Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph redux

There was no need Sunday to adjust your set or your mental state; it was not a rerun or a flashback: Ralph Nader is indeed again running for president.

The Sunday-morning news interview shows, otherwise known as "the Sabbath gasbag discussions” (thank you Calvin Trillin), are often prime territory for one Major Political Announcement or another. NBC’S “Meet the Press” was the chosen venue for Nader to declare that, for the third straight election cycle, he would pursue the presidency of the United States. “Diseent is the mother of ascent,” Nader told "MTP" moderator Tim Russert. “And in that context, I have decided to run for president.”

Like the moldy penny you can’t seem to get rid of, our hardy quadrennial challenger is again in the mix, this time unattached (at this writing) to any political party.

His rationale seemed detailed and expansive enough. Nader outlined a wide range of issues domestic and international in need of attention, and at least tried to sharply delineate himself from the Democratic and Republican challengers. Besides ending the war, Nader would seek to get an energy bill through Congress, would support single-payer health insurance, repeal the Taft-Hartley Act and “crack down on corporate crime.”

“Now, you take that framework of people feeling locked out, shut, shut out, marginalized, disrespected and you go from Iraq to Palestine/Israel, from Enron to Wall Street, from Katrina to the bungling of the Bush administration, to the complicity of the Democrats in not stopping him on the war, stopping him on the tax cuts, getting a decent energy bill through, and you have to ask yourself, as a citizen, should we elaborate the issues that the two [Obama and Clinton] are not talking about?”

“… You know, when you see the paralysis of the government, when you see Washington, D.C., be corporate-occupied territory, every department agency controlled by overwhelming presence of corporate lobbyists, corporate executives in high government positions, turning the government against its own people, you — one feels an obligation, Tim, to try to open the doorways …”

Nader has of course long been vilified by Democrats by siphoning away votes from Al Gore during the 2000 election, thereby throwing the contest to George Bush — at least that’s the popular explanation. Some have said that the 2000 election shouldn’t have been such a photo-finish in the first place — that the relative quiet in the country should have made a Democratic victory not just possible but probable.

Whether that’s true, we’ll never know. But on Sunday Nader defended his right to throw his weatherbeaten hat in the ring: “… Without voter rights, candidate rights don't mean much. And without candidate rights — more voices and choices — voter rights don't mean much.”

Russert posited a historical scenario for Nader: that by running again, “when people look back at Ralph Nader, they'll consider him the Wendell Willkie of his generation, someone who kept running and running for president with no chance of winning …”

In response, Nader was off to the races again, re-litanizing his positions and ending with a pitch to his Web site, described as “a gathering center.”

It might be a center to gather at, but it’s not likely to be a gathering place for the center, the broad cross-section of American voters who have already made their preferences clear. In this bid as in his two previous abortive runs, Nader will no doubt play to the utterly disaffected Americans, those who see no hope of their grievances being aired, and therefore amplify their despair by backing a presidential quest with no hope of victory.

A symbolic move? Without a doubt. But the question becomes one of end results — the practical aspect of symbolism. If Nader’s campaign is meant to be a symbolic gesture, what choice, what viable political option does Nader offer that voters didn’t have before he got in the race? Conspicuous by their absence at the polls, stay-at-home voters make their sentiments known, too. That’s another kind of symbolism.

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What has angered Democrats about Nader’s previous campaigns (and has them and others scratching their heads about this one), what’s so infuriating to them is the time, attention, Web traffic and media oxygen to be devoted to covering the political platform of a man seeking a job he doesn’t really want.

Ralph Nader doesn’t want to be president; he relishes his role as the malcontent, the heckler at the parade, a position less substantive than that which he occupied in Washington as a consumer advocate and activist two generations ago.

And therein lies a problem with third-party bids for the presidency, from Nader’s to Ross Perot’s and others besides: They seem to rely on a wellspring of American cynicism. They’re mounted in hopes that the wide plurality of Americans will vote for them, when most Americans haven’t given up hope on the possibility of change within the two parties they already know and respect (or at least tolerate).

Rather than trying to fly before they walk before they crawl, if third parties are serious about being a viable populist alternative to the two-party system, the best place to start is at the level of government most Americans understand: the grassroots level of state, county and city offices, those neighborhood-specific positions that could form the start of a constituency, the infrastructure of a truly meaningful third-party alternative.

Instead, the idea of third-party campaigns is reliably trotted out every four years, with Nader parachuting in for another quixotic presidential try, and every four years it’s sent packing. The reason why seems fairly obvious: third parties aren’t taken seriously because they don’t seem to take the lives of Americans seriously more than once every presidential election cycle.

That could explain why Nader’s vote total in 2000 (2.7 percent) plummeted in 2004, to .4 percent of votes cast. If he were really serious about a third-party quest for the White House, he’d have been laying the groundwork for Sunday’s announcement — city council by city council, mayoralty by mayoralty, governorship by governorship — when the election was over in 2004. That’s how a third party gets street-credible.

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Ironically, the populism his insurgent White House bid would generate is already well underway; turnout in the primary season has exceeded previous levels to this point in the campaign, and it’s likely to continue for the general election. Considering the wide cross-section of the country that’s already voted for either Obama, Clinton or John McCain — a span of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual preference and income — there’s less reason for Nader’s campaign now than there was before. People are already asking if it even matters.

Nader’s reset the hourglass on his fifteen minutes, again. We’ll see if what he brings to the campaign party has any substance — if he can offer a Bushed nation more than his own frustrated self-importance before the clock runs out.
Image credit: Wendell Wilkie: New York World-Telegram and Sun (public domain)

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