POLITICS NOVEMBER 20, 2000
With the Florida recount ongoing, it looks as if George W. Bush may win the presidency yet. If so, the great consolation of this Tuesday's balloting may be that it has rid us forever of the noxious presence of Ralph Nader. Indeed, the only element of the campaign more discomfiting than Nader himself has been the spectacle of liberal intellectuals obsequiously slathering praise upon the Green Party candidate in an effort to sweet-talk him into abandoning his candidacy. Perhaps it's because I came of age after the Corvair; however, I view Nader not as a liberal hero but as a paranoid, self-absorbed reactionary. Indeed, I can discern in the man no redeeming qualities whatsoever. At the very least, one might have expected that a gadfly candidate such as Nader--free from the constraint of having to assemble a politically diverse majority--would be an entertaining straight-talker. Some pundits liked to compare Nader to John McCain and Jesse Ventura, suggesting his appeal was due in part to his authenticity and his hostility to spin. But Nader was actually the most robotic, least spontaneous candidate in the race, shamelessly repeating his talking points with the discipline of a low-level public relations agent. His catchphrases, moreover, generally fell into the category of obvious lies. If asked about the prospect that he could help defeat Al Gore, for instance, Nader would invariably reply, "Only Al Gore can beat Al Gore." By that reasoning, Nader could not throw the election, because the only factor controlling its outcome was Gore's innate political skill. But that is patent nonsense--election outcomes are controlled by lots of factors, including the skills of one's opponent and, in this case, the presence of a third-party candidate who saps votes almost exclusively from one contender. Nader's effect is now demonstrable: If just a small percentage of his 97,000 votes in Florida had instead gone to Gore--and polls suggested that more than half of them would have--then Gore would have easily defeated Bush. No doubt Nader finds such a prospect delicious. In the three days before the election, he traveled not to uncontested states like New York and Texas--where he could potentially have scooped up thousands of liberal votes without aiding Bush-- but to Pennsylvania and Florida, where every spare liberal vote was crucial. Nader, in other words, was so intent on defeating Gore that he willfully sacrificed his own vote total.
Nader's dishonesty stems in part from his dogged unwillingness to admit any fact that complicates the rationale for his candidacy. He begins with the unshakable premise that the electorate is a vast left-wing majority waiting to be awakened from its apathy. Any evidence to the contrary--which would justify liberal pragmatism--must be dismissed. So when a TV anchor brought up Gore's poor showing in West Virginia, Nader replied that Gore had lost because "he went down with King Coal instead of the people of West Virginia." It's not that coal miners were afraid that Gore's environmentalism would cost them their jobs! They voted for Bush because Gore was not environmentalist enough! Asked what surprised him in the election, Nader observed that Bush was struggling in Florida. "I think the two mistakes Bush made," he elucidated, "were on Social Security and on this tax cut that benefits the wealthy." But wait: These were not merely tactical missteps--on the order of spending too much time campaigning in California--but highly consequential policy stands that offer a strong rationale for voting for Gore. Nader seemed to notice that this logic veered perilously close to a conclusion that would have induced cognitive dissonance. So he righted himself at once, declaring in the next sentence, "But you know, don't worry, the Democrats are very good, Larry, at electing very bad Republicans." Any criticism of the Republicans can only be explained as a consequence of the weakness of the Democrats--which can only be remedied, of course, by weakening them still more.
Nader's election-night attempt to spin his 3 percent showing at the polls resembled nothing so much as Orrin Hatch straining to explain why his sixth- place Iowa Caucus finish had positioned him perfectly for the New Hampshire primary. "What we know for sure," boasted Nader, "is that we're coming out of Election Day with the third-largest party in America, replacing the Reform Party." So, despite what he had said all along, getting 5 percent of the vote and millions of dollars in matching funds didn't really matter after all. Under Nader, the Greens have achieved the loftier goal of surmounting Pat Buchanan's 0 percent of the popular vote. And the Natural Law Party, needless to say, has been left in the dust.
If bush is indeed elected, Nader will be doomed, and not just because he failed to win his much-needed loot. The fantasy that is the basis of his candidacy depends upon the absence of a Republican president. Why, one might ask, did Nader run a stronger left-wing insurgency against Gore this year than against Clinton four years ago? (Especially considering that Gore's 2000 campaign is more liberal in both substance and rhetoric than Clinton's Dick Morris-ized 1996 effort?) The answer is that, four years ago, we were just a year removed from the Gingrich revolution and only four years removed from an era of Republican presidents. The fear of Republicans controlling Washington still had resonance on the left. Now, though, the Naderites have forgotten what it's like to have a Republican president--clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, anyone?--and concentrate instead on the tragedy of Democratic moderation. By wishing away conservatism, lefties can imagine that the only choices are between liberal centrism and full-throated radicalism. And if you accept that premise, voting for Nader doesn't seem so counterproductive. Nader's lies are designed to nurture in his followers the fantasy that they can escape the crushing logic of a winner-take-all electoral system.
But if Bush takes office, there will be a living, breathing conservative in the White House, privatizing social programs, deregulating business, and generally throwing the fear of God into the Naderites. According to Nader's calculation, such a conservative administration will catalyze his movement, forcing the Democrats to move left to co-opt his followers or risk losing ever more members to the Green Party. In fact, the opposite outcome is all but certain: A Bush presidency will instill in Nader voters a renewed appreciation for the comparative virtues of moderate liberalism. The Democrats will have no reason to move left, because the left will move toward them. Nader's candidacy will serve as an object lesson in the futility of voting for a third party. Each of Bush's conservative accomplishments will lay bare Nader's dishonesty, and the destructive power of left-wing maximalism will be extinguished for a generation.
I wrote above that Nader had no redeeming qualities. I now correct myself; that is one.