Harold Meyerson: Nader has no friends on the left.
Blasting "the liberal intelligentsia" and The Nation for resisting the siren call of his campaign, Ralph Nader unveiled his candidacy on Sunday in a performance that foreshadows a presidential bid of mind-boggling irrelevance -- but with a potential for catastrophic mischief.
Nader didn't exactly draw a line in the sand between himself and his Democratic rivals on Meet the Press. Asked what he'd do in Iraq if he were president, Nader said, "We need to get the [United Nations] in there with properly funded and trained peacekeeping troops from a whole variety of countries, No. 1."
That is, he articulated the position common to the Democratic candidates for president.
He did, of course, assert that there were no very serious differences between the two parties, though host Tim Russert got him to concede that there were distinctions on such ephemera as judicial nominations, tax cuts, and environmental enforcement. The American government, Nader reiterated, was still a two-party duopoly.
Would that it were! I don't know which branch of government Nader thinks the Democrats still control, but it would hearten us all to discover some niche that Dick Cheney and Karl Rove don't dominate. Ralph, if you're sitting on a secret source of Democratic power, now is as good a time as any to let us know.
But the real differences that Nader wants to emphasize, he made clear from the get-go, are those he has with the rest of the left. Twice he outlined his differences with the left, and on each occasion, the case he made was preposterous.
First, responding to a Nation editorial and a Web site ad, both of which implored him not to run, Nader characterized these arguments from "the liberal intelligentsia" as "a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people. You never find that type of thing in Canada or Western democracies in Europe."
So, the first difference: The Nation, The American Prospect, and countless other liberal institutions and individuals understand that the electoral systems in Europe employ proportional representation. Minor-party candidacies there aren't in the zero-sum game with major party candidacies that they are here. Nader, of course, understands this, too, but unlike his liberal critics, he is indifferent to the consequences.
Second, Nader defended "third party and independent candidates" for playing a politically distinctive and necessary role. "Historically," he said, "that's where our reform has come from, in the 19th century, against slavery, women's right to vote, trade union, farmer populist progressive."
In fact, the great reforms of modern America -- workers' rights in the 1930s, civil rights in the '60s, women's rights in the '70s and '80s, environmental safeguards in the '70s, the cessation of the Vietnam War in the '70s -- were not the result of the work of the Socialist or Communist or Progressive or Peace and Freedom or Green parties. They were brought about by the pressure of autonomous social movements, which, since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, pressured (but did not set themselves up against) the Democratic Party. There's a reason why John L. Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. loom larger in our history than Earl Browder and Norman Thomas, the Communist and Socialist leaders who ran for president on their parties' tickets. (And I do not in any way other than this mean to equate Browder, a Stalinist hack, with Thomas, one of the moral giants of 20th-century America.)
In the 1930s, the Socialists and Communists instilled vision and skills in organizers whom the labor movement hired. That is, the most important contribution of third parties to modern reform is that they provided the troops and the smarts for a nonelectoral movement. Indeed, the best that can be said of the third-party reformers of 1865 to 1932 is that they paved the way for the social-movement reformers of that period that began during the New Deal.
The ability of third parties to leverage change in a winner-take-all system pales beside that of powerful, autonomous movements. The vast majority of movement activists understand this, but then Nader never was much into movement building, even at the level of rhetoric, until he ran for president. Nader's career -- and it was an honorable and brilliant one -- was to publicize some dangerous public or corporate policy, and to challenge it in Congress or the courts or the regulatory agencies. He trained attorneys and journalists, not community organizers who took it to the streets; he was more in the tradition of Thurgood Marshall than Martin Luther King Jr. Removed from movements and impervious to history, he now fantasizes a role for third parties in social change that they have not, in fact, filled in well over a century. And all that said, Nader is not even endeavoring to build a third party, but simply to run an independent candidacy!
Nader's right about one thing: His chief argument is indeed with the left. Intellectually, he has become one of the querulous correspondents who dog the letters page of The Nation in their zeal to revive some dubious old dogma. Alone among those cranks, however, he still could have the power, in a very close election, to send the world straight to hell.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.
Paul Waldman: How will Nader do in '04? Take a look at '00.
To see what effect Ralph Nader's 2004 campaign will have, we need only look at his 2000 run.
The goal of many of Nader's supporters in 2000 was to reach a threshold of 5 percent of the vote, thus guaranteeing the Green Party matching funds in the 2004 election, making it a serious player on the national scene. Not only did Nader fail to reach 5 percent, he turned the Greens into the enemies of progressives everywhere. Say you're a Green these days and the response you're likely to hear is, "Thanks for giving us George W. Bush, asshole."
The paradox for anyone supporting Nader is that, in order to sign on, you have to be a radical in the sense of viewing the entire political order as corrupt and correctable only through fundamental change. Yet at the same time, if you're going to support Nader, you have to argue that having Bush in the White House is a tolerable state of affairs.
In 2000, Nader was on the ballot in 47 states. His results ranged from a tiny half of 1 percent in Georgia (where Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne trounced him) to a remarkable 10 percent in Alaska. But the critical question is how Nader did -- and how he's likely to do -- in the "battleground" states where presidential elections are now fought.
In all, there were 15 states decided by less than 6 percent and seven states decided by less than 3 percent. Every one of these states teeters on a seesaw, with only the slightest nudge required to send it into one column or the other.
Nader got 97,488 votes in Florida. Al Gore would have been president had he gotten even 1 percent of those. In New Hampshire, too, Nader's 22,198 votes dwarfed the 7,211-vote margin by which Bush won the state. In other states, Gore barely dodged Nader's bullet. Nader got 21,251 in New Mexico, which Gore squeaked out by 366 votes. Nader got 94,070 votes in Wisconsin, which Gore won by only 5,708 votes. Nader got 29,374 votes in Iowa, which Gore won by 4,144. And Nader won 5 percent of the vote in Oregon, which Gore won by one-half of 1 percent.
The Democratic nominee will have little margin for error this year in the Electoral College, needing to hold the states Gore won in 2000 and pick up at least one of the states Bush won. It isn't hard to imagine that election night will find the presidency hinging on one or two states. Should that be the case, each Nader vote could once again loom large.
Will Nader's campaign force the Democratic nominee to move to the left? Not likely. Will it initiate a searching discussion on the role of corporate power in American politics? Don't hold your breath. Will it redeem Nader in the eyes of liberals? Not a chance. Will it help George W. Bush win a second term? It just might.
Paul Waldman is editor in chief of the Internet magazine The Gadflyer ( www.gadflyer.com ). His latest book is Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You.
Garance Franke-Ruta: Nader represents himself -- and nobody else.
At least Howard Dean was inspiring in his anger and took courageous positions early on in this political season when it mattered. That was my first reaction after watching Ralph Nader's hunched, sour, angry performance on Meet the Press. That and shock at just how conservative, for a so-called left liberal, his initial answer was to the question of whether he supports gay marriage.
"I support equal rights for same-sex couples," Nader said. "However, that can occur by adjusting state laws or having a federal law. That is certainly something that the gay-lesbian community is going to have to work out."
By now everyone knows that invoking "equal rights" is the poll-tested, socially acceptable dodge politicians use to get out of having to say the controversial phrase "gay marriage." "Equal rights" is a phrase that can mean anything, in practice, from domestic partnerships to civil unions, and is often used by everyone from John Kerry to George W. Bush.
"But gays should be allowed to be married if they so choose, according to you?" Meet the Press host Tim Russert quickly followed up.
"Of course," replied Nader.
Nonetheless, Nader's initial answer, close watchers of the Democratic primary race will note, was more cautious and dismissive than the stances routinely taken by Carol Moseley Braun, Dennis Kucinich, or Al Sharpton. The Democrats have said it is the responsibility of their party -- and not just gays and lesbians -- to argue the case for equal rights. And many have spoken out boldly and clearly for gay marriage.
Consider, too, that Nader's position on taxes and the Iraq War are virtually indistinguishable from those of Kucinich, and that Nader's critique of corporate special interests and their stranglehold on Washington is little more than a retread of tropes developed more articulately by Dean and John Edwards. His suggestions for energy-policy reform sound tired after the proposals of Kerry, Edwards, Dean and others. Even Joe Lieberman had a more detailed and realistic anti-poverty program than does Nader.
So what, exactly, is the point of a so-called left-leaning third-party candidate who is, in fact, indistinguishable from the Democrats except for in his morally unserious and dogged refusal to consider the demands of practical politics?
It's impossible to overstate just how marginal Nader is these days, even on the left. Listen to some of his reference points.
"We just can't sit back like The Nation magazine and betray its own traditions, and the liberal intelligentsia, and once again settle for the least worst," Nader told Russert.
Forget the twisted grammar; The Nation isn't pure enough for Nader! Perhaps that explains the thinking behind his bid for the presidency.
Or consider this: In deciding against running on the Green Party ticket in 2004, Nader told The Associated Press in late December that he prefers to be an unaffiliated independent because "as an independent you can do more innovative things, because you don't have to check with all the bases." One can only imagine how hard it must have been for Nader in 2000, what with all that kowtowing to those overbearing Green Party bosses and their legion of interest groups.
And yet, according to The Washington Post, the tensions within the Green Party -- where some leaders were concerned about damaging prospects for a Democrat in 2004 -- appear to have been too much for Nader's delicate sensibilities.
Now he's hoping to reach out to "conservatives who are furious with Bush over the deficit, over corporate subsidies, over corporate pornography directed toward children, over the PATRIOT Act, over many other issues" and "liberal Republicans who see their party taken away from them. They may be looking for an independent candidacy."
Nader is not a team player -- his bid this time around is not supported by the Greens or the left -- and has not been one in a very long time. "You can't just fight that from the outside the way the Center for Voting and Democracy is," Nader told Russert about our two-party system, getting in a dig at another one of the left groups he felt isn't doing enough. After his comments to Russert, it's no longer even clear that Nader is a man of the left, or that he has anything to offer disaffected Democrats that they can't find in their own party.
So why is Nader running if he's not trying to build an alternative political party or take bold (or novel) stances on controversial issues?
Maybe because he perfectly represents a tiny, dusty corner of the American political spectrum -- his own. It may be hard for the rest of us to understand. But in Nader's America, there really is only one just man.
Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor and writes its Campaign Dispatches blog.
Matthew Yglesias: Nader deserves no votes -- anywhere.
Ralph Nader seems to have little support in even the most progressive of places. Organizers of last week's United Students Against Sweatshops national conference, for example, tell me they detected little enthusiasm for a second round of spoiling.
Still, there are bound to be residents of New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Alabama, and other such places who believe they stand little chance of throwing their state to George W. Bush, so they might as well pull the lever for Nader, helping to build a movement or send a message to the Democratic Party. But a movement for what? The only effect of building a party to the left of the Democrats would be to throw not just one but every election. The Canadian right has spent the past decade or so engaged in an experiment of this sort, with the right wing of the Tory Party splitting off to form first the Reform Party and then the Canadian Alliance. As a result, the center-left Liberal Party found itself in possession of an undefeatable majority. The two parties have recently reunited. Progressive Americans can hardly afford a similar spell in the wilderness.
Nader has, moreover, managed to cut himself off from not only the Democrats but the Green Party as well. And what "message" does a Nader vote send to the Democratic Party, anyway? Just that the far left is composed of selfish, immature, unreasonable individuals with no understanding of the political process and no appetite for realistic political engagement.
A certain irreconcilable element, however, isn't interested in trying to vote strategically. In reality, though, while John Kerry (or John Edwards, for that matter) might not be an ideal leader, Nader would be a simply awful president. He is, for one thing, grossly unqualified. He has no experience in foreign or military affairs, macroeconomic management, or with tax policy. Even on the topic of consumer regulation, neither he nor Nader-affiliated groups seem to have been involved in a substantive way in key fights for several years.
On TV this Sunday, Nader was angry about the extent of corporate influence on American public policy. There is, he said, "too much power and wealth in too few hands," and "money is still pouring in from corporate interests." So does Nader have a plan to reform campaign financing? Apparently not. The issues section of his Web site likewise has nothing to say about it.
On the economic front, Nader criticized the Bush tax cuts for causing huge deficits and proposed repealing them. He also proposed spending the money gained by this repeal on "massive public works" to provide employment. A candidate who understood economics would know how to distinguish between the issue of long-term deficits (bad) and short-term ones (fine, if targeted appropriately). Nader seems to grasp neither.
On foreign policy, if he really thinks Al Gore "would have" invaded Iraq, he might want to read some of Gore's speeches on the subject. Nader says "it was oil" that motivated the Bush administration to go to war, a view that demonstrates no understanding of the neoconservative ideology that dominates American foreign policy.
Nader also spoke of the need to secure health care for more Americans. Good for him. Only Edwards has a plan that will accomplish this. Kerry has a somewhat different plan that would bring care to even more people. Even Bush has a plan that would help a few of the wealthiest uninsured. Nader has nothing to offer but vague platitudes.
Faced with a choice between Nader and Bush, I suppose Nader might count as the lesser of two evils. Fortunately, we aren't faced with that choice.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow.