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Sunday, February 22, 2004

Run, Don't Swing 

I just heard Ralph Nader announce that he's running, this morning on Meet The Press. I've been hoping he wouldn't run. I've confessed my mistake of voting for him last time in a previous entry. And now I hear Ralph, and I waver. The problem with Nader is the combination of two things: on one hand, if too many people vote for him, Bush wins. On the other hand, just about everything he says is right.

Here's a central theme of his that's worth pondering. Nader did not say today that it would be fine with him if he ended up tipping the election to Bush. What he said was that it is absurd and dangerous for everyone to the left of George W. Bush to assume that there should not be any progressive challenge to the Democratic Party. The consequences of this for our political discourse are profound. Nader mainly defends his candidacy in terms of broadening the political spectrum. There is, I think, no serious counterargument to this. The range of left-leaning opinion is unrepresented in presidential politics as conducted by the two biggest parties, and Nader is an extremely effective advocate of progressive causes.

When Tim Russert asked Nader if there would be a difference between Bush and a Democrat on foreign policy, tax cuts, etc. Nader said yes, there would be. In 2000 he really minimized these differences, and I suspect that he must be surprised by how toxic the Bush presidency has turned out to be. But that question, the one about how much worse Bush is than any likely Democratic nominee, is only pertinent if there is a substantial chance of Nader swinging the election. Surely it is too early to know that, and so too early to count this as a serious reason for Nader to not even run. The general principle behind this objection to Nader's candidacy is this: whenever the Democratic nominee would be significantly better than the Republican, then no one who would tend to draw from the Democrats should run. There is no mention in this principle of the chance of swinging the election, information that no one has until much closer to election day. So, in effect, no Democrat or anyone to the left of Democrats who accepts this principle would ever think that a left-of-center candidacy other than the Democrats themselves would ever be justified. If they say, "no, we just mean now, in 2004, now that Bush has turned out to be SO bad," then look back to 2000, when they had no idea he would be this bad, and notice that they still said Nader should not run. But the principle is a very bad one, because its effect is to try to pull the whole range of left opinion to the right. The Democratic Party, is, it is fair to say, on the right wing of leftism, and the principle says there should never be a challenge from any other part of the left unless the Republican candidate is not significantly worse than the Democrat, something I have never heard from a Democrat about any Republican nominee in my adult life.

Yes, Bush is pretty bad. So was his dad. So was Reagan! So was Nixon! When, exactly, would a progressive challenge to the Democratic Party be appropriate? (I must say, I expect the following utterly inadequate answer to recur in the countless discussions I will have between now and November, and probably in every election for the rest of my life: "I don't know, but not THIS year.")

Still, it would be a disaster if Nader swung the election to Bush, as it would be a disaster any time a progressive challenger swung an election to the Republicans. That simply does not show there should never be a progressive challenge. I propose this different principle on the matter of spoilers. Progressive challengers should run with vigor, but throw their support to the Dems if it becomes too likely that they could swing the election without any serious chance of winning.

Here's a conundrum: if I can't be sure Nader would follow this principle and throw his support to the Dems in a pinch (he didn't last time), then could I support him in the meantime? This would be to gain followers for him, followers that he might hold onto and swing the election. But could he possibly say in advance that he will throw his support to the Dems if there is a danger of swinging the election? Well, he was asked about this today on Meet The Press. He said in the unlikely event that it comes to that, "you can invite me back on the program, and I'll give you my answer." He's not saying he wouldn't. I wish he would say that he would. If he did, I could support him. Otherwise, I would have to be fairly sure that there's little chance of his swinging the election, and it's just too early to say. In the meantime, I can't help but be glad he's back in the press. He knows that the right-wing of the left will do their best to vilify him and marginalize him, as political opponents do. My best guess is that they will be pretty successful, and that his fraction of votes will be insignificant. But what I hope for is this: that he's successful enough to scare the Dems, but not successful enough to lose them the election.

In the meantime, it was great to see him before a huge national audience this morning. It conjures fairy-tale images of a political system in which people who agree with him could put a candidate forward for president and be taken seriously.

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