Here they come again. As if the last two and a half years have been some sort of game show with no real consequences for America and the world, the Greens signaled at their national committee meeting this weekend that they have every intention of running a presidential candidate in 2004.
It might be Ralph Nader, they say, or it could be Cynthia McKinney, the former congresswoman from Georgia. But short of a megalomaniac whose tenuous purchase on present-day reality threatens to cancel out every good thing he's done in his life, or a discredited anti-Semite, they'll settle for someone less distinguished. The point is to siphon off Democratic votes unless the Democrats prove themselves pure enough to nominate Dennis Kucinich. This development, as I'll show later, presents a wonderful opportunity for a gutsy Democrat to ferociously and immediately attack Nader. But first some background.
During the 2000 campaign, I used to go to bed wishing that the Christian Coalition were as strategically feebleminded, and as psychologically bent on disruption at any price, as the Greens. That way the CCers would have backed Gary Bauer, the laughably unelectable hard-right family values candidate. Then, once Bauer had been winnowed out of the nominating process, they would have claimed that his defeat showed just how corrupt the Republican Party had become from its incurable need to placate the secular humanists and "banking interests." Then they would have run some nut of their own who'd have made Bauer look like Arthur Vandenburg. Finally, with a few million misguided souls behind them, including at least a couple thousand in Florida, they would have cost George W. Bush the election, no asterisks or question marks. What a wonderful world this would be.
But the Christians are far smarter than these left-wing lions of ideological chastity, and so we are where we are. I'm assuming for the sake of argument that, of Nader's 2.8 million voters in 2000, about half are lost causes -- devoted dialecticians who won't allow facts to pass through the doors of their little theoretical straw huts. But I'm hoping that the other, more rational half exists, and I address my arguments to it.
These are the three strongest arguments against voting Green, not just in swing states but on principle, in any state and under any circumstances.
First, if it was the intention of Nader voters in New York or Massachusetts (or any state Al Gore was certain to win in 2000) to send a message to the Democrats, that's an understandable and respectable intention. But as the Christian Coalition model shows, such messages are far more effectively sent inside the party than outside it -- the Greens really influence almost nothing in this country, whereas the Christian Coalition, with its power in the GOP, influences almost everything. I'd have actual respect for the Greens if they were working within the Democratic Party to take it over. You can say that's impossible, but it seemed impossible in 1958 that archconservatives could take over a Republican Party that was very accommodating to both New Deal and internationalist priorities. Within six years, though, they'd gained control of the party to the point that their guy, Barry Goldwater, became its presidential nominee. Real success took another 16 years, but to good dialecticians, there should be no hurry.
Second, some voted for Nader because they just weren't inspired by Gore personally. Fine. But it should be obvious today that a candidate's personality is one of the last things serious people ought to be thinking about. No one can survey the past 30 months and conclude, whatever the Democrats' shortcomings, that there's no difference between the parties. We would not have John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, Gale Norton, the USA PATRIOT Act, this Trotskyist war in Iraq, two major class-war tax cuts -- the list goes on and on (and on). And that's only the stuff you hear about. In every agency of government, at every level, there are political appointees who are interpreting federal rules and regulations and deciding how much effort will really be put into pursuing federal discrimination cases, for instance, or illegal toxic dumping. These are the people who are, in fact, the federal government. The kinds of people who fill those slots in a Democratic administration are of a very different stripe than the kinds who fill them during a Republican term, and the appointments of these people have a bigger effect on real life than whether Al Gore sighs too heavily or speaks too slowly.
Third, and most of all, I kept noticing in 2000 that most of the people who lectured me on how corrupt Gore was and how Nader was the courageous choice were people for whom the outcome of the election, on a personal level, didn't really matter. Some were young people, whose idealism is to be admired but who were by and large demographically insulated from some of the harsher realities of American life. But most were older, white, left bourgeoisie, tenured and cocooned in the carapace of self-righteous satisfaction, whose own lives wouldn't change much one way or the other no matter which party won. In fact, if anything, Bush's elevation was good for them personally, because they wouldn't suffer directly from federal budget cuts and were probably in a bracket that benefited from his tax cuts (as was I, but at least I had the sense to vote against my own interests). Among people who were directly affected by which candidate won, Nader was seen as the ornament of frippery that he was. I promise you, you could not have gone to the corner of Lenox Avenue and 145th Street in October of 2000 and found four Nader voters. And at that intersection and the many others in America like it, by my lights, the moral case for Nader crumbles to dust.
So here's a thought for an enterprising Democratic candidate: Attack Nader right now, and with lupine ferocity. Say he's a madman for thinking of running again. Blast him especially hard on foreign policy, saying that if it were up to the Greens, America would give no aid to Israel and it would cease to exist, and if it were up to the Greens, America would not have even defended itself against a barbarous attack by going into Afghanistan. Have at him, and hard, from the right. Then nail him from the left on certain social issues, on abortion rights and other things that he's often pooh-poohed and dismissed as irrelevant. Cause an uproar. Be dramatic. Don't balance it with praise about what he's done for consumers. To the contrary, talk about how much he's damaging consumers today by not caring who's in charge of the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Communications Commission.
This would be, for some clever Democrat, the defining Sister Souljah moment of this campaign. Except times 50, because Sister Souljah was a second-tier rapper no one had heard of and Ralph Nader is one of the most famous Americans of the last half-century. Anyone who did this would automatically look tough. The candidates are running around now saying things like, "I'll be as tough as Bush." Well, you can say that 7,000 times and it doesn't matter. You have to do something to show people you're tough. That's the only way a message like that is delivered in a campaign. Then, people will look at what you've done and say, "Hey, that guy's pretty tough."
Who should do it? That's up to them. It wouldn't have much impact coming from Joe Lieberman, because he's not hunting for any votes over there in anything close to Nader territory. It has to be someone with at least one leg in the liberal soil -- John Kerry, Dick Gephardt or Howard Dean. Yes, Dean. If Dean does this, he doesn't lose his base -- his base is pissed-off Democrats who hate Nader for 2000, so if anything, he augments his standing among them. And, of course, he sends a reassuring signal to the centrist wing of the party that fears his success; it would give them something about him to admire. He can't lose.
Nader is obviously out to kill the Democrats. The collateral damage, to regular citizens whose lives are directly affected by which party is in power, is not his concern. He has long since quit caring about that. It's time a Democrat killed back.
Michael Tomasky will become executive editor of the Prospect in September. His columns appear on Wednesdays at TAP Online.