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Is Nader a left alternative?

By Alan Maass | March 5, 2004 | Page 6

THE GREATEST strength of Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign is that it represented a left-wing break from the two big-business parties that dominate U.S. politics. Nader's own political background--as a crusader for consumer rights and good government reform--was more moderate than the movement that grew up behind his candidacy. Likewise, support for Nader extended well beyond the Green Party that gave Nader its presidential nomination.

Nader became such a phenomenon because his campaign spoke to the issues that were driving a spreading political radicalization in the late 1990s. While Al Gore tried to act as much like a Republican as possible, Nader presented an anticorporate, pro-worker message--calling for a $10 an hour minimum wage, a national health care system, repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act and more.

As his campaign won support with a string of super-rallies over the summer of 2000, Nader began to overcome his traditional reluctance to take up social questions and spoke out on such issues as racial profiling and the death penalty. For millions of people, Nader made the 2000 election worth paying attention to.

His campaign this year--launched late last month--is unlikely to have the momentum of 2000, because most of the broad left is united behind supporting whichever Democrat gets the party's presidential nomination. But the Nader campaign could still serve as a focal point for a minority of people fed up with the Democrats' move to the right--if Nader represents a left-wing break with the Washington status quo.

That's obviously the fear of the liberals and radicals who have heaped abuse on Nader for daring to run--absurdly denouncing him as everything from a "self-centered egoist" to a "shill" whose campaign is being paid for by Republicans.

The widespread hatred of Bush--and the fear of four more years of him as president--is understandable. But this doesn't change the fact that the differences between Bush and Kerry are much smaller than the common agenda they share--a commitment to the political status quo in Washington.

Nader has launched a campaign that represents an alternative to what he rightly calls the two-party "duopoly" in Washington. Unfortunately, he hasn't been clear that he wants a left-wing alternative.

In a speech announcing his campaign at the National Press Club, Nader said that he planned to appeal to "conservatives and independents who are very upset with Bush administration policies." "I urge the liberal establishment to relax and rejoice," Nader said. "This is a campaign that strives to displace the present corporate regime of the Bush administration."

Last week, Nader called on Ross Perot--the right-wing millionaire founder of the Reform Party--to speak out again against George Bush's "reckless spending" that is causing a budget deficit. But Perot is no ally of the left-wing platform that Nader has put forward.

Such appeals to the right are bound to frustrate those on the left who might look to a Nader candidacy. If Nader and his campaign staff think that they will disarm their critics among liberals and radicals by claiming that they will take more votes from Bush than the Democratic nominee, they better think again.

Even if some are disaffected from the Bush administration, conservatives won't be voting for Nader unless he hides his left-wing positions--in favor of health care and expanding workers' rights, for example--behind a smokescreen of rhetoric about "fiscal responsibility." Flirting with right-wing forces--like the remnants of the Reform Party or Republicans who don't think Bush has taken a tough enough stand on cultural issues--is a sure way to alienate whatever support Nader can win on the left.

The "anybody but Bush" chorus won't be satisfied until Nader shuts up and goes away--period. The only way to challenge Democrats' campaign of slander against Nader is to make the case against a vote for the Democrats--without any concessions.

As Nader put it last week, "The only wasted vote in my opinion is when you vote for someone you don't believe in." That's an argument that could galvanize people on the left who are fed up with the Democrats' rightward shift--and angry with the relentless attacks on Nader.

The only independent campaign worth supporting in 2004 must be a left-wing campaign--that speaks out firmly against U.S. occupation of Iraq, the war on working people and the poor at home, and against the bigots and the compromisers in the Democratic Party on pressing social issues like gay marriage.

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