Ralph Nader is running for President, and a fair number of progressives are excited by the prospect. They should be.
Run properly, a Nader candidacy could offer the electorate a dose of radical democracy and a progressive alternative on trade policy, corporate welfare, criminal justice reform, the farm crisis and a host of other critical issues ignored by the front-running candidates of both major parties. With close to 100 percent name recognition and approval ratings that Al Gore and George W. Bush would trade their bankrolls to achieve, Nader brings to a national campaign a forty-year record as a reformer that puts the modest claims of John McCain and Bill Bradley to shame. If Nader wages a serious campaign, he can force the other candidates to address issues that will otherwise be dismissed, and he could push to the left whichever Democratic candidate prevails in the primaries.
But will Nader, who says he is planning a formal announcement within days, run a serious campaign?
His track record is not encouraging. In 1992 and again in 1996, Nader allowed his name to be floated as a presidential prospect. The '92 initiative never amounted to much more than a halfhearted write-in campaign in the New Hampshire primary--an effort best recalled for having given Jerry Brown some useful ideas for that year's We the People campaign. The '96 effort was modestly more engaged. Nader allowed his name to be placed on twenty-one state ballots as the Green Party's nominee, but he limited his spending to $5,000, failed to campaign in most regions and never built a real national organization. Despite the lack of effort, Nader drew close to 700,000 votes, helped the Greens win ballot status in a number of states and--in cities like San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, where grassroots activists mounted something resembling actual campaigns on his behalf--beat Bob Dole in some precincts.
This year, Nader says things will be different. There will be no $5,000 limit; in fact, the candidate and his aides talk of raising and spending $5 million. There will be efforts to get his name and that of Green vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke on the ballots of all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Nader intends to devote at least 100 days to "on the road" campaigning and says he will fight hard for a place in the fall debates with the Republican and Democratic nominees.
But Nader is starting very late in the game. And there is still far too much talk about achieving ballot status for future campaigns and far too little talk about what it will take to make a real imprint on this year's race. Nader's instinctive realism and genuine modesty make it difficult for him to suggest that his campaign is much more than a political good deed--an effort to help break up the major-party monopoly by lending his name to the Greens, an attempt to force some dialogue about trade issues in the post-Seattle era and perhaps a turnout booster that will help Democrats retake the House of Representatives.
Frankly, that's not enough of a rationale to give a Nader-for-President bid the support it will need to shake up the status quo. Indeed, it may not even be enough to avoid the sort of embarrassment that could do harm to Nader's reputation and to the causes he holds dear. To be taken seriously, not merely by the pundits but by the voters, Nader must construct a campaign that presents him as a credible contender. Certainly, he will have to discuss the ballot-access barriers erected to block third-party candidacies in such key states as Texas and Illinois, and he should be as vocal as possible about the ridiculous limits on participation in the fall presidential debates and about the unfair advantages that attach to major-party candidates in a system that is sick with special-interest money. But Nader must not run a campaign of complaints and excuses.
Further, he must be prepared for efforts to undermine his appeal to the very voters who should provide the core support for a reform candidacy. If, as the Gore camp hopes, their candidate finds himself in a November race with Bush, they will hit hard on the abortion issue, arguing that liberals who "waste" a vote on Nader will seal the fate of Roe v. Wade. Their task has been made easier by a Republican primary campaign that has forced both Bush and McCain to the right, which will let Gore preach about the dangers of putting a Republican President and a Republican Senate in position to create an anti-choice Supreme Court.
It's not a bad argument. While Clinton's court appointments have been uninspired, they have kept the High Court from tipping. And his use of the veto to block a ban on late-term abortions has stymied one of the prime initiatives of the anti-choice crusaders. Simply by pledging to carry on, Gore is well positioned to win the votes of millions of voters for whom abortion is a decisive issue. The Gore camp is prepared to make similar distinctions on other issues, too, ranging from affirmative action to environmental protection. Indeed, if the Nader campaign makes progress in the West, watch for the Clinton Administration to launch a series of well-timed environmental initiatives in order to soften the Green appeal. Democratic polls tell the Gore campaign that it doesn't have to present its candidate as a perfect liberal to win the votes of liberals and progressives worried about living in a nation run by the unholy trinity of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott.
To counter such concerns, Nader must make the case that votes for him will not be wasted--that only a Nader campaign will bring to the fore the fundamental issues of democracy that powered the Seattle insurgency, and that these are the issues that will fill polling places with voters whose ballots could help the Democrats take back Congress. The latter is not mere unrealistic optimism: In states where Greens have proven their organizing and electioneering skills, a serious Nader campaign could well bring new voters to the polls; indeed, his candidacy could end up being the only vehicle capable of energizing 18-to-30-year-old voters and others who are not going to try to distinguish between a corporate-sponsored Republican and a corporate-sponsored Democrat.
The Nader campaign faces a different kind of hurdle in Republican-turned-Reform-candidate Pat Buchanan. What happens if an aggressive and well-financed Buchanan beats Nader for third place and the pundits start saying, "Well, this shows the true character of the anti-trade people. Faced with a choice between the nation's most respected consumer activist and a xenophobe who thinks America may have taken the wrong side in World War II, they choose the guy who wants to arm the borders"?
There are also the problems of money and organization. A serious Nader campaign almost certainly requires more aggressive fundraising than has been contemplated to date; the $5 million figure Nader's aides discuss is less than Gore and Bush will spend in individual primary states. And only a campaign with tens of thousands of volunteers devoting millions of hours to the effort will be capable of offsetting the daunting television buys of his opponents. The campaign that is needed would be difficult to put together in any election year, and the task will be made harder this year by the fact that the window of opportunity for presenting Nader as a viable alternative will open and shut quickly. If the mandarins of the Democratic and Republican parties succeed in dispatching the "reform" candidacies of Bradley and McCain, there will come a moment when, in the words of Arianna Huffington, "America will wake up and say: Is that all there is?" Nader's campaign must be prepared to act at that moment.
A halfhearted Nader campaign may actually be worse than no campaign at all, since a failed effort could be read as evidence that there is no base for the progressive agenda. Therefore, if Nader is to run, he must run hard on the issues that will distinguish him from his opponents--particularly reform of trade policy, opposition to corporate welfare and Pentagon excesses, support for real environmental and consumer protections, a radical remake of the criminal justice system and a commitment to restore democracy with honest campaign finance and lobby law reforms. Above all, he must run the sort of campaign that will--by its skill, energy and courage--convince tens of millions of Americans that a ballot cast for Ralph Nader is an affirmative vote for a man they believe can and should be their President.
John Nichols, who writes our new feature "The Beat," is editorial page editor of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.
Copyright ©2000 The Nation Company