I would like to put in a kind word for Ralph Nader.
To the extent that Al Gore has lately gained some traction by campaigning as a Trumanesque progressive, we have Nader substantially to thank. You don't have to agree with all of Nader's views, or even to think he is serious presidential timber, to appreciate how he has energized this campaign.
Conventional politicians and commentators seem to think the two major parties have a God-given right to have no serious minor candidates complicating their lives. They take offense that Nader and Pat Buchanan run at all.
Our Constitution and the winner-take-all electoral system certainly bias American electoral politics against third parties. That has contributed to America's political stability. But whenever the two major parties are oblivious to issues that trouble voters (slavery, corporate abuses, insecurity in old age, excess deficits), third parties have played a very useful role, if only to refocus major-party attention on submerged issues that matter.
For example, Nader gets blasted as a simple protectionist. But he is really challenging the rules of engagement between our own democratic society and the undemocratic global economy - not whether to trade at all. This is a compelling issue that both major parties have placed off limits.
Commentators have been ferocious in their denunciations of Nader. Paul Krugman, the MIT economist and New York Times columnist, recently took Nader to task for being obsessively anticorporate. He specifically condemned efforts by Public Citizens Health Research Group to get the FDA to ban Feldene, an anti-inflammatory drug that Krugman says he uses for relief of his arthritis.
To block opportunities for corporate profit, Krugman wrote, he is quite willing to prevent patients from getting drugs that might give them a decent life and prevent a moderate who gets along with business from becoming president. Krugman added that Nader started out as a moderate and humane consumer activist, but somewhere along the way he became an over-the-edge radical.
Apart from sounding uncannily like Gore campaign spin, Krugman is just wrong on the facts. Take Feldene. (Actually, don't take it.) Nader's Health Research Group filed a petition in 1995 requesting the FDA to ban Feldene because of clear health hazards. The petition, citing eight published studies, pointed out that piroxicam (the generic name for Feldene) was associated with 299 deaths, including 144 involving serious gastric adverse effects such as ulcers, perforations, and bleeding.
Feldene is still available, but its use has declined dramatically because doctors increasingly prescribe safer substitutes. Krugman should consult his rheumatologist (assuming his health plan lets him see one) and drop Nader a thank-you note.
It is misleading to blast one candidate as anticorporate and praise another for getting along with business. In a fiercely capitalist democracy, we can want business to succeed as an engine of innovation, jobs, and economic growth but still be very vigilant about corporate abuses. As Nader found four decades ago when he first questioned GM's Corvair, corporations can play very rough.
Indeed, the most amusing of Krugman's slurs is that Nader used to be a moderate. Having worked briefly for him in the early 1970s, I can report that Nader was exactly the same constructive radical then that he is now. Once radical reformers like Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, or Cesar Chavez are safely dead, we tend to sanitize them in national memory as the moderates they weren't. For that sort of mythology, Nader is inconveniently alive.
In this campaign, as in Harry Truman's, the big issues are turning out to be ones of class. Should we use the budget surplus to bestow tax cuts mainly on the wealthy or pay for broad benefits like prescription drug coverage? Should we rein in for-profit HMOs or let the profit motive dictate what kind of health coverage people get? Should we let corporate donors take over politics itself? Gore, who gets along with business, is now saying that in some respects corporations need to beleashed for the public good.
Nader recently observed that in the famous ''Give 'em Hell'' campaign of 1948, Truman, a centrist,turned populist only after former Vice President Henry Wallace ran as a third-party progressive to Truman's left. Wallace was polling as high as 12 percent, Nader told me. In the end, by running as a progressive, Truman mobilized Democratic voters and held Wallace to just 1.3 percent.
Nader sounded almost as if he would be all too pleased if Gore did the same to him.