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By now, we all know what happens when you put a bunch of politically minded progressives in a room together: they rip each other apart. So audience members at last week’s presidential campaign panel at New York University might reasonably have expected a bloodbath: The dais was evenly divided between Gore supporters (The Nation’s Eric Alterman, NARAL’s Kelli Conlin, and U.S. Rep. Major Owens) and Naderites (Harvard’s Cornel West and welfare scholar/activist Francis Fox Piven). The topic: “Nader or Gore: Which Way Forward for Progressives?”

Instead, anyone hoping for lefty carnage would have gone home disappointed. For one thing, the speakers were upfront, informed, and articulate. (The hosts even got the right Lehrer–compared with Jim Lehrer’s weak performance in the presidential debates, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer was at once personable and persistent.)

For another, most of the Gore surrogates couldn’t really bring themselves to bash Ralph. Conlin praised the Clinton-Gore administration as “the most pro-choice administration in history,” and revisited the well-worn arguments about the Supreme Court. But, she concluded, “I can’t give you any real reason not to vote for Ralph Nader” in a state Gore seems certain to win.

Owens, fresh from a bruising primary scare against an opponent he claimed was funded by Republicans, wasn’t any rabid Gore enthusiast either, conceding that “Gore is far from the ideal candidate.” He suggested, however, that it might be worth it to choose between evils, because “you have no idea how evil the evil can get.” But Owens also endorsed the formation of a third party to the left of the Democrats–presumably not the sort of “strategic voting” Gore’s supporters have in mind.

Only Eric Alterman made strong points for the vice-president, claiming that Nader’s candidacy was “worse than futile; it’s dangerous.” During the question-and-answer session at the end of the program, Alterman cited the religious right as a model for how to organize within a party, and suggested that progressives follow a similar approach. By leaving, he argued, the Naderites would only move the Dems further to the right. But West thrilled the mostly pro-Nader audience when he asked Alterman and Owens, “If you’re willing to support [someone as right-leaning as] Gore, what Democrats wouldn’t you support?”

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