It was a disheartening spectacle indeed: Ralph Nader, who for 35 years has personified conscientious public citizenship in America, shut out of the first presidential debate, both as participant and observer.
Nader made his name, after all, as a national consumer crusader back when Al Gore and George W. Bush were still partying in college. And whatever one makes of their campaign-trail populism, it's indisputable that Nader has taken up his citizen's cudgel more often, at longer odds, for more causes, and with greater dedication than either the Democratic or Republican candidate.
The decision to exclude Nader, the Green Party nominee (and Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party nominee) certainly dulled down the proceedings Tuesday night. Once portrayed as a pivotal political event, the debate at the University of Massachusetts is seen - at least in post-mortem - as an arcane exchange, the differences between the candidates dwelling in hard-to-follow details of oft-repeated charges.
What would Nader have added? With his wide-ranging policy knowledge and his deep-seated convictions, he certainly would have enlightened and enlivened the discussion. Herewith, a look (drawn from the public record) of what he probably would have said had he been on the stage with Bush and Gore.
A citizen raising Cain
Debate moderator Jim Lehrer queried Bush and Gore about experience and leadership qualities. As it happens, on the June 30 edition of ''The NewsHour,'' that show's mild-mannered host posed essentially the same question to Nader.
Nader: ''Well, I've been a full-time citizen for 40 years. I think the auto industry knows what I can do in terms of safer cars. ... We're almost experts at how to make government and corporations accountable.''
Lehrer: ''Do you believe you have the experience and background to run the vast ... agencies and bureaus and department of the United States government?''
Nader: ''Well ... I don't know anybody who has sued more of them. ...I don't know anybody who has participated for over three decades in the process.''
During the debate, Lehrer gently asked Bush about Gore's character - and received an equally muted response.
For his part, Gore, a man as tough as any in modern American politics, piously proclaimed that he simply could not bring himself to stoop to that level of discourse.
All of a sudden, two men whose camps have been busily savaging each other acted as though mouthing a negative word would sorely try their speak-no-evil natures.
One wouldn't have heard that kind of cotton-candy cant from Nader. Appearing at the FleetCenter on Sunday, Nader offered his unvarnished view of his rivals. Bush, the Republican governor of Texas, was, he charged, ''a corporation running for president disguised as a person.''
''I can understand why George W. Bush is really for education,'' Nader added. ''He needs so much of it.''
But Nader saved his real acid for Gore, the Democratic vice president. Reciting a litany of issues pitting people versus corporations, Nader said: ''Where is Gore on this? He is on his knees, that is where he is.''
''Everywhere you follow the tracks of Al Gore, there is betrayal,'' Nader said. ''This man doesn't know what it means to stand up and have some modicum degree of courage.''
On ''Meet the Press'' on May 7, Nader was even tougher on Gore, saying that, measured against the professions of his 1992 book, ''Earth in the Balance,'' ''He's broken more of his priorities in eight years than probably any other current politician.''
From pharmaceuticals to food regulation to auto safety to aviation to OSHA, ''the regulatory agencies under Clinton/Gore are as bad or worse than under Reagan/Bush,'' Nader asserted.
At the FleetCenter, Nader told voters they couldn't trust politicians and parties flush with PAC contributions and soft-money dollars.
''So don't give me this, Gore and Bush, that you are for campaign-finance reform but you don't want to unilaterally disarm,'' he said. ''That is the demonstration of a political coward, a political knave, a political charlatan.''
Real differences for real people
In his role as moderator, Lehrer struggled mightily to get the leading candidates to agree about where they disagreed.
His task wouldn't have been nearly so difficult had Nader been on the stage; to the long-time activist, the Democrats and Republicans are the same indistinguishable shade of gray.
''We have to say no to these parties,'' Nader said last Sunday. ''They have abandoned our democracy. They have sold our government for a mess of pottage.''
So what does Nader stand for? Here, from his FleetCenter formulation, is the raison d'etre for his candidacy: shifting power from ''giant corporations, which have a grip over our government, environment, workplace, and marketplace'' to ''workers, consumers, taxpayers, and the voters of America.''
As for the ideas that inform that rhetoric, Nader calls for full public financing of all elections and the repeal of Taft-Hartley, which limits labor's tactics and power, to spread and strengthen unions. He would demand equal credit, equal insurance, and equal mortgage lending from banks and corporations. He favors a single-payer universal health care system like Canada's.
A fair trader rather than a free-trader, Nader would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization ''as if human beings mattered, not global corporations,'' insisting on meaningful environmental and worker protections.
He calls for a domestic ''Marshall Plan to abolish poverty and the class/race system''; a public works project to rebuild America's cities; a big affordable housing program, and an effort to expand mass transit. He would end the so-called war on drugs and instead focus on treatment and rehabilitation.
How to pay for all that? Eliminating ''hundreds of billions'' in corporate welfare would be a start, says Nader, who would also cut the military budget by $100 billion, or about a third.
He would also change the tax system.
''I'd really put meat in the process of progressive taxation,'' he says. ''The richer people are, the more the percentage you pay.''
Foreign policy and military force
When to use American military power abroad was another question Lehrer had for Bush and Gore. In the ''NewsHour'' interview, Lehrer asked Nader the same thing.
His would be a foreign policy that focused more energetically on preventing war, said Nader: ''We're not waging peace with rigorous energy, mediation, anticipating conflicts abroad.''
Lehrer: ''But if somebody is listening to you right now and says, OK, I want to know one thing from you, and that is when would you send ... our young people into harm's way?''
Nader: ''When our essential security interests and the safety of the American people is at stake.''
Lehrer: ''Does that mean we would have to be on the verge of an invasion of an outside force?''
Nader: ''No. ... For example, looking backward, there were ways to have deterred the Japanese; there are ways to signal to the Germans. Historians have shown that. We have just got to be more rigorously attuned to that.''
On education and Social Security, Lehrer would have received answers from Nader much different from the others'.
Nader wants to abandon not only the standardized testing both Bush and Gore endorse, but to radically refocus schools. Students ''should learn, as the core curriculum, developing civic skills, learning how to practice democracy,'' he said, ''and the arithmetic, reading and writing will be a byproduct.''
He rejects the notion that Social Security is in trouble, saying that even under a worst-case scenario, the trust fund is solvent through 2037. ''Panic fueled by opportunistic politicians and investment firms poses the only serious threat to the program,'' asserts Nader, who contends that smaller, gradual changes can easily keep Social Security solvent.
And in conclusion
How might Nader have summed up? Perhaps by arguing, as he did at the FleetCenter, that his views, seen by some as radical, are actually squarely in the tradition of mainstream American values - and in opposition to an extreme status quo.
''Extremism is when corporations corrupt, buy, and sell our political representatives and destroy our democracy,'' he said. ''It is not extremism to fight to stop [that].''
''It is extremism for corporations to hijack our ... sovereignty and to hand it over to international systems of autocratic government called the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, which subordinate our health and safety to the dictates of international commerce,'' Nader said. ''It is not extremism ... to make sure that any international trade agreements that are negotiated in the future will lift standards up around the world, not pull our standards down.''
He might not have sold you. But seeing his commitment to his own notion of social justice, you would have known Ralph Nader is someone whose voice deserves to be heard.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company