As we go to press, polls show Al Gore running as much as eight points behind George W. Bush nationally, and behind among every major age group except for voters over 65. This is truly remarkable. The economy is strong, the Republicans got the worst of the impeachment scandal, there are no serious foreign-policy problems, and Bush is a palpable lightweight. Voters ought to be increasingly appalled the better they get to know him. But this isn't happening.
There are two pretty clear inferences. The vice president is a god-awful candidate; and as Robert Reich suggests [see "The Real Risk for Gore," page 56], Gore is making a disastrous mistake by running on cautious themes unlikely to animate either base voters or swing voters. The needless party split provoked by the administration's insistence that China had to become a full World Trade Organization (WTO) member this year only diminishes one reliable source of party energy and activism, the resurgent labor movement.
While the polls will doubtlessly seesaw between now and the election, there is a wild card--actually, there are two--that could spell even deeper trouble for Vice President Gore: the candidacies of Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Unlike the last time he nominally ran, Nader is running a serious campaign. He will be on the ballot in well over 40 states, he is raising money, and he has campaigned on the ground in more than 30 states just since April. He is at something like 5 percent nationally in the polls and could well outpoll the other third-party candidate, Pat Buchanan.
Superficially, this sets up a race something like the one in 1948, when Democratic incumbent Harry Truman had to contend with not just the favorite, Republican Tom Dewey, but Strom Thurmond of the breakaway States' Rights Party to his right and the Henry Wallace Progressives to his left. Thurmond actually carried four states, and Wallace drained enough Truman votes to tip New York, Michigan, and Maryland to Dewey. Miraculously, of course, Truman won anyway. He grew more animated as the campaign wore on.
By every indicator to date, Gore is no Truman. Yet, as Lars-Erik Nelson's book review ["Being Al Gore," page 50] suggests, he is probably as well prepared as any candidate for president in a long time. It remains to be seen whether he can make himself over, one more time, into both a passionate candidate and a progressive one. Nader's people say that every progressive vote that Gore loses to Nader is Gore's own fault.
Further, although both Buchanan and Nader will likely be fenced out of the official presidential debates by the 15 percent rule (the major parties' never-again memorial to Ross Perot), one could imagine Buchanan and Nader staging their own debates, with a bored press and maybe even CNN as well as C-SPAN paying attention. These debates might well be a lot more feisty and edifying than the official ones since Nader and Buchanan have less to lose. If nothing else, they would give the lie to the media cliché that Nader and Buchanan are two similar loops in the same lunatic fringe. It would actually be useful to have a national conversation on the terms of engagement between the American democracy and the corporate global economy (you won't get such a conversation from Bush and Gore). Nader is for a regulated brand of capitalism and an enriched democracy. Buchanan is for laissez-faire and doesn't like foreigners. Whenever he is forced to parse the policy implications of his supposed concern for American workers, Buchanan becomes oddly tongue-tied as soon as the subject moves beyond tariffs and immigration restrictions.
Can any of this jump-start the vice president's faltering campaign? Possibly--and it's not clear what else can.
Speaking of globalism, the China vote will likely go down to the wire. This issue of the Prospect has four articles on different facets of the China question. James Mann's cover story, one of the most important we've published, traces how U.S. official thinking has gotten China disastrously wrong, time after time. The common element is a self-deception about how easy it will be for Western influence to change China. (U.S. policy makers made similar mistakes about Japan and Vietnam, among other Asian nations.)
If the administration, powered by Clinton's bizarre tactical alliance with House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, does win the China vote, Mann forecasts that disillusion will soon set in. For China, with its risk of mass unemployment, cannot possibly afford the kind of instant marketization that American economists and corporations commend and that WTO membership is sup-posed to command. (This is precisely why gradual, conditional membership would have made more sense.) If the administration loses, it will be a foreign-policy setback of the White House's own making--and a short-lived one. Even if Beijing does fail to get full permanent normal trade status this year, China is hardly quitting the global economy. Where will they sell their goods? Jupiter? We would simply have new negotiations and probably better terms. The iron official consensus on China says less about the wisdom of the conventional approach than about the overwhelming dominance of corporate influences on bipartisan foreign-policy thinking.
Our three other writers on the WTO vote disagree on how to reconcile a global economy with a mixed economy [pages 12-17]. Jeff Faux argues for a set of social standards as part of a conditional trade regime. David Vogel thinks the WTO is the wrong instrument to deal with global trade and environmental concerns. And Joshua Micah Marshall would like to see a full-blooded version of Representative Sandy Levin's proposal for a China human rights commission. But all have one thing in common: They believe human and labor rights are a necessary concern of government, and that freer commerce, by itself, doesn't provide remedy. ¤