Recently, Norman Solomon wrote (Running On Empty) that there is no plausible case to be made whereby a Presidential run by Ralph Nader in 2004 hurts George W. Bush. In fact, there is such a case to be made and both sides of the question should be debated. Below, I argue that George W. Bush will have a harder time getting himself re-elected if Ralph Nader runs for President.
This question should be analyzed in two parts: First, what would the direct costs and benefits of a Nader 2004 effort be to the Democratic nominee? And second, what independent benefit might Nader provide to the movement to oust Bush?
First, an assessment of the costs. Nader would criticize the Democratic nominee. This is true, but this cost must be assessed relative to his criticism of George W. Bush. Electoral battles are fought against incumbents, precisely why Nader focused his attacks in 2000 on the Clinton-Gore record, while reserving lesser criticism for the man of lesser stature, George W. Bush, then a weak-albeit dismal-governor. In 2004, an attack on the likely Democratic nominee from a progressive stance is simply not sustainable for long while the attack on Bush could last morning, noon and night. So, relatively speaking, Nader's criticism of the Democrat would be weak.
In a related point, the enormous rhetorical leeway enjoyed by the challengers makes it easy for them to escape criticism, and thus lower its cost. For example, there is no roster of environmental groups ready to take on Dean, as criticized Gore in 2000, because Dean hasn't really done anything yet. His rhetoric, however, has the potential to sound very convincing to environmentalists' ears.
Another cost: Nader would siphon Democratic votes. This is perhaps a measurable cost, but I challenge you to show me a party-line Democrat who anticipates voting for Nader in 2004. His potential Democratic vote has all but dried up. (In the unlikely event that Lieberman gets the nomination, all bets are off.) In contrast, the roughly 675,000 registered Republicans (according to exit poll data; Nader's Democratic voters numbered roughly 1.1
million) who voted for Nader in 2000 would be just as likely to vote for him again in 2004. If they are upset over Bush's belligerence, ballooning deficit and attack on civil liberties, more Republicans may vote for Nader in 2004. Furthermore, as an independent, Nader would be likely to increase his Republican vote-the Green label was probably an impediment for some Republicans in 2000. It is therefore implausible that Nader would draw more Democratic than Republican votes in 2004.
Potential direct benefits to the Democratic nominee from a Nader run even further offset the comparatively tiny costs. If, for the sake of argument, we assume that the nominee will be Howard Dean, Nader would cover his left flank. Pundits and reporters label Dean a "leftist." As Dean himself points out, this is ludicrous. Next to Ralph Nader, he would shed the left label. We can predict with certainly that the press would often compare the two in the "spoiler" context.
Savvy progressive Democrats could make use of a Nader 2004 run. By becoming involved in his campaign, they could influence and finance, with their individual contributions, ads to be done on Bush's miserable record. These would be the types of ads too risky for the Democratic nominee himself to run. Anybody-but-Bush progressives could also use the Nader campaign as a forum for discussing crucial issues-such as cutting the defense budget-that they might consider political suicide for the Democratic nominee to touch. Thus ideas that are too important to be left aside during the only time when Americans have a national political dialogue would find their voice.
In short, those who want Bush out could begin to display political cunning in their attempt to win. Rather than worry and rant about Nader, they should incorporate his strengths into their plan. The fear campaign that the Democrats and their allies mount in October is devastating. It is the closest thing there is to herding voters. While it had a major effect in 2000, it will be much more effective in 2004. With this kind of fine-tuned control on the progressive vote, Nader can only help the effort to defeat Bush.
Solomon and others opposed to a Nader run this year expose two main deficiencies in their assessment. The first is that their dialogue takes place in the small world of progressive politics, among like-minded people. The key to this and many other elections is found in winning the attention of people who are skeptical of your arguments. This is true for the candidates and for all of us as well. The second deficiency is their lack of understanding of Ralph Nader. Perhaps more than any progressive alive today, Nader has the ability to connect with audiences across the ideological spectrum. And the effort to oust Bush will depend most on people who can make the case against Bush to swing voters and independents.
What Nader has done by walking away from the Green umbrella this year is that he has boldly left the shelter of the vote he could most rely on. Nader thus leaves the Greens to build on their best successes at the state and local levels, and makes his way toward independent voters-the ones who most need convincing that Bush is leading our country to ruin. People for whom Ralph Nader is still one of the most credible men in America because of his 40 year record of fighting for justice on their behalf.
For Nader, this is not a year for super rallies. For Nader, if he runs, this will be the year of the Elks Clubs, the garden clubs, meetings with former Enron employees, the veterans groups, Walmart employees. Perhaps Norman Solomon, too, has plans to travel the country arguing with those who might think that Common Dreams is an ice cream flavor. Somehow, I doubt it.
Tarek Milleron (firstname.lastname@example.org), Ralph Nader's nephew, was on the Nader 2000 campaign staff. He is currently working on a doctorate in Ecology.