our current, desperate, defensive posture? At this point, we are forced to take to the streets to in defense of basic human questions that should have long since been settled. We are expending political energy on keeping children out of concentration camps, for God’s sake. Never mind trying to get single payer or publicly funded college. We are fighting just to preserve protections for pre-existing conditions…and losing!
I feel you! I didn’t like voting for Hillary. I did like voting for Nader. The learning curve resulting from the 2000 election, however, was pretty steep. I learned that, for the left, presidential politics isn’t about ideological purity. It can’t be. We will always lose on that front. Presidential politics is chess in which your every move is premised on your endgame. And that endgame is a long game. We will almost certainly not see the fruits of this game as it is played out, but each vote is a step.
For instance, if we really want a single-payer health care system, then voting for Hillary Clinton gets us closer to that goal. Would Hillary Clinton have supported a single payer system? Of course not! But President Clinton does strengthen Obamacare; she could have been made to expand Medicaid and Medicare, maybe even a public option. At the end of a Clinton Administration, we are that much closer to the goal of single-payer. And who knows. Nobody could have predicted Obama’s change of heart on same-sex marriage, but the political winds and the mounting social pressure made it happen. The same could have been true under Clinton.
What is certain, however, is that progressive goals under Trump have been put back at least four years, if not more. As it stands, we are very close to the creation of a Trump Supreme Court that could strike down every single progressive policy, past, present, and future, for the next forty years or more. All because progressives couldn’t bring themselves to think about the long game.
- Anybody with any experience in primary politics knew that the Democratic Primary would be rigged for the establishment candidate. Bernie knew that going in. The Democratic Party was certainly going to support the Democratic stalwart that was Hillary Clinton over a candidate who was not even a member of the party. Was the system rigged? Sure. Was it rigged in any way that was not predictable to the Bernie campaign? No. The left needs to get over it.
- The next time someone claims that they only voted for Trump because Hillary was so terrible, ask which Democrat could have changed their minds about voting for Trump had they run. I will wager you will not get an answer. That’s because they were going to vote for Trump regardless of who the Democratic candidate was. Same cannot be said for Hillary voters. How would the calculus have changed had Marco Rubio or Jeb! been the nominee? Or even a McCain or Romney.