Run, Ralph, Run! (But I Won't Vote for You)

In announcing another quixotic presidential bid on Meet the Press, Ralph Nader was his usual cogent self, asking, as he does, why so many in the "liberal intelligentsia" condemn him for discussing the important issues that the two major parties ignore.

Although the Democratic debates during this primary season are about a thousand times better than those of recent years, he was, as usual, right -- why the hell haven't the Democrats come up with a coherent position on trade, for example?

As he spoke, one could almost hear Democrats across the country pulling knives from their sheaths. Another Nader run, another opportunity for Democrats -- even progressive Dems -- to attack him, in the words of Michael Tomasky, "with lupine ferocity."

At the heart of that animalistic urge is the notion that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election and was responsible for placing Shrub in the White House, a revisionist history that's as ludicrous as it is pervasive within Democratic circles. The reality -- the hard data point that makes it a perfectly specious narrative -- is that Al Gore, had he immediately and forcefully demanded a recount of all the votes in the state of Florida, would have won and would probably be finishing up his second term right now. It was his decision -- one that Nader had nothing to do with -- to contest only a handful of counties that would ultimately cost him the presidency (and the United States so much more than that).

What's more, as Ralph said during his appearance on Meet the Press, Democrats are perfectly capable of analyzing a story with multiple variables, but when it comes to election 2000, they focus on just one. Even if Gore hadn't won the most votes in Florida -- according to any of seven standards the courts might have used -- even if we look at just the recounted counties that gave Bush that slim 500-vote lead, there were a dozen other factors that would have tipped the scales. Katherine Harris purged 50,000 (mostly black) eligible voters. Gore decided not to have Bubba Clinton campaign on his behalf, despite Clinton's 65 percent approval rating (which was the highest for a departing president since World War II). Pat Buchanan won little old gray-haired Jewish ladies' votes thanks to the infamous "butterfly ballot." I could go on -- the point is that looking at all of those factors and then blaming a citizen for exercising his right to run for elected office is both intellectually weak and absurd in principle.

Many Democrats, in their misplaced pique, also condemn Nader and his supporters in a profoundly bone-headed way -- they suggest, or at least imply, that it was somehow the duty of progressive-minded people to vote for the Democratic ticket because of the perfidy of the alternative.

The larger comparison is right -- there's a hell of a lot more than a dime's worth of difference between the Dems and the GOP at this point in history -- but the idea that people "owe" their vote to a candidate, even one who fails to fully represent their interests, is not only offensive, it's also counter-productive. The reason is simple: It's anathema to liberal ideology to walk in lock-step with a party. One can piss and moan all one wants about how conservatives are more "disciplined" (think about the idea of a party "disciplining" its members), but the reality is that liberals and progressives will always chafe at the idea of being told how to vote.

But here's the rub: While people don't owe a vote for any candidate, it is in the self-interest of liberals, moderates and even those few remaining "principled conservatives" out there to defeat the reactionaries who have controlled the GOP for the past couple of decades. Smart Democrats, if they're concerned about the impact of a Nader run (which, let's face it, will be minimal after eight years of Bush; Nader got 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000 and in 2004, after one Bush term, he got less than 0.4 percent), will stop bloviating about Nader's "spoiler effect" and start making that explicit appeal to progressives' self-interest.

Neither Clinton nor Obama is going to be some kind of progressive champion. But, after the kind of right-wing "governance" we've suffered for the past 8 years, having a competent, coherent, well-traveled, well-read, English-speaking moderate tinkerer in the White House will be like a cool sip of lemonade on a burning hot day.

Offering a few key paragraphs from a Washington Post analysis of recent Supreme Court decisions is a more persuasive argument than telling liberals they have a moral responsibility to vote a certain way:

There was a time when Supreme Court justices peered into federal statutes outlawing discrimination and found between the lines the right of the aggrieved to take his complaint to court. What good was the law, they reasoned, without a means to enforce it?
Those, Justice Antonin Scalia said last week, were "the bad old days."
The increasingly conservative court has said often of late that it is getting out of the business of finding a right to sue that is not explicitly stated in the law -- what lawyers call an "implied cause of action."
This is a court that has no problem finding rights for the powerful in the law but is becoming incapable of seeing individual rights. It finds that corporations have "unalienable rights" while detainees at Gitmo have none. Justice Stevens is about to turn 88, Justice Ginsburg, who was treated for cancer in 1999, will turn 75 next month. John McCain, no moderate in general, is really no moderate in terms of his likely judicial appointments. One more right-wing activist judge joining Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas, and the United States will have a justice system with a dangerously expansive view of the power of the executive branch and doors to the courthouse largely closed to those without influence or connections.

Liberals and progressives who are less than thrilled with the Democrats should consider, too, their own self-interest in getting an occupant into the Oval Office who will appoint competent professionals to the government's many regulatory and social services agencies. There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the establishment Democrats who will fill those jobs under an Obama or Clinton administration, but they will be, at a minimum, qualified for their positions, and that will itself be a sharp break from Bush's reckless brand of crony "conservatism."

Consider former FEMA director Mike "Heckuva Job, Brownie" Brown, whose sole qualification for the job was his friendship with Bush's 2000 campaign manager and whose previous experience was running the International Arabian Horse Association. Or consider those infamous appointees in Baghdad detailed by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City:
After the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted all manner of Americans ... but before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon.
To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for Defense Department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.
Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority ... lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance -- but had applied for a White House job -- was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13 billion budget, even though they didn't have a background in accounting.
Consider HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, whom I wrote about in 2006 after he stripped a contract from a Texas supplier who had dared to criticize the Bush administration. Jackson's under federal investigation now for intervening in the contracting process in New Orleans and elsewhere, and is also mired in scandal for his demand "that the Philadelphia Housing Authority transfer a $2 million public property to a developer at a substantial discount, then retaliated against the housing authority when it refused to do so." As Mark Kleiman wrote, Jackson, under Bush, has turned the "Department of Housing and Urban Development [into] an extortion racket." Perhaps more startling than his potential crimes and abuses of office is his sense of entitlement -- his hubris -- in the face of the charges. Rather than keep a low profile, Jackson has created a shrine to himself in HUD's headquarters; Al Kamen called it a "beautifully designed photo homage to one of our nation's leaders, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson."
Tour groups need not even go through the inviting metal detectors to admire 20 large color photographs of the secretary, each about 2 feet by 3 feet. No fewer than five of them feature Jackson with President Bush-- in the Rose Garden, in the Oval Office, chatting together, coming down the steps at the Capitol.
The photographs cover an entire wall of the lobby as you enter, passing two other photos, the smaller official ones, of Bush and his old buddy from Texas days, side by side to greet you.
Jackson should be gazing lovingly at his portraits from a bunk in a prison cell somewhere, but at the very least we need to flush these people out of the government. That, as much as anything else, is what this election is all about. The modern conservative movement believed Saint Reagan when he said that government was the problem, and the result is that they don't take governing seriously. Say what you will about Democrats feeding from the same trough, at a minimum most understand that the government can't be run as a private fiefdom in service of scoring some nebulous ideological points.

So, Democrats should stop telling people whom to support or what to do with their votes. This is America, and that's just wrong. And progressives should remember Nader's contributions and defend him against the scurrilous charge that he was responsible for Bush. Those who truly believe in small "d" democracy, even when it's inconvenient, should support Nader's right to run. He will likely, once again, force Democrats to address some issues that they'd otherwise ignore, so one might even want to send him a few bucks so he can make that case.

But I won't vote for him, because it's in my own self-interest, as an independent-minded liberal, to beat down the reactionary Right and send them scurrying back to their nests. Consider your own self-interest, and vote accordingly.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.

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