Last Spin Around the Beltway

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On the last Beltway Sunday before the nail-biting presidential election, the crowded sidewalks, bars and pizza-slice joints of D.C.'s trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood buzz with campaign talk from college kids and slumming young pols. Ethiopian-born taxi drivers break down the intricacies of Michigan electoral trends, while bartenders proclaim they want to vote for Bill Clinton one more time.

And at Ralph Nader's buzzing and cluttered four-story Victorian campaign headquarters a few blocks up from K Street, the frazzled twentysomething workers spend their little free time muttering about the lack of Nader coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post -- even as their candidate was blasting the Times' extraordinary editorial campaign against him as repulsive.

The two heavyweight papers combined for more than 15 full pages of campaign coverage Sunday, none of it focusing on the Green Party presidential candidate who, according to a Washington Post survey of 14 pundit predictions, will get 4.35 percent of the popular vote.

But the New York Times editorial board Sunday did find newsprint space to batter Nader for a third time in five months, saying he "Seems at this point to be beyond the reach of reason," that his supporters need to "face the fact that the Nader candidacy represents a direct threat to a woman's reproductive freedom," and that "it is an act of supreme arrogance for Mr. Nader to consign the country to bad policies for some imagined ideological payoff down the road."

In response, Nader told NBC's Tim Russert on Sunday morning that "this is really pretty repulsive. Even a tabloid wouldn't sink to those kinds of levels. Many of my reforms that I have proposed over the years are shared by the New York Times editorials in the past. It's just inconceivable they would be so occluded by their poster-boy, Al Gore, that they could denigrate an effort to give the American people a broader choice, and broader competition."

With the race between Democrat Gore and Republican George W. Bush getting even tighter at the wire, and the Green Party candidate's support hovering perilously close to the 5 percent minimum threshold for federal matching funds, Nader was all over the Sunday editorial pages and Monday newsmagazines littering the coffee shops of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, even as he stayed out of the news pages.

Lifetime political reporter David Broder of the Washington Post wrote Sunday for the paper's op-ed page that Nader "put on the best campaign" of this election.

"Despite being shut out of the presidential debates, having meager funds and not a nickel of public financing, Nader has made himself the fulcrum of power in a half-dozen battleground states," Broder wrote. "Often in the past a nagging bore, he proved himself a quick and witty TV performer, adept at sharp sound bites. ... Nader's greatest feat was shifting his followers' focus from his impact on Election Day, when he is clearly a spoiler, to a different rationale for his candidacy: 'To establish a progressive political reform movement' that, he says 'will monitor and challenge the politicians of both parties.'"

Elsewhere in the Post, longtime Gore confidant and tutor Martin Peretz, editor in chief and chairman of the New Republic, argued that the country needs the vice president's pragmatic centrism, not the Green candidate's misguided idealism.

"Though the left won't admit it, Gore's fiscal conservatism, combined with his targeted spending to help society's most vulnerable, would do more to promote real-world equality than the extravagantly utopian schemes of Ralph Nader."

Nader staffers are still shaking their heads at Peretz' broadside in his own New Republic last week, "basically getting as close to calling him an anti-Semite without actually saying it," said Assistant Press Secretary Tom Adkins.

"[Nader] is a man without any discernible views on foreign policy," Peretz charged in the Nov. 6 issue. "Or he was until last week, when he proclaimed that Israel is entirely responsible for the recent violence in the Middle East and that Gore is 'cowardly' for not saying so. Now that the Arab-American vote matters tactically, Nader has discovered the rest of the globe, and has decided to play the lousy game of identity politics that he used to scorn."

For the record, Peretz' observations were based on Nader quotes published by which neither said nor hinted Israel is entirely responsible for the recent violence. In fact, Nader has placed blame on both sides, although his views are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than that of any presidential candidate in memory. Also, Nader has been "proclaiming" such a view since at least Oct. 17 -- not last week, as Peretz claims -- and quite possibly before that.

Russert cross-examined Nader on his Middle-East views, asking him whether he supports the Association of State Green Parties' call for the U.S. government to "stop all further U.S. aid to Israel."

"Right now it's so tension-filled, that that wouldn't be a functional thing to do," he replied. "Although I might remind you, Tim, that Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a joint address to Congress in July 1996, said he wanted to get off economic aid from the United States, because Israel's becoming a mature economy, and he wanted to be independent. And he got a rousing ovation. Now, these things should be discussed."

Whether or not he was playing "identity politics," Nader did introduce a new Arab-themed line Sunday night in his litany of complaints about what he describes as the Clinton-Gore administration's atrocious civil rights record.

"One group of immigrants is being subjected to recurrent ethnic profiling," Nader, the child of Lebanese immigrants, told a rally of around 10,000 supporters at Washington's MCI Center. "And just like the Irish came to America and were discriminated against, and then it was the Jews who were discriminated against when they came, then it was the Italians: now it's the turn of the Muslim people who come to this country, and this must also be subject to strong civil rights enforcement."

Coverage and cross-examination of Nader's campaign increased enormously after the third and final presidential debate Oct. 17, when the two candidates remained neck-and-neck and the press realized Nader's support was larger than the margin of difference between Bush and Gore.

Suddenly, Nader was a "spoiler," staffers were asked "the same two questions" dozens of times a day, and some reporters on the Green trail began asking questions based on raw rumor: "Is it true you were offered $20 million to step down?"

Meanwhile, ever so slowly, the candidate's positions and beliefs have begun to receive a modest amount of scrutiny, in between hours of also-relevant questions about how he will feel on Tuesday if the country faces four years of George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, the Green Party candidate is finding surprising allies among conservatives, who are running pro-Nader television ads in some states, and filling the Beltway airwaves with rare praise for a far-left crusader.

"It appears that Mr. Nader is actually running a campaign of conscience," the Washington Times editorialized Saturday. "He believes, rightly or wrongly, that corporate fertilizer has poisoned the roots of the Democratic Party and by exercising his right to run for the presidency, he has given progressives a principled, and in many ways, pragmatic choice. ... [They] deserve every vote they have fought for."

On D.C.'s Sunday chat roundtables, liberals like Jesse Jackson played down the Nader factor and talked up the importance of the Supreme Court, while conservative bedrocks such as William Bennett gave high praise to the Green Party candidate.

"Nader has made I think a very persuasive case about where he disagrees with Gore on fundamental issues, and with Bush on fundamental issues," Bennett said on CNN's "Last Word" program. "We acknowledge the existence of Ralph Nader, who's a legitimate person with legitimate views, but the Gore people somehow want to suggest that what he's doing is undemocratic. We did not hear these points made when Ross Perot was draining votes from George Bush."


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