Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph Nader, tragedy and farce

In the apparent belief that he has not sufficiently damaged his own legacy, Ralph Nader now seems determined to wield the wrecking ball one more time.

Havng told himself - and the nation yesterday, on Meet the Press - that Americans are clamoring for a third-party candidate in 2008, Nader has decided to offer himself as the purist alternative. Even though, as Gallup makes clear, there is little empirical evidence that Americans are clamoring for a third-party candidate in 2008.

Nader is the living embodiment of the Karl Marx dictum that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." The tragedy for Democrats, of course, is that Nader (despite his persistent denials) played a pivotal role in the ascension of George W. Bush eight years ago. The math speaks for itself; Bush officially won Florida by 537 votes over Al Gore, while Nader drained away 97,488 Floridians. And exit polls showed that, if Nader had not stumped to be on the Florida ballot (while telling Floridians that there were scant differences between Gore and Nader), his voters would have favored Gore by a 2-1 margin.

The farce is what's happening now.

Nader had argued in 2000 that Gore was a corporate stooge, tethered to the centrist compromises of the Bill Clinton era. Nader had argued in 2004 that John Kerry was a corporate stooge, tethered to the compromises of the Democratis establishment. And Nader is now arguing that the new kid on the block, Barack Obama, is also a corporate stooge ("he has leaned toward the pro-corporate side of policy-making"), one who refuses to measure up to Nader's high standards because "his better instincts and his knowledge have been censored by himself."

No doubt many issues are getting short shrift in this campaign, and Nader plans to highlight them, from a liberal perspective, on what he calls his new "exciting, informative, participatory website." But he is badly misreading the national mood.

Consider this Gallup statistic: When voters in January were asked whether any of the '08 candidates would make a good president, 84 percent said yes - the highest share in 16 years, and nearly twice the share recorded in 1992, when Ross Perot ran as a third-party hopeful. Gallup's Frank Newport concludes that "the environment (in 2008) would not be nearly as propitious this year as it was for Perot that year. It is true that Americans are broadly dissatisfied this year with both the state of the nation and the economy, as they were in 1992. But Americans at this juncture seem much more willing to say that the current crop of candidates running in the major parties have discussed good solutions to the nation's problems, and, as a result, there is a high level of satisfaction with those currently running."

Indeed, while Nader was busy yesterday talking about how voters feel "shut out, marginalized, disrespected" (without, of course, acknowledging his own role in helping to install a president who has left voters feeling shut out, marginalized, and disrespected), he conveniently overlooked one of the key factors that potentially distinguishes 2008 from its electoral predecessors: Voter enthusiasm.

It stands to reason that if voters were truly yearning for Nader or another third-party candidate, they would not be storming the ballot box in record numbers during this primary season. Thanks largely to Obama's presence in the race, Democratic turnout has broken all previous party records, and has dwarfed the GOP turnout. If Obama does win the nomination, young voters and first-time voters are likely to marginalize Nader further. Even in 2004, the record turnout for John Kerry (who drew more votes than any losing candidate in history) overwhelmed Nader, reducing him to 0.38 percent of the popular vote, and reducing him to a non-factor in every state. It's hard to see how he would improve on that percentage in 2008.

What's truly sad is that the young Obama fans are likely to dismiss Nader as merely a cranky contrarian; the relatively few who study political history will see him as a parody of the perpetual also-ran, a latter-day Harold Stassen. They will remain largely unaware that Nader has favorably impacted their lives every time they drive their cars in safety; it was Nader, more than any other American, who helped pad their dashboards and strap them in.

But it is Nader himself who has consigned this estimable legacy to the mists of memory. And that is not farce, it is tragedy.


Speaking of turnout, and the impending Democratic primaries in Texas and Ohio, here's a statistic worth noting in the Lone Star State:

Texans are already casting ballots for the crucial March 4 contest, thanks to the state's early-voting law. So I took a look at the state turnout figures thus far. I was stunned by what I saw.

I'll just focus on Collin County, in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, reputedly the richest county in Texas. It's a place where Democratic voters have been virtually invisible in recent years. For instance, during the first three days of early voting in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, only 503 people bothered to do it.

Yet for the same time period in 2008, here's the turnout number for Collin County:


That's nearly 12 times the previous number for Collin County. And the pattern is similar elsewhere in Texas; for instance, in Harris County (Houston and adjacent suburbia), the '04 early turnout was 2392; today, it's 26,729. That's more than 10 times the early tally of 2004.

Are we to believe that Hillary Clinton, in her dire hour of need, is the candidate driving this turnout?