I've been trying to figure out just what I think of Ralph Nader's quixotic bid for the presidency. My initial reaction to his decision to run again was to dismiss it as nothing more than ego-driven politics, an urge to keep himself in the national limelight no matter what the consequences.
But in recent weeks, I'm rethinking my initial assessment.
I still think the Nader candidacy will steal votes from the Democratic nominee, making it that much more likely that George W. Bush will win a second term in the White House. And a second Bush term is not something to which any of us should look forward -- especially because the president will be freed from the constraints of seeking re-election.
And for this reason and this reason alone I won't support Nader come November. But that doesn't mean his presence in the race may not bear some useful fruit.
The key here is that John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, seems to need a push from the left to be effective on the campaign trail. Kerry spent the better part of a year frittering away his front-runner status, until his campaign reached a crisis point in the person of the fiery Howard Dean.
Dean, of course, exploded into the national consciousness when he won MoveOn's internet primary, forcing the national party to take him seriously and filling his campaign coffers with some serious dough. And the reason behind Dean's early rise was his willingness to take on the president -- especially, on the issue of Iraq.
By contrast, Kerry appeared cautious. But then Kerry borrowed a page from Dean's playbook and started taking the president on, boldly attacking Bush's record on the economy and convincing Democratic voters that he was their best chance of beating the president.
So why isn't Kerry leading in the polls? A Washington Post-ABC News poll released at the end of April had Bush at 48% and Kerry at 43%, while a New York Times/CBS News poll released at around the same time had the two running head to head.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen offers this explanation: Kerry is not offering a coherent message.
"At the moment, it is nowhere to be found," he wrote in April. "If anyone out there can complete the following sentence, please let the Kerry campaign know: Vote for John Kerry because ... The only thing that comes to mind is that he is not George Bush."
And that's the crux. Many of us on the left have been so consumed with defeating Bush that we have been too willing to let Kerry off the hook. But doing so has robbed the Kerry candidacy of whatever energy it had generated from its primary victories.
Kerry stands alone as the sole challenger to the president and he is listing to the right and the wind has gone out of his sails.
And that's where Nader comes in. He is positioning himself as the anti-war candidate. In April, Nader met Washington political reporters at a breakfast and told them the US should pull its troops, civilian contractors and companies from Iraq within six months, according to Washington Post political columnist Jackson Diehl. Nader told the reporters that Kerry "is stuck in the Iraq quagmire the same way Bush is," Diehl wrote, making him the "sole choice for 'the peace movement in this country.'"
There is a lot to like about Nader's plan and a lot that seems problematic. The UN needs to be brought in and handed control of the peace-keeping operation and Iraqis must be granted full sovereignty -- including the right to create their own constitution and their own government and the right to choose their own leaders.
But American troops have to be a part of the peace-keeping force for two reasons. The American military is the best-trained and best-equipped in the world and is needed in Iraq to help restore order. There is no way around it -- though the US cannot be in charge of what happens.
Just as important, the US must pay its debt to the Iraqi people. The fractured state that now exists in Iraq is at least partly our fault (though Saddam Hussein bears ultimate responsibility for the failure of Iraq) and we can't walk off the stage completely without betraying the Iraqis and the rest of the world community.
Nader's plan offers a stark contrast to the pipe dream being offered by the Bush administration -- which refuses to acknowledge that the resistance movement in Iraq is more widespread than it wants to admit. And it makes Kerry's Bush-lite rhetoric seem uninspired.
If Nader continues to poll at 6% or 7% or if his poll numbers increase -- with much of it coming from voters who otherwise would opt for Kerry or not vote at all -- Kerry will be forced to ask himself what he needs to do to win back those voters.
If Nader can pull Kerry to the left, especially on the issue of the war, then he will have performed a service. If he steals votes from Democrats and helps George W. Bush win another four years in office, however, he will be doing the country a grave disservice.
Hank Kalet is a poet ad managing editor of weekly newspapers in New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.