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NYT's Gail Collins and the '2nd Tier' Presidential Candidates

by Ralph Nader

Gail Collins, the columnist for the New York Times, has a problem. While regularly writing in a satirical or sometimes trivial way about the foibles of the two major Parties' front-running presidential candidates, she can scarcely hide her disdain for the small starters, the underdogs.

In a recent column about what she saw as the repetitiveness and small-mindedness of Hillary Clinton (and her spokesman), Barack Obama and John Edwards, she took this unexplained swipe at former Senator Mike Gravel's presence in a debate sponsored by National Public Radio:

"What the heck is Mike Gravel doing back on stage? Didn't we get rid of him 10 or 20 debates ago?"

This dismissal may be seen by some readers as a laugh or as an impulsive throwaway line. Not so with Ms. Collins. She has little tolerance for filling media debate chairs with candidates; pundits like her believe candidates who are not front runners do not have a chance to overcome their super-low polls.

Nor does she lose any sleep over NBC (a subsidiary of General Electric) keeping the anti-nuclear Mr. Gravel out of its hosted debate in Philadelphia last month because he had not yet raised a million dollars.

Ms. Collins' treatment of the "second tier" candidates in the Democratic Party, such as Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, is remarkable for at least three reasons.

First, although she is a more sand-papered progressive than in her more radical, younger days as a small starter reporting for the Connecticut State News Bureau, I'll bet she agrees with much of the two-time Senator Gravel's record in Congress and his present positions on the war in Iraq, Presidential accountability, corporate power and crime and the mistreatment of workers, consumers and uninsured patients.

Second, for several years ending a few months ago, she presided over the New York Times editorial page, producing some of the finest editorials in the paper's history. Many well considered subjects were included such as: standing up for whistle-blowers, dissenters, the rights of small business and workers and especially, the civil liberties and rights of minority voters afflicted with myriad electoral abuses and obstructions.

Thirdly, she has written a book about the history of women's rights in America-titled America's Women (William Morrow, 2003), which must have touched in a sensitive way those lonely self-starters, known as suffragettes, along with those very small parties and even smaller candidates pressing for the female voting franchise. She knows there are many ways to win short of winning an election.

In recent weeks, her paper's editorial page has delivered brilliant excoriations of the similarities in the converging the Republican and Democratic Parties, taking the latter severely to task on important national issues.

I doubt very much that Gail Collins disagrees with these editorials. In fact, privately she is known to be even more critical of the political status quo in this country. One might surmise that she should therefore welcome more voices and choices to come before the citizenry during election times, including more third party and independent candidates as well.

After all, aren't we all glad that ballot access was so easy in the nineteenth century, compared to today, that small parties like the anti-slavery, women's rights, labor and farmer-populist parties got onto the ballots and pioneered hugely important agendas, ignored by the Democratic, Whig and Republican Parties? These small starters never came close to winning the Presidency, except for the populist parties, winning many Congressional elections.

Put Gail Collins back into the 19th century and she would be whooping it up for those valiant few voters and little candidates who voted and ran against the grain of the business-indentured, often bigoted major Parties. Here in the twenty-first century, Gail Collins writes the predicates of progressive values and then sprawls to the dead-end conclusions-stay with the least-worst major Party candidates.

Just as small seeds need a chance to sprout to regenerate nature and sustain humankind, just as the tiniest of businesses need to have a chance to innovate in the business world, so too, small candidates need to have the chance. For they can often enrich the political dialogue, move the big boys to overdue recognitions, even if they do not have a chance to win on election day in a rigged, monetized, winner-take all system, bereft of both instant run-off voting and proportional representation procedures.

Columnists such as Gail Collins and her humane colleague, Bob Herbert, abhor going into these fields of political fertility. Instead, their rendition of political and corporate abuses flows into the repetitive, narrow ruts of political servility-not just the two party duopoly ruts but its major candidate groovers.

So progressive columnists, such as there are, wring their hands over why the Democratic Party, its incumbents and its major candidates do not heed their findings, their pleas, their hopes for the American people. They keep on wringing their hands until they encase their minds in a cul-de-sac that categorically disallows even a contemplation that political alternatives in person and party should be given visibility.

Open your mind a little, Gail Collins, and you might learn something about the need for frameworks that enable the sovereignty of the people to be expressed in a variety of practical ways, including national initiatives. You may laugh at Mike Gravel having difficulty explaining his studious proposal for a national initiative during sound-bite debates. Instead, try writing a column on why some noted constitutional law professors believe there is a sound constitutional basis for such a proposal.

This would be a good way to spark a serious debate about the myth of government of the people, by the people and for the people. Such an excursus would help deepen a very shallow Presidential campaign and be more becoming to you than wanting to rid Mike Gravel from the so-called debates. And you and the members of your profession, who regularly confess boredom with the major candidates, might actually find some excitement in your daily work.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book is The Seventeen Traditions.

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