Democratic partisans and their liberal lobby friends didn't even wait for the complete returns on election night before they named Ralph Nader the scapegoat for making life hard for Al Gore.
Their denunciation of Nader was scathing and in some cases just short of hysterical. "Ralph Nader is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors." Sen. Joe Biden told the New York Times on Nov. 8. "Nader cost us the election."
Nader picked up 2,756,000 votes, or about 3% of the total cast. That's about half the number of people that polls indicated were planning to vote Green in the weeks leading up the election. Nader's voters clearly accounted for the difference in New Hampshire, which Gore lost, and Florida, which Bush claimed by a 537-vote margin despite legal challenges by Gore.
Nader supporters who peeled off at the last minute and voted for Gore apparently made the difference in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin as Gore won those states. Nader Democrats in those swing states kept Gore in the hunt on election day. Unfortunately, the vice president couldn't win his own home state of Tennessee, much less the home state of his mentor, Bill Clinton. That left the Democrats dependent on Florida's 25 electoral votes three weeks after the election. Gore even punted West Virginia, for crying out loud!
But if the D's want to credit Nader with spoiling the election, why should Ralph argue? After all, winner-take-all is the way we elect presidents, so spoiling the election is about the only thing Nader and the Greens could do in their attempt to force the Democrats to pay attention to populist issues.
Some asked, Why didn't Nader run in the Democratic primary? Perhaps he simply feels closer to the Greens, who embrace his criticism of the corporate control of government. But if Nader had run in the Democratic primary he would have faced the same obstacles progressives have faced in previous attempts: an inability to raise funds during the "money primary" a year before the election, which results in a lack of coverage in the mainstream media, which stunts the insurgent's rankings in polls, which results in further loss of coverage by media who only pay attention to the monied front-runners. Then after the front-loaded primaries effectively decide the race by March, the winner has the rest of the year to blow off the progressives and steer back to the center.
Instead Nader opted for a general election race to build the Greens as an alternative to the Democrats and keep Gore looking toward his left flank all the way to November. Democratic bosses were furious at the upstarts who dared to buck the orthodoxy.
We still think Nader did the Democrats a service as he jolted Gore into returning to his populist roots. Gore's speech at the Democratic campaign, where he dusted off the pledge to fight for working people against big business, gave the campaign a jump start and allowed the vice president to overtake Bush in August. After that, Gore's poor performance in the debates -- and a mainstream media that focused on Gore's flaws but excused Bush's -- allowed the Texas governor to catch up. Through the rhetoric voters saw two mainstream candidates, both of whom were beholden to big business.
One may assume that most of those Green Democrats who were going to vote for Gore did so. The 97,000 who held on to vote for Nader in Florida knew that it was a tight race and they had their reasons. As it turned out, the election hung in the balance of less than one-tenth of their vote. They certainly should not be ashamed or apologetic.
Progressive Democrats also should think twice before they blame Nader, who gives them a new leverage within the party. The center-left actually put together a clear majority of voters in this election -- even if the Electoral College dissipates that majority. Kevin Phillips noted that the total vote for the center-left -- Gore and Nader -- was 52%, its highest share since Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide victory in 1964. "Nader and his voters may now be what George C. Wallace was after 1968: a pivotal force to be courted," Phillips wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "Conservatism is losing momentum."
Not only that: With the fading of Pat Buchanan's campaign Nader has put progressives back at the head of the populist movement. Nader attracted young people as well as old lefties to his rallies that packed auditoriums around the country. He continued the momentum that started a year ago last November when environmentalists, organized labor and trade activists demonstrated against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. He gave progressives who were dissatisfied with Gore a reason to stay involved in politics.
Democrats have treated their progressive wing like red-headed stepchildren for a generation. Liberals were blamed for the backlash the party suffered, particularly in the South, against its social welfare and civil rights programs of the 1960s. But while groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council continue to move party officials toward a more conservative, business-oriented posture, polls consistently show the public supports progressive positions which are now, it seems, in the mainstream. If taking Gore down causes the Democrats to realize that there is a price to pay for selling out the workers, small businesses and family farmers in favor of the multinational corporations, then Nader performed a service that progressive Democrats may come to appreciate.
Instead, labor leaders and other liberal groups fell in line behind Gore and were critical of Nader's divisive challenge. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the Nader campaign "reprehensible." But Nader's challenge was arguably partially responsible for an about-face in the Clinton administration's negotiating position on trade issues. In October Clinton finally produced a groundbreaking "fair trade" agreement with Jordan which, unlike previous pacts, provides for labor and environmental standards in the treaty and not in unenforceable side agreements. If Gore promoted this new, pro-labor trade initiative, he kept it low-key.
The Democrats are not yet at the stage where they are willing to admit that if Nader spoiled Gore's election chances, he may have done the D's a favor, but the economy is almost certain to tank in the next two years. When the bill comes due for the last eight years of prosperity, it could be a doozy. If the GOP is in charge, it will be a good time to dust off those "Don't Blame Me, I Voted Democratic" bumper stickers.
If the Democrat bosses think they are going to cow the Greens into returning meekly to the Democratic fold, they are out of their minds. Nader didn't reach the 5% threshold that would qualify the Greens for a share of federal money for the next election, but he did qualify the party for ballot status in a bunch of states where the Greens can work more mischief if the D's take a hard line.
The Greens can't win many offices under the winner-take-all election scheme in the foreseeable future, but they showed they can wreck the election chances of Democrats. Nader and the Greens should demand Democratic support for bills implementing instant runoff voting in presidential, governors' and Senate races and proportional representation in congressional and legislative races. Republicans might be receptive; after all they lost the previous two presidential elections when Ross Perot siphoned off conservative support from Republicans, and proportional representation would help them in some states. (For more information see www.fairvote.org.)
Many of these Democratic would-be power brokers would make a deal with the devil to further their political agenda. If they think Nader can do any good for them, they'll call him up, meet with him and show up at his rallies -- if they're smart. They might even learn some things.
Democrats, if they want to put that center-left majority together, have two years to show Nader supporters that there is a difference between them and the Republicans. -- JMC