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Not All Democrats are Shunning Nader
Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2001 in the Madison Capital Times
Not All Democrats are Shunning Nader
by John Nichols
Ralph Nader, one of the most frequent and well-received visitors to Madison over the past 40 years, returns tonight to deliver a distinguished lecture at the University of Wisconsin.

Nader arrives as the same man who spoke in Madison in the '70s, '80s, '90s and during the 2000 presidential campaign, and he will deliver the same message about the need for citizens to organize at the grass roots in opposition to the threats to democracy and liberty posed by corporate monopolies and cowering politicians.

But there is no question that Nader is now viewed differently. As the Bush presidency unfolds, with the new president and his misguided minions pushing the ideological envelope further and further to the right, the anger over Nader’s Green Party candidacy of last year has, if anything, mounted. Old friends now dismiss him as "arrogant" and "delusional" because he continues to suggest that the Democratic and Republican parties are, at least at the upper levels, bought by the same special interests. Local Democrats who once hailed Nader as a visionary figure now reject him as a threat to his own achievements or, worse yet, as a political eccentric who ought to be consigned to the scrapheap of history.

But here’s an amusing twist on the Nader bashing that is so much in vogue this spring:

Among the most powerful Democrats in Washington, Nader is viewed in a far friendlier light. Yes, there is a measure of anger at him for having maintained a candidacy that hurt Al Gore in key states. But there is, as well, a grudging acknowledgment that Nader drew progressive voters to the polls, and that those progressive voters almost certainly provided the narrow margins of victory for Democratic Senate challengers Maria Cantwell in Washington state and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan — giving the Democrats a 50-50 split in the Senate — and for several Democratic House candidates, including San Diego’s Susan Davis and Madison’s own Tammy Baldwin.

Perhaps that is why genuinely progressive Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., suggested after the election that Nader’s campaign had at least some positive impact — most particularly when it came to mobilizing young people. As McKinney said recently, "My ability to get elected has always relied on nontraditional people — bringing new people, new supporters (into) the process — so every new voter the Green Party attracts is a potential new voter for me. The whole idea of progressives, I thought, was to have more people participating, not fewer."

When Nader visited Capitol Hill in February, at the invitation of Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., the Democratic minority leader complimented Nader for running "a terrific campaign." They spoke at length about the success of Nader’s super rallies, where thousands of people — most of them young — packed arenas and paid as much as $20 to hear Nader talk about "deep democracy."

"Nobody is paying to hear (mainstream Democrats) talk about policy," Gephardt admitted. Part of the appeal, Nader told Gephardt, was that "the Greens actually have a more legitimate platform for the old Democratic Party than the Democratic Party does."

Gephardt — who disagreed with the Clinton-Gore line on trade policy, welfare reform, farm aid and a host of other key issues — no doubt agreed. As he prepares his own presidential candidacy in 2004, Gephardt will attempt to avoid the mistakes that Gore made in 2000 — the most significant of which was the assumption that Ralph Nader would bend to the political winds of the moment.

Nader remains an uncompromising force in American public life. For Democrats who have bent so far that they would not recognize Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nader is a threat. For Democrats such as Gephardt, McKinney and Feingold, however, Nader poses far less of a threat. Rather, he is a necessary reminder that Democrats can and should pursue a more progressive politics.

Copyright 2001 The Capital Times


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