Let's Grant Amnesty to Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader's name has mercifully dropped from the headlines. Democrats are so enraged at George W. Bush's attempt to run the clock on a recount that Bush, rather than Nader, has become the object of Democrats' wrath.

It's probably premature, but I'd like to be the first to propose an amnesty for Ralph.

By way of disclaimer, I voted for Gore. Like many other liberals, I did so with little enthusiasm. That wasn't Nader's fault, it was Gore's.

I also thought Nader's campaign was misconceived, and in the end mischievous. As ill feeling rose between Nader and the Democrats, it became clear that many Greens and perhaps Nader himself hoped that Bush would defeat Gore.

Nader deliberately chose to campaign in the tightest battleground states. In the end, Gore squeaked through in all of them, thanks largely to the loyalty of the labor movement. If indeed Gore lost the election, he lost it in Tennessee and Florida, both states where Nader did not campaign actively and where labor is relatively weak.

The Nader campaign promoted the idea that liberal Democrats in safe Gore states should help the Greens qualify for federal funding in 2004. But why should practical liberals want more such mischief four years hence - more electoral votes, House and Senate seats tipped to the Republicans?

In our system with winner-take-all elections, third parties have a nearly impossible time gaining a foothold. In Germany, by contrast, the Greens have matured into a constructive political force. But in the German parliamentary system, five percent of the total vote gets you seats in the national legislature. In ours, Greens mainly split the liberal vote.

Further, the promise that Nader would draw new people into politics was not realized. Overall turnout remained near an all time low. It was African-American turnout that rose.

Having established my bona fides as someone who thought Nader's campaign ill conceived, I still think nothing will be gained by ostracizing him.

For one thing, Nader raises issues that ought to be mainstream issues, which most Democratic politicians including Al Gore ignore. Don't we need universal health insurance? Universal day care for kids? A more progressive tax system? A serious assault on global warming? A strategy for getting big money out of politics? A true commitment that everyone who works should earn a living wage?

A Democrat who ran, with passion, on such a platform could bring public opinion along with him (or her.) But Al Gore didn't. If Democrats fail to keep these causes alive, and instead keep cultivating the people with the big bucks, they are practically begging for third party candidates.

Secondly, Nader and his affiliates have done extraordinary work on behalf of the public interest for nearly 40 years. To take just one example, the latest major drug recall - the third this year - was stimulated by Public Citizens' Health Research Group. Hundreds of thousands of people didn't die in auto accidents, thanks to Nader.

Nobody in public life has done a better job of explaining why, in a vibrant capitalist economy, there still need to be constraints on the power of corporations. Nobody has been a better advocate of engaged citizenship. No one has better illuminated the dark side of globalism.

Nader, for his part, has been shocked, perhaps naively, at the vehemence of the liberal rage. Some of his people are reciprocating by insisting there is little meaningful difference between the Republican right and progressive Democrats.

Nader told me that, after more than three decades, he just got fed up with establishment politicians, many of them Democrats, blocking progress on reform after reform, as politics in this country has become more corporate. Maybe he exaggerates, but you can understand his frustration.

I hope he doesn't run for president again, at least not as a Green. But I value Nader as a force for good.

Now, if he had run as a Democrat, that would have been something. Nader would not have been denied debate coverage; he and Gore could have gone head to head on crucial public issues that never got a proper airing; and an energized Gore would likely have beaten Bush cleanly with no third-party spoiler. However, Nader chose a different course. Now he is living with the consequences.

But it would be unfortunate, even tragic, if Nader ended his long and constructive career by being written off as a pariah or, worse, a crank. Lord knows, if George W. Bush does take office, he and the liberals will need each other.

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