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Choosing between bad and worse

Monday, August 16, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

The fact that there are still Canadians willing to camp overnight outside a bookstore in order to meet former U.S. President Bill Clinton is indicative of the high regard in which he is held by many in this country. But, listening to Clinton’s recent remarks at the Democratic National Convention, my own admiration for his speaking skills was tempered by a much greater sense of lost promise.

It wasn’t just the fact that, as Maclean’s columnist and self-described “Clinton fan” Paul Wells wrote, “Clinton betrayed his incandescent talent in office, sinned and lied and lost three years digging himself out of the mess he made.” It was more that, for all of his talent, fine words and seeming good intentions, Clinton simply never delivered in a meaningful way on the many progressive initiatives that he promised and that millions of people inside and outside America hoped for.

It is instructive to contrast some of his comments at the convention to the actions that he took while in office:

a.. According to Clinton, “he (George W. Bush) and his congressional allies made a very different choice: to use the moment of unity to push America too far to the right and to walk away from our allies, not only in attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors finished their jobs, but in withdrawing American support for the Climate Change Treaty, the International Court for war criminals, the ABM treaty, and even the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” But, the ongoing Iraq War was not and is not opposed by most American Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. And, while in office, it was Clinton who stalled on ratifying Kyoto (making it possible for his successor to stop ratification altogether), who routinely bombed Iraqi cities to enforce the unilateral “no fly zone”, who destroyed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory based on the same kind of flimsy evidence that Bush used to support his invasion of Iraq, and who refused to support the convention banning landmines.

a.. Clinton contends that “Democrats favo(u)r shared responsibility, shared opportunity, and more global cooperation. Republicans favo(u)r concentrated wealth and power, leaving people to fend for themselves, and more unilateral action.” But, wasn’t it the Clinton administration that spearheaded draconian welfare changes that have kicked millions of Americans off the welfare rolls to fend for themselves?

In many ways, Clinton’s many limitations are emblematic of a much wider problem in American politics: that the range of choices available to voters is limited to bad and worse. Just as Clinton tried to please everyone with his hypocritical policy on gays in the military (“Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”), current Democratic nominees John Kerry and John Edwards are trying to straddle the fence on the issue of gay marriage. They oppose the ill-fated constitutional amendment that would make it impossible for same sex couples to get married, but they do so based solely on their support for “states’ rights” (which are apparently more important that human rights). Last week, after Missouri voted to amend its state constitution to ban gay marriage, Edwards told reporters that he and Kerry had “no objection” to the decision because, “We’re both opposed to gay marriage and believe that states should be allowed to decide this question.”

When Americans are confronted with a real progressive, such as the (admittedly flawed) Al Sharpton, they often don’t know what to make of him (or her). After Sharpton delivered a passionate and substantive speech at the convention, reporters were absolutely unanimous in their condemnation. On MSNBC, Howard Fineman of Newsweek said he was “very surprised, given the way the Kerry campaign has tried to control and modulate this message here. They didn't need to do this tonight.... He is the only guy -- he could actually turn off the black vote, yes I think, frankly, it's an insult. It's an insult, I think, as an outsider, to African-American voters that they're giving this guy as much time as they are.” The “analysis” by media outlets was of the same calibre, but no one actually bothered to pay attention to the substance of what Sharpton actually said (or why exactly it was “insulting” to African-Americans – or anyone else).

That said, the consequences of another four years of George W. Bush – for both America and the world – are just too awful for progressive Americans to contemplate doing anything other than getting behind Kerry and Edwards. Writing in The American Prospect, former Clinton Labour Secretary Robert Reich argues that a second term for this administration would be “far worse” than the first. “Nothing is more dangerous to a republic than fanatics unconstrained by democratic politics. Yet in a second term of this administration, that's exactly what we'll have.”

Progressive Americans, get ready to hold your nose as you vote for John Kerry. Then, if you’re successful in getting him elected President, get ready to grind your teeth.


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