Dear Ralph: Sorry, I'm dumping you

Ralph, old friend, this time you're going to have to lose the Presidency without my help, though I have been with you every time before. Some nasty things are being said about your decision to run again this year.

"It's his personal vanity," quoth Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, who appears to have the same trait he taxes you with, for other than attaining high office, his career accomplishments consist of a perfect void.

Others are saying it's ego that makes you do it, but whatever it is that has driven you for 40 years, we are all the better for it. The only American public figure in your lifetime who accomplished more may have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Certainly no one else who has not held public office has done so much in so many areas of life, and those who once cheered you ought not to dump on you now. Let's just respectfully disagree.

Not that I even disagree much. Your critique of the political duopoly that runs the country is spot-on. You're right about the difference, or non-difference, between the two parties. The Republicans are the high-priced call girls, the Democrats are the street hookers; and both are working Washington, which, as you say, "is now corporate-occupied territory."

You're right about many, many issues. But this time you're wrong about running, even though you'll be able to make many of us who supported you in the past squirm when you hold up George W. Bush's record and compare it to John Kerry's these past four years. Bush could even ask why Kerry is running against him, given that on so many of the big questions like war and peace, civil liberties and trade, the two have been in near-complete agreement. Instead of running against him, Bush could ask Kerry to join him, the two have so much in common.

Even so, Ralph, I'll be voting for Kerry.

You may ask why, and I'll answer that it's the swine factor: Kerry isn't one and Bush is. I say that even though I've just suggested that Kerry is among the Democratic ladies of the night. Nevertheless, character does count, and John Kerry has a good one. I know there are things he will not do when he is President dangerous, frightening things, lines he will not cross.

But I fear that there is little that George Bush is not capable of. I'm afraid of him, and I'm afraid of the people he has collected around him, the war profiteers, the stateless, off-shore billionaire businesspeople, the religious fanatics, the neocon Likudists and the black-leather-coat Delta Force personalities who dominate his government.

John Kerry is none of that. Whether he is more than simply non-Bush, we'll find out if he wins in November. If I had my druthers, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin would be the Democratic nominee. Ralph, I'm no happier than you are when I listen to Kerry claiming a halo for himself because he has taken money only from lobbyists and not from political-action committees. If most of the Democrats of the last 20 years have taken less money from the corporate bosses, it's because less has been offered.

Bush is running a regime which not only pockets everything that isn't nailed down, but is going back to the sites of their depredations with crowbars. Kerry's better than that. He is not up on top of the dome with a razor blade scraping off the gold leaf.

In announcing your candidacy, you made some good points about the importance of third parties. As you say, they have been the source of new ideas, new answers to old questions. Lest we forget, Bill Clinton made it to the White House thanks to Ross Perot's third party, whose strong run led to Clinton's balanced budget and whose voice was the loudest one warning against NAFTA. Sadly, Perot's "great sucking sound" is heard wherever jobs are exported, a practice supported by the Democrats as well as the Republicans.

Your point about third parties is especially well taken now, for until Howard Dean popped out of a Ben and Jerry's carton, it seemed as though the Democrats were content to remain out of power in what has been threatening to become a one-party system. Few people have the political savvy to understand that operatives in a permanent minority party can make a very good living off the scraps tossed their way by the permanent majority.

Before Dean, it was looking as though not very many Democrats were even willing to try to come out on top. Look at state legislatures everywhere, including New York, and you can see what kind of a cushy living members of the permanent minority can enjoy as they help the majority-party bosses collect bribes and manipulate legislatures.

All this makes it painful for me to separate myself from you this time around. I agree with almost everything you say. Yet I am going to vote for John Kerry and even send a little money, though I don't expect he will be more than non-Bush. But non-Bush is better than an American version of Vladimir Putin in the White House.

Kerry is not a boat-rocker. Judging him on his record, he will bring little change, but I'll take that in preference to Bush, who has brought change, all of it bad.

The commentators on the TV news talk about how much Howard Dean and his run for the roses did for the Democratic Party. I don't see it myself. The indefensible not to say scandalous Terry McAuliffe is still the national chairman, and John Kerry has already been exposed as entwined with Robert Torricelli, the disgraced ex-Senator from New Jersey.

Howard Dean did do something for us that is, for those of us who do not make a living racing up and down Washington's K Street extracting bribes from corporations. Dean showed us that we could take our pennies and combine them to ransom the Democratic Party from the car lobby, the drug lobby, the Israel lobby, the H.M.O. lobby and on and on. Until these politicians see that they can get elected without the backing of the worst institutional elements in the country, they will continue having a record of accomplishment inversely proportional to their vague promises. We simply have to give Kerry money to liberate him and therefore ourselves.

It's a bleak season. The odds remain in favor of Bush's re-election. The plutocracy is about to strike back with a rolling barrage of TV ads, and it has unlimited money with which to do it. The best chance for a Democratic win lies in the worst things happening to the country more war, more unemployment.

Ralph, I have to go with the Democrat, not because I respect you less, but because this is not a time of hope. It's a time of fear, and I am afraid.

This essay was originally published in the New York Observer.