Even today, two and a half years later, you still hear it. “Oh, that Ralph Nader. How can he sleep at night?”
Letter-writers to the Los Angeles Times (4/5/03) carped that the Green Party should have no say in resisting the Iraq war, one arguing that “I remember Ralph Nader’s simplistic accusation that there is no practical difference between Democrats and Republicans,” and another who claims that the Greens were “the same party that made a mantra of the phrase “‘there is no difference between Bush and Gore,'” calling this assertion “absurd” and pointing out, among other policies that would supposedly have been different had Gore been elected, “a host of civil liberties crackdowns” under the Bush Administration. (This writer apparently forgets that it was the Clinton Administration that started us on the slippery slope of Constitution-shredding with his Anti-Terrorism Act in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.) Another Times letter-writer (3/25/03) cautioned that while he agreed with Michael Moore’s Oscar comments, Moore’s “own support of Ralph Nader contributed to the ‘election’ of Bush. By following the absurd Nader line that there was ‘no difference’ between Al Gore and Bush.” War resister and folk hero of the Vietnam Era Daniel Ellsberg even had harsh words for Nader. “To say that there was literally no difference between these two candidates was a falsehood as great as I have ever heard in electoral politics,” (Los Angeles Times, 4/25/03). (Really, Dan? What about “I am not a crook”? Or, more recently, how about the notion that Al Gore was the pro-environment, pro-working class, tough-on-big-business candidate?)
In an Associated Press article, (3/21/03) Nader rebuffed such claims. “Nader. . . dismisses suggestions [that] he asserted during the election there was no difference between Bush and Gore. ‘I never said that. I said there are few major differences. . . . The similarities between the two parties tower over the dwindling reality of the issues they’re willing to fight for.'” Moreover, when Nader made these types of comments during the campaign, he seems to have said it about as often as Adam Smith referred to the “invisible hand” of the marketplace in The Wealth of Nations (i.e., not many), but (like Smith’s metaphor) people ascribe it as a “mantra.”
Another point often made by the “blame Nader first crowd” is along the lines of “we wouldn’t be invading Iraq if Al Gore had won.” If these people have this kind of ability to know what “would have been” under Gore, one wonders why they didn’t see the Florida debacle coming and raise a big stink about Jeb’s reintroduction of Jim Crow to purge Blacks from the voting rolls. (One also wonders why, after they knew about it, the Gore campaign didn’t do more to defend these disenfranchised African Americans? Or why the were-tough-on-crime-just-like-Republicans Clinton/Gore team didn’t realize that cramming two million people into American prisons over the last decade–a disproportionate number of them Bla! ck–was actually disenfranchising one of their traditional constituencies?) What we do know about what Gore would have done as President comes in his many statements since 9/11. Gore has whole-heartedly praised Bush’s attack on Afghanistan, saying repeatedly that it is just what he would have done if elected. (There are, of course, those Democrats who supported the brutal terrorist attack on Afghanistan, but decried Bush’s terrorist attack on Iraq. Most likely, these are the same moralists who see Hiroshima as “justified,” but Nagasaki as “excessive.”) Would Gore have invaded Iraq? Perhaps not; for the sake of argument, let’s assume that he would not have. What wou! ld that have left us with? Among other things, the status quo of thousands of Iraqi children dying from US-led UN sanctions, a policy that Gore supported even more strongly than Clinton during the 1990s. Nader was right: choosing the lesser of two evils leaves you with evil.
Now, admittedly, in the aftermath of the election, as a Nader supporter I was at first hiding out like the apostles after the Crucifixion. But over the last two years, I have drawn some hypotheses about Nader’s candidacy that I rarely see in print. As described above, many argue that Nader cost Gore the election. (An episode of The Simpsons depicts a meeting of the Springfield Republican Party wherein the leader asks if there are any ideas for strategy. A gangly man in a frumpy suit furiously raises his hand, but the leader chides him, “No, no Nader; you’ve already done enough.”) This assertion of “Nader-as-spo! iler” is impossible to prove or disprove. We will never know if those who voted for Nader would have voted for Gore, some other third-party candidate, or would have not voted at all. Speaking for myself, had Nader not been running, I most likely would not have voted (or I would have voted for Kodos_again, Simpsons fans will get the reference.)
If we argue that most of the two and a half million votes that Nader garnered would not have been cast at all (or would have been cast for an even more obscure third-party candidate), perhaps, it could be argued, Nader’s campaign galvanized enough Democrats to get out and vote for Gore in order to counter the “Nader factor.” Had Nader not run, it is entirely possible that the lack of voter interest would have led to smaller numbers of Democrats bothering to vote. (Even partisan analysts agree that Republicans are better at getting out the vote; where Democrats try to be, well, democratic, Republicans demand and receive greater discipline from their rank-and-file.) This would have meant a “moral” vic! tory for George Bush in winning both the popular and electoral votes, rather than the specious “legal” victory that leaves an asterisk next to his “Presidency.” Had Nader not run, the Republicans would not have had to resort to the Brownshirt tactics that they did (or the tactics to which they resorted before the election, such as purging the voter rolls, would not have mattered, the argument would go, because Bush would have won anyway).
The “Nader factor” then, is akin to the antiwar movement of the last year in that they both robbed the “victors” of moral legitimacy. Nader drove Democrats to get out the vote (though Gore was still unable even to win his home state) and kept Bush from winning election outright, much like the antiwar movement in the US, and much more so around the world, kept the UN from giving legal sanction to the Iraq invasion. Nader didn’t stop Bush, but he helped put a cloud of illegitimacy over him; the antiwar movement didn’t stop the war (which was unlikely in any event), but made Bush go ahead with it despite the opposition of practically the entire world. Had Bush gotten the UN approval he so desperately sought, he would be clamoring even more than he has for an invasion of Syria, Iran, North Korea, etc., and be more likely to receive the approval of the UN. (Bush often said in the lead-up to war that the UN risked irrelevancy; think how irrelevant it would be had it become a rubber stamp for Bush’s imperialism.)
What, then, should be the Green plan for 2004? I have debated over the last several months whether to support whichever Republican in Democrat’s clothing is put forward, or to support a third party candidate, such as Nader. (Unfortunately, as this Tom Tomorrow cartoon points out, Dennis Kucinich has little chance of gaining the support of the “New” Democrats, i.e., “Old” Republicans). Many argue that “giving” Bush a second term is so dangerous that even Joe Lieberman would be an improvement. Perhaps so. But then, considering what I’ve written ! above, what action will “give” Bush a second term? Going back to my analogy of the antiwar movement, if one had “supported the Democrats,” one would have supported the war, considering the manner in which the Democrats rolled over to the imperialist whims of Bush. After all, the Democratic position had never been “antiwar”; rather, it was “war with a greater backing from the rest of the world.” If one is forced to choose between the Democratic and Republican positions on the Iraq war, off the table is any discussion of the morality of the war itself. Similarly, if Greens and other third-party activists decide to throw their support behind the Democratic candidate in 2004, it is possible that the complacency that led many (if not most) Democrats to support the war, could also lead to greater indiff! erence toward “voting Bush out.” Indeed, the only hope for energizing the Democrats to elect their candidate–and thereby deny Bush a second term–may be a strong third-party challenge.
Ralph Nader may just save the Democrats from themselves after all.
TOM GORMAN is a writer and activist living in Glendale, California. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.