Nader's Own Test Shows the Candidates Are Different

Election '04

A cornerstone of Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns is the claim that there is little difference between the major parties, which Nader likens to Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

This complaint is not unique to Nader. For decades, some cynical leftists have said that Democrats and Republicans are merely two factions of a single "Business Party" that truly governs America. Michael Moore called Bill Clinton "the best Republican President we've ever had," and described a number of issues – from capital punishment to fuel-economy standards – on which the Clinton and early George W. Bush administrations had similar policies. Clinton himself, when his economic advisers were urging him to cut the deficit and reduce long-term interest rates, lamented, "I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans."

But are the parties really so close? Government touches many issues, and though it's possible to find areas where the parties converge, it's also possible to find big issues on which the parties differ. Would any Republican have proposed the Clinton health plan? Would Al Gore have responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq and encouraging consumers to buy SUVs? Has either Bush ever uttered the words "carbon tax"?

Instead of cherry-picked examples, what we need is a systematic way to score politicians on a variety of public issues – especially the issues that matter to Nader and Nader voters. Fortunately, such a scoring system exists, and Ralph Nader helped to set it up.

In 1975-76, Congress Watch began scoring U.S. Senators and Representatives on selected roll-call votes. Congress Watch is a branch of Public Citizen, which Ralph Nader founded in 1971 and directed until 1980. Although Public Citizen now distances itself from Nader, until 2000 it wore Nader's name as a badge of pride.

The Congress Watch scoring system has not fundamentally changed since Nader left the organization. In each Congress, Congress Watch selects a number of divisive votes, focusing on the corporate-consumer issues that are dear to Nader's heart. On these issues, Congress Watch reports the percentage of the time that each Senator and Representative votes the "pro-consumer" position.

Though you might be surprised to hear it if you listen to Nader talk, Congress Watch scores typically show a large gap between Democrats and Republicans. In the 106th Congress – the last Congress before the 2000 election – the average Democratic Senator voted the Congress Watch position 77% of the time; the average Republican Senator sided with Congress Watch on only 13% of key votes. The spread in the House was similar, with Democrats scoring 77% and Republicans scoring 15%.

If we assume that Ralph Nader himself would vote "for consumers" 100% of the time, it seems that the gap between Democrats and Republicans in Congress is almost three times larger than the gap between Democrats and Nader.

These scores represent the average member of Congress, but are the members who run for President more alike? Campaigning styles and legislative compromises can make candidates look similar, but the numbers tell a different story. The graph below shows scores for all the Congressional veterans that Nader has opposed in a general Presidential election. There is a large and consistent gap between the Democrats (Gore, Lieberman, Kerry, and Edwards) and the Republicans (Dole, Kemp, Cheney, and Quayle). Cheney, Dole, and Kemp have scored as low as 0%, whereas Kerry, in 1990, scored a perfect 100%.

This is not an unprecedented result. Analyzing Congressional voting records, the political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have found a large gulf between the parties – a gulf that has grown wider, not narrower, since Nader's public career began in the mid-1960s. Evidently the gulf remains visible even when an organization Nader founded is deciding which votes are the ones that matter.

Ralph Nader has long had trouble telling his friends from his enemies. In 1976, Jimmy Carter met twice with Nader, then hired several of Nader's employees to work in the White House. Yet Nader turned on Carter, directing his greatest scorn at Joan Claybrook, whom Carter had hired away from Nader to head the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (in 1982 Claybrook returned to become the President of Public Citizen, a position she holds to this day). Nader's biographer Justin Martin recounts how, in 1978, Nader antagonized several Democratic House members, helping to scuttle his dream of establishing a Consumer Protection Agency. Nader refused to endorse Carter in 1980, then lamented the election of Ronald Reagan.

Nader has never again had opportunities like the ones he squandered in 1977-1980. Progressives should be sure not to squander the opportunity they have in 2004.

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