If anybody has blood on their hands from the Ralph Nader/Al Gore debacle of 2000, I do. Through my own writing, and that of others in Harper's Magazine, I was one of the evil Bolsheviks who stabbed the nice Menshevik Gore through the heart -- by supporting presidential candidate Nader's anti-establishment crusade, and ridiculing Mr. Gore's mélange of market-friendly, third-way neo-liberalism.
So now that Mr. Nader threatens once again to spoil things for the Democratic Party in general, and its likely presidential nominee John Kerry in particular, it feels a little awkward to be defending a maverick who so many politically correct folks say should back off. (Putting aside Mr. Gore's self-defeating caution, and Jeb Bush's and Katherine Harris's systematic disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida, I'll stipulate that Mr. Nader's 97,488 votes in the Sunshine State and 22,198 in New Hampshire swung the electoral college -- and the election -- to President Flatscreen.)
I detest George W. Bush and his junta. Their ferocious assault on international law, the U.S. Constitution and what little remains of the American social contract is reason enough join the legions of Bush haters. Before condemning Mr. Nader for splitting the anti-Bush vote and possibly granting another four years of Bush depredations, recall just how corrupted, how Republican, was the Democratic Party in 2000 as represented by Mr. Gore, and is now under the heading of John Kerry for president.
I backed Mr. Nader because he cried "halt!" to the overwhelming money -- and excessive police -- power in this country. Market-based solutions to social ills and assaults on civil liberties were Reaganite initiatives, nurtured during the Clinton years with the enthusiastic support of then-vice-president Gore, and, for the most part, Senator Kerry. It's simply laughable to hear Mr. Kerry say he "stood up to special interests" when he is the Senate's champion recipient of lobbyists' contributions. The consumer activist Mr. Nader, on the other hand, cut his teeth in Washington in the early 1960s with his fight against the biggest special interest in America, the then all-powerful General Motors. Until Mr. Clinton's election in 1992, Mr. Nader could still get a hearing from the political and ideological heirs to the New Deal who used to run the Democratic Party. But that was then. Today's anyone-but-Bush unity slogan, aimed at blunting Mr. Nader and his like, masks an intra-party power grab that began when Democrats last controlled both the White House and the House of Representatives.
To understand why Mr. Nader still appeals to disaffected Democrats -- and might again tip the election to Mr. Bush in November -- we must assess the movements of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who Mr. Nader probably hates even more than I hate George Bush. This supremely ambitious couple remains the most influential force in the Democratic firmament because they raise so much money from . . . special interests. Bill Clinton is lauded ad nauseam by party professionals for being the only Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win election to two full terms in the White House. But at what political and social cost?
Once in office in 1993, the "feel your pain" president Clinton promptly sold out the base of his party -- unionized factory workers and their less fortunate, non-union confreres -- by ramming through President Bush Sr.'s union-killing NAFTA agreement. Hillary Clinton encouraged her husband to push the manifestly more popular idea of national health insurance ahead of NAFTA, but Bill insisted on first pleasing his new friends and donors in corporate America. NAFTA passed and health care died.
Mr. Nader understood that Mr. Clinton's free-trade deals, NAFTA and its deadlier cousin, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China (passed in 2000), were essentially investment agreements to protect U.S. capital in the cheap labor, kept-union and pollution-friendly confines of Mexico and the People's Republic. He is very mad at the Clintons about this. So are many Democrats.
Forward to October, 2002, when most Congressional Democrats cave in to Bush Jr.'s propaganda for invading Iraq. Senators John Kerry and Hillary Clinton help authorize a war that sends working-class kids off to be killed and mutilated for a conquest that is two parts political opportunism and one part oil. Meanwhile, the Dems do little to stop Mr. Bush's tax giveaway to the rich.
With the United States temporarily victorious in Iraq, pundits and party pros declare the inevitability of Mr. Bush's re-election. That suits the Clintons, because now-Senator-from-New-York Hillary wants to run for president in 2008. But wait -- a party outsider, a premature anti-fascist named Howard Dean presents himself as anti-war, anti-corporate tribune. With Naderite candor, he even questions free-trade orthodoxy. The Clintons and their wealthy allies encourage a Bill wannabe, Senator John Edwards, and then an outright stalking horse, General Wesley Clark, to help crush a Dean insurgency that, if ultimately successful, would end Clintonian dominance of the party.
A Dean nomination was probably the only thing that would have kept Mr. Nader out of the race. Now Mr. Dean's embittered supporters are the greatest threat to Mr. Kerry, each one a potential Nader protest vote.
Nevertheless, I'll probably end up voting for Mr. Kerry this time, if only because the Clintons, in their profound selfishness, don't want him to win either. If you made the proposition "anyone but the Clintons," even Ralph Nader might come aboard.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.