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Phoniness, calculation, and palatable hypocrisy

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The community at Corrente is now well into its second week of batting around thoughts on recent/upcoming presidential elections, so perhaps inevitably the Ralph Nader/Al Gore situation came up.

Al Gore

How Gore & The Democrats Lost the Election, Another Look

The less interesting part of that to me is the electoral calculation. Democrats like to say Nader cost Gore the election, but that’s only true if Gore was a passive figure being acted upon. If he thought Nader was costing him votes, then he could have moved to the left to recapture them. If he thought that would have cost him more votes at the other end, then he could have moved to the right. And lets face it, the universe of poachable votes from Bush was orders of magnitude larger than the universe of losable voters to Nader.

That kind of calculation, though, is not as important as the fact that Gore was phony. Now, I grant up front that phoniness is ambiguous, and what comes off as phony to me might seem genuine to you. There is a certain kind of phoniness that can be quantified though. Namely, when words are wildly at odds with actions. Gore’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention gives a great illustration of that.

It’s the most irritating political speech I’ve ever witnessed. I was incredibly put off after watching it, and it made me less inclined to vote for him, not more. The phoniness had less to do with the staged kiss with Tipper (though see below) than the vaguely populist rhetoric so plainly at odds with Clinton administration policies:

Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMO’s. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no – so families can have a better life.

I know one thing about the job of the President. It is the only job in the Constitution that is charged with the responsibility of fighting for all the people. Not just the people of one state, or one district; not just the wealthy or the powerful — all the people. Especially those who need a voice; those who need a champion; those who need to be lifted up, so they are never left behind.


So I say to you tonight: if you entrust me with the Presidency, I will fight for you.

I remember being genuinely angry as I heard that: Who are these big polluters, Al? Name three. Are they the same ones given carte blanche by NAFTA? Did gutting the safety net give families a better life? Were the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act examples of fighting for all the people? By the time he got to “I will fight for you” I wanted to throw up.

Now, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the “good soldier” argument, the idea that the vice president has to largely be on board with the president’s agenda. But a VP running for president needs either to emphasize differences with the president, or endorse the president’s approach and run on continuity.

Gore had that chance, and as his Tipper kiss perfectly symbolized, he chose to draw a contrast on matters of private sexual propriety – not policy. On the issues that mattered, Gore was a complete phony. It wasn’t that he came across as stiff or awkward, but that his rhetoric and actions simply couldn’t be reconciled. Is it any wonder why at that moment – in the full flower of DLC-endorsed neoliberal economic policy, and before the ascent of the neocon right – Nader’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” critique found an audience?

Open ended rhetoric is, to me, a key indicator of phoniness. If you believe in something strongly enough you’ll be very specific about it. That may be why the appeal of John Edwards escaped me. (Alexa put it well: Edwards “for some reason truly made my skin crawl, although I couldn’t pinpoint ‘why.'”) For all the praise he got for raising inequality with his “two Americas” narrative, he never offered the kind of detail that might have made it compelling. I felt the same way about his “somewhere in America there’s a little girl going to bed hungry” line as I did Gore’s promise to fight for me: How about some details?

The frustrating thing about Edwards is that he appeared to grasp as much – at least sometimes. In his 2004 debate with Dick Cheney he showed just how powerful specificity could be. Cheney made some generalized criticism of trial lawyers and called for caps on damages. Edwards absolutely buried him:

But we don’t believe that we should take away the right of people like Valerie Lakey, who was the young girl who I represented, five years old, severely injured for life, on a defective swimming pool drain cover.

It turns out the company knew of 12 other children who had either been killed or severely injured by the same problem. They hid it. They didn’t tell anybody. They could have fixed it with a 2-cent screw. That’s wrong.

John Kerry and I are always going to stand with the Valerie Lakeys of the world, and not with the insurance companies.

It was one of his most genuine moments on the national stage, because he basically said: Here is what I’ve done, here is why I did it, this represents the kind of values and priorities I’ll bring to the office. And he was very specific; he named names. It was an incredibly compelling argument. He never really made it a staple of his campaign style, though, either then or later. He fell back on pabulum.

But at least, unlike Gore, it didn’t seem like he would actively pursue policies that would increase inequality. If he wasn’t proposing anything substantive, at least he seemed willing to drift along if that’s where the prevailing winds blew.

That’s why one of the jobs for a voter is to decide on acceptable forms of insincerity. There’s a difference between someone who supports policies he has been actively working against and someone who supports policies he would accede to should they pass. Feeling warm and genuine kinship with a candidate is not likely to happen very often; better to figure out the kinds of hypocrisy one can live with.

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