Nader's No Ventura, But...

News & Politics

Ralph Nader's presidential campaign has come a long way since his June acceptance speech at the Green Party convention in Denver.

Then his audience was mainly longtime Greens in sandals and jeans, at least half of whom preferred to "twinkle" instead of clapping. His two-hour-plus rambling speech was followed by a scratchy and barely audible recording of Woody Guthrie's twanging voice singing "This Land is Your Land."

Now his sold-out super rallies feature rock stars, satirical videos, and thousands of young people who probably have never even heard of the Green Party before.

Amazingly, less than two weeks before the election, despite being locked out of the presidential debates, with one percent of the money and one percent of the media attention, Nader is experiencing a surge.

He's at 7 percent in Connecticut, 7.5 percent in California, 10 percent in Minnesota, 8 percent in New Jersey, 8 percent in Rhode Island, 10 percent in Oregon and 17 percent in Alaska. On Monday morning, Wisconsin Public Radio asked people to call in during a popular hour-long morning show to say who they were voting for and the results were 53 for Nader, 51 for Gore, 26 for Bush. My colleague John Nichols, who related this news to me, swears that most of the calls were not from Madison leftists, but rather came from all over the state and included lots of rural farmers.

This, despite a campaign operation that can charitably be described as bare-bones. Traveling with Nader for three days last week as he tooled across California, covering thousands of miles in a rental car with one 25-year-old advance man and his nephew juggling driving, logistics and keeping track of Nader's overflowing folder of clippings and speech notes, I couldn't help but marvel how this ball of chewing gum, baling wire and spit was wrenching the well-oiled gears of America's traditional presidential selection process.

How to explain Nader's surge, when Third Party candidates, especially those who lack money and media attention, traditionally fade in the last weeks before an election? One answer is that Nader's base of idealistic young people and older progressives is rallying. Certainly those are the people thronging the sold-out events I witnessed across the Golden State.

But I don't think those new voters and disaffected Democrats and '60s radicals fully describe where Nader's support is coming from. I have a theory. Bush and Gore are helping Nader. Neither Bush nor Gore are exciting the public because they can't talk about issues in a way that really grabs people without offending the corporate interests who have invested so heavily in their campaigns.

They can't talk about getting big money out of politics because they're both, as Nader likes to say, "marinated in big money."

They can't talk about universal health insurance because that would offend the insurance companies and HMOs; instead they nibble around the edges of the problem with proposals for prescription drug subsidies and tax credits.

They can't talk about giving workers a real living wage without offending big business, which has poured 15 times as much money into this year's election as labor.

Millions of Americans watched those presidential debates and they were turned off by what they heard. Again and again, Bush and Gore agreed with each other -- on the death penalty, on avoiding a national health care program, on raising the military budget. Neither breathed a word about the need to restore the safety net under poor families, or the billions wasted in corporate welfare. Their disagreements were mostly stylistic and rhetorical, or buried in the arcana of tax politics.

Call it a modest replay of the Ventura effect, wherein large swaths of voters swerve away from the two conventional candidates, dismayed at their negative attributes and manipulative behavior. Over 40 percent of the people who say they are backing Bush and Gore say they have reservations about their candidate, according to a New York Times poll.

And along comes a candidate who is well-known (at least 75 percent of the electorate know Nader's running), outspoken, honest, etc. And he begins to attract people who are disgusted by the whole process and yearning for someone fresh. Nader certainly is trying to encourage this perception, stating explicitly that he is reaching out to the people who voted for Perot, Ventura, McCain and Bradley. Though, to be honest, he still hasn't managed to discipline his tendency to dwell much more on Gore's failures than on Bush's. This could be a deadly mistake.

Of course, there's several crucial differences between Minnesota in 1998 and America in 2000. Nader won't be able to benefit from any of the progressive electoral conditions that helped Ventura: public financing, same-day voter registration, and participation in televised three-way debates. Most critically, national Democrats are not making the mistake that Hubert "Skip" Humphrey made two years ago by ignoring Ventura's appeal and even promoting him as a supposed counter to the Republican candidate.

Democrats are now attacking Nader hard, with every argument at their disposal. If Nader's campaign survives the onslaught, reaching Election Day with the Green Party goal of 5 percent of the national vote, it will not only be a commentary on the failing powers of mainstream politicians. It will be a huge shock to politics as usual.

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