Why Is Everybody Picking on Poor Ralph?
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In the space of a week, Congressional Black Caucus members in a closed-door meeting verbally mugged Ralph Nader; a legion of his progressive pals called him an egomaniac, spoiler, ingrate, a has-been and much worse; and Michigan Democrats threatened to file a federal election complaint against his campaign, charging that he had Republican help to get on the ballot. They hammer poor Ralph for one reason; they are scared stiff that he will dump President Bush back in the White House.
At first glance, it's not a bad fear. Some polls show that a significant percentage of voters like Nader. And despite Nader's repeated and defensive claim that Democratic Presidential contender Al Gore's political bumbles, not his spoiler candidacy, cost him the White House in 2000, if he hadn't been on the ballot in Florida and New Hampshire, Gore might have squeaked by in the popular vote, and won the White House.
But personal and political insults, harassment, and fears aren't reasons for Nader to quit the race. Early political polls are more a measure of a candidate's name recognition than voter preference. Nader is well known from his many years as a crusading consumer advocate and political candidate. Yet in a tight contest between Bush and Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, with the country hopelessly polarized between Democrats and Republicans, and with a dwindling pool of swing votes, Democrats will vote for Kerry whether Nader is on the ballot or not.
If anything, with Nader on the ballot, it could spur even more Democrats to rush the polls to offset the damage they fear he will do to Kerry. A swelled Democratic turnout could help elect more Democrats that are locked in tight Congressional races with Republicans. In "safe Democratic states" such as California and Massachusetts, there is no risk in voting for Nader.
There's also much truth in Nader's charge that Gore cost himself the White House. Gore's languid, uninspired campaign did not energize core Democrats, that is liberals, blacks, and Latinos, nor skillfully craft a message of values, responsibility and economic fairness that stirred moderate white voters in the South. This cost him the four Southern states, including his own state of Tennessee that his former boss Bill Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996.
If Gore had bagged West Virginia, long considered a safe Democratic state, with its five electoral votes, Gore would have won the White House. Every Democratic presidential contender in the past two decades, including Michael Dukakis, who was creamed by Bush Sr. in the 1988 presidential election, carried the state. Bush beat Gore by forty thousand votes in the state. Nader got only ten thousand votes. Nader can't be blamed for the Democrat's inexcusable political failure there and elsewhere.
Nader's message is that the Democrats and Republicans are clubby good ole' boy parties tightly controlled by big money special interest groups, fat cat lobbyists, and labor bureaucrats, and that the Democrats have shamelessly groveled to Bush on domestic issues, and caved in on the war. The same big money conglomerates and industry PACs that bankroll Bush also bankroll Kerry. He has also been every bit the saber rattler as Bush in calling for big increases in military and intelligence spending, and preemptive military strikes. He has waffled on doing away with the Patriot Act, courted the gun lobby and promised vigorous dialogue with the right.
But the best reason that Nader should run, beside the fact that it's his right, is that he will be the only presidential candidate that will stress rigid environmental protections, corporate responsibility, massive funding on public education and health care, a minimum wage increase, and a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. He will also stress long overdue, and much needed campaign reform. That would include more public funding, same day voter registration, equal access to TV time for qualified independent candidates, and instant run offs. He would also rekindle the debate on proportional representation.
In the 2003 recall campaign against California Governor Gray Davis, voters got a rare chance to hear the voices and views of independent, non-traditional candidates on the campaign stump, and on TV that they would not otherwise have had a prayer of hearing or seeing. This was unvarnished democracy, and it momentarily stirred the thousands that had long since abandoned the polling place out of anger and disgust at the stranglehold that special interests have over the two parties.
If Nader stays in the race, he will draw the wrath of Democrats and earn the permanent tag of spoiler or worse. But if Kerry does his job and fires the passions of Democrats, and they turn out in big numbers, that might be enough to top Bush. Then Nader won't matter. So stop picking on poor Ralph.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the publisher of The Hutchinson Report Newsletter, an on-line public issues newsletter.