How to Deal
Dump him - just look at his record
By Jeffrey St. Clair
So, Al Gore's the man. This is hardly breaking news. The competition from Bill Bradley, who ran the most somnambulant campaign since John Glenn's sleepwalk in 1988, wasn't exactly bracing. Even so, Gore didn't escape unscathed. The plodding Bradley drew blood from an unexpected flank: Gore's reputation as an honest broker. Bradley exposed Gore as a political transvestite, a lifelong conservative Democrat who only adopts the mantle of liberalism when it's convenient (such as in Democratic primaries). He reeled off a litany of Gore flip-flops on abortion, gun control, tobacco, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, affirmative action, welfare reform and civil rights. This was, Bradley tried to remind people, the man who in his sleazy 1988 campaign race-baited Jesse Jackson and first raised the specter of Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis.
Many observers were caught off-guard when Bradley also ridiculed Gore's reputation as an environmentalist. The corporate press, lethargic as ever, snickered. "Attacking Gore on the environment is like questioning Mother Teresa's faith," said Jonathan Alter, Newsweek's chief talking head. But just as Christopher Hitchens showed that the Virgin of Calcutta was no saint, so too did Bradley have the goods on Gore - if any one would have bothered to look.
In the 1992 campaign, Gore used the environment as a sledgehammer against Bush and Quayle. One issue raised over and over was a hazardous waste incinerator slated for East Liverpool, Ohio, which Gore vowed to block. But within months of taking office, the EPA, run by former Gore staffer Carol Browner, reversed course and issued a permit for the deadly plant. This stunning betrayal was a sign of things to come. It was swiftly followed by capitulations on the Everglades, ancient forests, fuel efficiency standards, pesticides in foods, wetland protection, oil development in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, subsidies for nuclear power, organic food standards and ozone-depleting chemicals. And on and on.
Connoisseurs of Gore's career aren't shocked by any of this. His voting record on environmental matters during his tenure in the House and Senate was mediocre by any standard and downright miserly when compared to his fellow Democrats. Gore, ever ready with an excuse, puts the blame on his home state of Tennessee, which he suggests was somewhat backward in environmental matters. But the people who know Gore best say he was rarely if ever there for them on pressing matters on the homefront, ranging from strip-mining to radioactive contamination at Oak Ridge to the pollution of the Pigeon River by Champion International. "More often than not, Al Gore sided with the polluters against the people," says Maddy Cochrane, a longtime environmental organizer in Chattanooga. "Gore follows the money."
When confronted with the zigzagging pattern of his positions on these matters, Gore becomes petulant, putting on a wounded expression. Moments after he learned that Friends of the Earth had endorsed Bradley, Gore was on the phone to the CEOs of the other big green groups, claiming that he had been personally hurt by the decision. The ploy worked. Within days, executives from the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council issued statements vouching for Gore's green bona fides and chiding Friends of the Earth for its political heterodoxy.
The move by the big groups to provide cover for Gore dismays America's premier green, David Brower. "Environmentalists and progressives cannot endorse rhetoric and that's the greenest thing we have seen from the vice president," says Brower, chairman of Earth Island Institute. Gore hopes to pin the responsibility for the lame record of the last eight years on Clinton. But it won't sell. Clinton was indifferent to environmental issues and gave Gore free rein on green matters. The Gore team ran the show from the beginning.
Aside from Browner, Katie McGinty, another Gore Senate aide, headed the powerful Council on Environmental Quality until last year. Former Gore staffers were also at the Department of Energy, the Commerce Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Gore intimate Tim Wirth, the former senator from Colorado, served as assistant secretary of state for the environment, where he spearheaded the outrageous move to loosen protections for dolphins from industrial tuna-fishing fleets. Then there's George Frampton, who became assistant secretary of interior, resigned in 1997, served for a year as Gore's lawyer during the campaign finance scandal, then went back to work in the administration in McGinty's old position at the CEQ.
The vice president himself has been caught red-handed on several occasions going to bat for corporations against the interests of environmentalists. A little-reported example is Gore's fervent efforts on behalf of Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical giant. The vice president made a series of forceful calls to heads of state, including the leaders of Ireland and France, stressing his opposition to move by the European Union to ban import of genetically engineered seeds and food products.
The lesson of Al Gore's political career is that he is a craven opportunist, not an ideologue. He gravitates toward the side that offers him the greatest advantage. Now that Bradley has been vanquished and the key progressive constituencies already sewn up, watch Gore start his natural migration back to the right, stiff-arming blacks, working people and greens all the way. By the time he gets to Los Angeles in August, he'll be reading from the DLC pro-business playbook once again.
The environmentalists could throw a monkey-wrench in Gore's plans by massing their support behind Ralph Nader's run on the Green Party ticket, making it clear that they did so mainly because Gore was AWOL on the environment when it counted most. Nader won't win, but he could garner just enough votes to make Gore lose key states such as California, New York and Washington. Inflicting this kind of political pain is the only sure way to get Gore's attention.
As Brower says: "It's time to start standing up for what we stand on."
Jeffrey St. Clair is a contributing editor of In These Times.
By Lois Marie Gibbs
The answer to Gore's broken promises and dismal voting record is not to say, "let's vote for Ralph Nader who won't win anyhow." That's a cop-out. What can we possibly gain from this thinking? Our options are not limited to voting for a candidate who has let us down, or to disengage from the process and only participate by casting a "protest" vote. We have a third choice: Approach the elections with a focused, hard-hitting strategy to push the issues we care about.
The history of how social-change organizations operate in the political arena gives us a clue as to why Gore and many others before him broke their promises and changed their positions. Over the years, many environmental organizations have kept quiet during elections because "we didn't want to hurt our candidate." Groups have ignored or even supported bad platforms because they wanted to make sure they had access if the candidate was elected. And some environmental leaders have pleaded with local people not to protest or disrupt the "good" candidate's rallies and campaign headquarters. We just roll over because some people think the risk of Democrats losing to Republicans is too high for us to stand our ground.
For example, in October 1996, one month before the presidential election, more than 100 groups from around the country wanted to place a full page ad in USA Today asking President Clinton to evacuate 358 families living on top of a severely contaminated site in Florida. But most of the large mainstream environmental organizations refused to sign on, arguing that such an ad could seriously wound the Clinton re-election campaign in Florida. Directors of these organizations personally called me, warning that "we need to be careful about criticizing Clinton and we don't want to give ammunition to the other side." But the ad ran, the community was given resources to evacuate, and Clinton didn't lose.
The social justice movement is caught in an all too predictable cycle - "play nice" during campaigns and then make excuses for the broken promises and bad behavior of the officials we supported. We scratch our heads, wondering why officials we supported continue to sell us out on the many issues we care about. If we want to take that route again this election year and into the next administration, then we should do as Jeffrey St. Clair suggests and enter a "protest" vote for Ralph Nader, or just vote for Gore and pray for the best.
But there is third way. I suggest that we play hardball throughout the campaign and into the new administration. We need to let Gore know that if he wants to be elected, then he needs to earn our votes, not just assume that we'll continue the failed game of supporting candidates who later sell us out. Nader doesn't have to serve as a receptacle in which to dump protest votes at the end of the campaign. He can play a critical role by raising the bar of what is discussed in the campaign and by forcing the other candidates to talk about the issues that matter to us. He could make the incinerator in East Liverpool a campaign issue. If Gore felt enough public pressure from Nader and groups across the country, he'd see to it that the incinerator was shut down before November. In doing so, he could start to earn our votes.
Nader could turn into the John McCain of the general election - with our help. He could raise the issues of campaign finance reform, gun control, genetic engineering and the effect of environmental chemicals on children's health. Nader's candidacy provides the opportunity - that we would be foolish to ignore - to force Gore and Bush to address the issues we care about during the campaign. After all, what do we win when we settle for someone who betrays us, or disengage and miss the opportunity for public discussion of issues during the campaign? St. Clair is right about Gore's record, however his answer to the problem will only give us four more years of the same. We need a new approach. We need to stop being afraid to demand what we want from candidates. Let's counter big money and business as usual with smart, ground-level organizing that demands accountability on our issues for every candidate for every office.
Lois Marie Gibbs is the executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.