Ralph Nader once wrote, “Your greatest teacher is your last mistake.” These words seemed strangely appropriate Sunday as Nader, who four Novembers ago bucked the advice of his advisors and finished his campaign in Florida and Pennsylvania rather than California and New York, announced that this November he will run for president again.
When Nader announced his candidacy — this time as an independent — Tim Russert asked him to respond to an open letter run by The Nation three weeks ago. The magazine’s editorial board, whose perch well to the left of the party often mirrors Nader’s, urged him not to run. In a moment of perverse irony, Nader responded by deriding those who fear that he could hurt the chances of unseating Bush as members of a “liberal intelligentsia.”
And Nader is poised, as The Nation argued, not only to damage his self-stated goal of “retiring our current President,” but to set back the prospects for a real progressive transformation of American politics. By running without having built a broad-based movement, in a season when many see ousting Bush as prerequisite for any lasting progressive change, and garnering far fewer votes than he did in 2000, he’ll invite critical announcements of the death knell of third party politics. For these reasons, and others, I was one of the majority who voted against a 2004 run on Nader’s exploratory Web site, prompting him to shut down the poll.
When it comes to political hypocrisy, however, Ralph Nader has nothing on the Democratic National Committee, whose chairman, Terry McAuliffe, warned Nader against a legacy of “giving this country eight years of George Bush.” While Nader’s candidacy may indeed represent one nail in the coffin of the Gore campaign, McAuliffe’s threat continues a long and disingenuous campaign by too many Democratic leaders and activists to appropriate Nader as a scapegoat for the tragic failings of their party. It’s telling that the most memorable moments of Gore’s listless, centrist, visionless 2000 campaign were a staged tongue-lock with his wife to defend himself from associations with infidelity, a series of accurate but unmoving attempts to defend himself from media charges of mendacity, and a Saturday Night Live parody of his “lockbox” strategy to defend social security from campaigns to dismantle it.
While Nader’s claims that there are no meaningful differences between the parties run counter to the lived experience of millions of Americans, his claim that “Gore beat Gore” is spot on. Gore had his victory handed to his opponent by a campaign of voter disenfranchisement conducted by Florida state officials and blessed by the Supreme Court — with, at most, an assist from Ralph Nader. One of the undiscussed tragedies of that election and its aftermath is the failure of the Democratic party to level a fraction of the invective it reserved for Nader at those responsible for the cynical and systematic denial of the vote to thousands of poor and minority Americans who, in an era before Clinton, the Democratic party was proud to claim as constituents.
Nader is addressing real voting reform, as well as many other issues including reforming a destructive drug war, pursuing the single-payer plans that procure universal health insurance, and challenging the legal conception of corporate personhood. On these issues John Kerry and John Edwards are silent. Both have so far largely avoided the invective that party leaders have employed in the past, trying instead to channel Nader, with Edwards describing himself as “appealing to the kind of people who might be attracted to a Nader campaign,” and Kerry arguing that he and Nader “stand together” on “health care, taxes, and the environment.” While neither has yet taken Michael Tomasky of the American Prospect up on his suggestion to attack Nader with “lupine ferocity,” neither is offering much in the way of policies that speak to the voters the Clinton-Gore Democratic party turned away. The way to campaign against an independent who is arguing that there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans is to accentuate your differences from the Republicans — but doing so takes more than rhetoric.
The New York Times yesterday cited “several Democrats” confident that given popular desire to beat Bush, “they could bring lawsuits to knock Mr. Nader off state ballots without risking the kind of backlash that typically greets such litigation.” Such a move by the Democratic National Committee, much like plans described in last week’s Boston Globe to cordon off protestors at this summer’s Democratic Convention in a small “free speech zone” blocked from view by trucks, would be a disgrace to the one-time ideals of the party, and prove no better for its electoral prospects than the spineless, issueless congressional campaign strategy McAuliffe masterminded in 2002. Fortunately, popular resentment against the extremism of the Bush administration, embodied best by Howard Dean, has forced Democratic candidates to show signs of life despite McAuliffe’s best-laid plans. In the face of Nader’s unfortunate decision to run, it becomes all the more urgent that the Democratic nominee offer a choice, not an echo, to former Nader, Gore and Bush voters alike. Ralph Nader isn’t the only one whose greatest teacher should be his last mistake.
Josh Eidelson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards.