PRESIDENTIAL candidate Ralph Nader is standing on a bar of soap in a political rainstorm. Midway through 2004, while his electoral base shrinks, one of the great American reformers of the 20th century is drifting out to sea.
When the Green Party's national convention refused to endorse Mr. Nader for president a few days ago, the delegates were not rejecting his strong anti-corporate and pro-democracy politics. On the contrary, the convention was acting on the basis of such principles. Greens from every region of the country recognized that Mr. Nader -- proudly unaccountable to any institution but himself -- has steered his campaign into a steadily worsening tangle of contradictions.
Activists struggling to build a viable Green Party with a truly democratic process found that Mr. Nader preferred to remain aloof. Four years ago, he was the party's presidential nominee but declined to become a member. This time, he ruled out accepting the Green nomination. But he did express a desire for the party's "endorsement" -- and its ballot lines in two dozen states.
Mr. Nader promised no accountability for his campaign. In the driver's seat, with hands tight on the steering wheel, he offered to take the Greens for a ride.
Instead, Green delegates opted to nominate David Cobb, a longtime grass-roots activist with a commitment to building the party. Mr. Cobb doesn't hesitate to describe both George W. Bush and John Kerry as corporate functionaries and militarists. But he readily acknowledges that Mr. Bush is significantly worse. And while Mr. Nader vows to actively seek votes in every state he can, Mr. Cobb has pledged to adopt a "safe states" approach that mostly bypasses campaigning in swing states.
Short on cash and volunteers, Mr. Nader began to make overtures several months ago for a Green Party endorsement that could get his name on some state ballots. To smooth ruffled Green feathers and boost his chances, Mr. Nader chose Green Party leader Peter M. Camejo as his running mate just days before the convention opened. The gambit didn't work.
Mr. Nader's credibility is at a new low after sinking steadily this year.
"I'm going to take more votes away from Bush than from Kerry," he claims. Yet the overwhelming majority of polls say just the opposite. And by selecting a vice presidential candidate who will be anathema to conservatives, Mr. Nader indicated that defeating Mr. Bush is actually quite low on his list of priorities.
Mr. Nader's choice of Mr. Camejo renders even more relevant a quip from The Daily Show's Jon Stewart: "Conservatives for Nader. Not a large group. About the same size as 'Retarded Death Row Texans for Bush.'"
Mr. Camejo, who was a Socialist Workers Party spokesman for many years, will be most unpalatable to exactly the voters whom Mr. Nader maintains he can lure away from Mr. Bush come November.
While participating in a debate with Mr. Camejo early this year on the merits of a "Nader in '04" presidential run, I was struck by his ideological rigidity -- and by his refusal to acknowledge meaningful contrasts between Mr. Bush and the likely Democratic nominee.
On this point, Mr. Nader has waffled in recent months, sometimes differentiating between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, other times seeming to conflate the two. By tapping Mr. Camejo, he has linked up with someone who routinely paints himself into a sectarian political corner with a sliver of left appeal.
White House strategist Karl Rove must be more pleased than ever about Mr. Nader's campaign.
The contradictions of that campaign have been stark. In early spring, when I spoke with Mr. Nader in a lengthy phone discussion, he never came close to making a credible case that his run for president this year could help beat Mr. Bush. The conversation reinforced my impression that Mr. Nader is committed to a campaign in search of a rationale.
After supporting Mr. Nader's presidential drives in 1996 and 2000, I've become more than disappointed in his decision to run this year. I'm now aghast at the current extent of his double-talk -- and double-dealing.
While he gives lip service to preventing a second term for the Bush presidency, Mr. Nader's key decisions -- such as striving to get on the ballot in swing states and putting Mr. Camejo on the ticket -- fundamentally contradict his words.
Ironically, these days, Mr. Nader's behavior resembles the efforts of an irresponsible corporate CEO who confuses his own prerogatives with the greater good.
Norman Solomon is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You (Context Books, 2003).
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