After two and half years of Barack Obama, you might think partisan Democrats would be a bit hesitant to pull out the whole 2000 election card and, perhaps, would dial back the condescension toward those underwhelmed by the choice offered them by the two major parties. Obama, after all, epitomizes everything those dime’s-worth-of-difference curmudgeons, be they Naderites or anarchists or merely observant, have been saying. While he may differ from Bush stylistically, he is substantively the same, committed to the same imperial policy of empire abroad, albeit with more of a liberal internationalist, and corporatism at home.
Surely, you’d think, given the performance of a man who once, and in the more sycophantic sectors, still is, billed as the most progressive president of our lifetime — a doubling of the troops in Afghanistan, a blatantly illegal war in Libya, billions of taxpayer dollars funneled to an unaccountable Wall Street — liberals would at least quit pretending we were but an Al Gore presidency away from a worker’s paradise.
You would, of course, be wrong:
I remember well the contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between George W Bush and Al Gore. And, indeed, there wasn’t. Both wholeheartedly embraced American military hegemony as a foreign policy and the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” approach to international economic policy. Both emphasized improved education as the key to long-term prosperity, both valorized capitalism as an engine of growth, and neither in any meaningful way challenged the various prevailing economic and social dogmas of the era. And yet looking back in concrete terms, it seems to me that the 2000 election turns out to have been one of the most consequential in American history. That’s because while both Bush and Bill Clinton pursued policies from within the paradigm of the elite American ideological consensus of the post-Cold War era they actually pursued very different policies.
I’ll say this much about Matt Yglesias, author of the above defense of the U.S. political system: at least, to his credit, he steers clear of the sneering Nader-bashing that characterizes most liberal remembrances of George W. Bush’s 5-4 victory over Gore back in 2000. That’s something. Progress, maybe.
Instead of bolstering his case with the next logical step of citing specific examples of how Bush “pursued very different policies” from Bill Clinton, though, Yglesias curiously turns to Europe. Spain’s Franco and Italy’s Mussolini were quite similar, he maintains, but the former didn’t involve his country in World War II, evidence that even minor differences between politicians “can be quite large in terms of practical consequences.”
While I give the guy props for trying to explain the difference between Republicans and Democrats by turning to two European fascists, I can’t help but think Yglesias is engaged in a red herring, shifting from the harder task of detailing the substantive differences between Bush and Clinton/Gore he asserts to the easier task of highlighting differences between leaders of two different countries with their own unique histories and political situations. The issue is whether the U.S.’s two-party system allows the possibility of major substantive differences — like don’t-get-involved-in-a-world-war substantive — between the two viable, corporate-approved candidates for the presidency or whether in fact the system precludes such a possibility by design.
Insofar as there were substantive differences between Clinton and Bush, I’d argue it’s because they served at different times, when the needs of the establishment differed. Had 9/11 happened on Clinton’s watch, you can’t tell me the guy who enforced an embargo against Iraq that, conservatively, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians — a price, you’ll recall, that was deemed “worth it” — wouldn’t have gotten his Rambo on and exorcised all those liberals-are-pussies demons for good. And Al Gore? You can’t tell me the guy who campaigned on the need for a more interventionist U.S. role in the world while his opponent, Bush, spoke of a need for a more “humble foreign policy,” wouldn’t have done the same. His running mate Joe Lieberman — allow me to repeat that, his running mate Joe Lieberman — certainly wouldn’t have been a powerful advocate for peace.
The few stylistic and the fewer substantive differences between Democrats and Republicans aside, no matter who wins the result is always the same: more war and corporatism; the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer; and a legion of pundits on both sides arguing we ought to be grateful for the dime’s worth of difference we get.