If, as seems likely but by no means certain, George W. Bush takes office as the next president, while the Republicans hold a one-vote margin in the Senate and control the House of Representatives by about four seats, this will be the strangest victory of any political party in our nation's history. The Republicans will have won control of federal power while losing the popular vote for the presidency, seats in both chambers of Congress, and eight of 11 races for governor. Exit polls indicate no enthusiasm for the tax cut that was Bush's priority in the campaign.
Another Republican cause, educational vouchers, was resoundingly defeated in two state referenda. And the results of the presidential contest itself, hinging on disputed votes and irregularities in Florida, could end up seeming tainted. A split and potentially stalemated Congress, no party mandate, no presidential legitimacy--the Republicans may have won the election, but they have not won over the country.
Still, if they accept that they have no mandate to govern alone, the Republicans may be better off than if they had won a thumping victory and overreached once in office. In the campaign, Bush could get away with proposing a big tax cut and partial privatization of Social Security without adding up the costs. Once those proposals have to be spelled out, the contradictions will become unavoidable. But the new Congress is likely to spare Bush a rendezvous with reality by denying him his full tax cut and deferring action on private Social Security accounts. If the Republicans gracefully decide to move ahead on other issues that enjoy more bipartisan support, they will be far more likely to build on their narrow victory.
But how did the Republicans manage to win the election without enjoying majority support? There is a simple, numerical answer to that question: Ralph Nader siphoned off enough votes to deprive Al Gore of a clear-cut victory and to tip several states to Bush. Even a small proportion of Nader's nearly 100,000 votes in Florida could have decided the election there in favor of Gore. Exit polls indicate that if Nader hadn't been in the race, Gore would have won New Hampshire, which went to Bush by a margin of 1 percent, as well as Oregon and New Mexico, which still hang undecided as I write. And Nader very nearly tipped Wisconsin and Iowa.
Nader's denials of the obvious have been as weird and disingenuous as so much else about his campaign. If he didn't intend to be a spoiler, why did he spend so much time in swing states? Why didn't he tell his supporters to vote for him only in states where either Gore or Bush had large margins in pre-election polls?
Nader himself has indicated that in the future he and the Greens hope to ruin the candidacies of Democrats, including progressives. "This is war," he said in an interview in the October 30 issue of the left-wing magazine In These Times. "After November, we're going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democrats in a particular district] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They've got to lose people, whether they're good or bad." David Moberg, who conducted the interview, goes on to report that "Nader is willing to sacrifice progressives like [senators] Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or [Paul] Wellstone [in Minnesota]."
Could conservatives dream of a better ally?
In my own district in New Jersey this year, the Greens were already following Nader's strategy. The district had long been in Republican hands when a liberal Democrat, Rush Holt, won it by a bare majority in 1998. But this year, one of the people he defeated two years ago in the Democratic primary--a man with a personal fortune who, ironically, is the son-in-law of the president of the World Bank--came back as the Green candidate, waging an intense, almost entirely negative campaign against Holt. For a while on election night, the Greens' 2 percent of the vote seemed enough to tip the election to the Republicans. But, as I write, the tally has Holt winning by 263 votes out of nearly 300,000 cast.
It does not seem to have dawned on Nader that by trying to defeat Democrats in general elections, he and the Greens are alienating the very constituency they need to attract. Once a hero to liberals, Nader is now reviled by them for his role in helping Bush. On election night, the normally placid Michael Dukakis said that if Nader tipped the election, "I'll strangle the guy with my bare hands." Former Governor Dukakis has always been against capital punishment, but like a lot of Democrats, he is willing to make exceptions.
Nader also does not seem to grasp how other people interpret his statements that progressives would benefit from a Republican victory. He cites the growth in membership of the Sierra Club under Ronald Reagan's reactionary Secretary of the Interior James Watt. But if being a progressive means making things worse so as to gain power later, who would want to be such a progressive? According to Nader, the Green Party will now become the "watchdog" of the other parties. It's time liberals became much tougher watchdogs of the Greens, who are a new version of a very old, sectarian left that most of us thought died long ago. They have come back from the grave trying to pull Democrats in with them, but their resurrection should be brief. ¤