What can Nader accomplish in 2008?

March 7, 2008

Alan Maass examines the prospects for another third-party presidential campaign.

RALPH NADER'S announcement that he would run again for president as an independent candidate was met, predictably, by a chorus of abuse from the usual liberal suspects.

Top Democrats--Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton among them--repeated the false charge that Nader was responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House by "stealing" votes from Al Gore in Florida in 2000. Liberal commentators denounced Nader as an egomaniac who was disgracing his past record as a crusader for consumer rights and economic justice.

This rerun of the old lies used against Nader underscores the hold of "lesser evilism"--the idea that a "lesser evil" Democrat, no matter how bad, has to be supported to defeat a "greater evil" Republican--on liberals and progressives.

Nader himself says he is a "veteran of pursuing the folly of the least worst between the two parties," which allows "both to get worse every four years." His 2000 and 2004 campaigns were a powerful challenge to that logic, offering an alternative to a political system run by Democrats and Republicans in the interests of corporate power.

As for 2008, Nader's critique of the Democratic contenders so far--above all, that neither Obama's nor Clinton's increasingly liberal rhetoric is matched by proposals and principled stands that would change the political direction in Washington--is true.

But the political setting for the 2008 election is different. Obama, in particular, has excited wide support with his calls for change and even associated himself with the idea of grassroots politics, though, of course, in the interests of winning votes.

By contrast, the natural base for Nader on the left has shrunk further. The possibility for Nader's campaign to energize a significant following or play any kind of role in rebuilding a left has receded.

While Nader may be the candidate who deserves our votes in November, we at Socialist Worker believe it would be a poor use of scarce resources for those who want to build a stronger left to concentrate their energies working on Nader's candidacy.

NADER'S 2000 campaign as the candidate of the Green Party was different. It came on the crest of the global justice movement, fresh off its success in shutting down the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in late 1999.

This was the core of Nader's support in 2000--but only the core. The campaign's super-rallies, drawing out more than 100,000 people in a dozen cities in the run-up to the election, showed that Nader was reaching a much broader audience. Coming at the end of eight years of the Clinton presidency, the Nader campaign was a lightning rod for all the grievances built up under the so-called "miracle economy" and the Republican Lite rule of the Democrats.

Nader won nearly 2.9 million votes, the best showing of a left-wing presidential candidate in almost a century.

But no one remembered that--only the 537 votes that George Bush was ahead by in Florida after the ballots were counted. Nader was deluged with furious denunciations that he had handed the White House to Bush, by winning 95,000 votes in Florida that rightfully "belonged" to Gore.

There were a hundred responses to the "spoiler" argument. Most obviously, Gore won the national popular vote by more than half a million--and he would have won Florida and gotten the edge in the Electoral College if he and his party had the guts to fight for a recount.

As Nader has pointed out many times, the number of registered Democrats in Florida who voted for Bush was twice as large as Nader's total. But no one blamed them--or, more to the point, the incompetent campaign run by Gore that gave Democrats nothing to vote for.

The anti-Nader crusade extended into the ranks of his supporters on the left. Within the Green Party, a more conservative leadership that had never been comfortable with Nader's outright critique of the Democrats, set about undermining him.

At their 2004 convention, the Greens dismissed Nader's bid to get the party's endorsement for an independent campaign, and instead nominated David Cobb, who stood for a so-called "safe-states" strategy of not challenging the Democrats where it might cost them in the Electoral College.

Overwhelmed by costly legal challenges orchestrated by the Democrats, Nader and vice presidential running mate Peter Camejo appeared on the ballot in only 34 states, and won one-sixth as many votes as in 2000.

With Nader's broad left support from 2000 fallen away, a small core of dedicated left Greens, socialists and others carried on the fight in 2004, with the goal of putting forward an unapologetically antiwar and anti-corporate campaign.

This year, this core is smaller still--and that will only feed Nader's inclination to accept backing wherever it can be found, even if it means taking ballot lines and financial support from the libertarian right, as Nader did in 2004, even though its political views are at odds with his. Socialist Worker challenged Nader's talk of uniting the left and right behind his candidacy then, as we did his political weaknesses on issues like immigration.

By and large, Nader will be to the left of the Democratic candidate in the 2008 campaign on most issues. His choice of a running mate--former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzales of the Green Party--brings another progressive voice to the campaign.

But Nader's political positions weren't the decisive reason to work for him in 2000 and 2004. More important was the potential of the Nader campaign to bring together activists from different movements and use the electoral arena to give voice to a left-wing challenge.

This year, the ability of Nader to galvanize a left alternative has faded--not because of Nader's own flaws especially, but because of the weaknesses of the U.S. left and the pressures of the political period following September 11 and the launching of the "war on terror."

In fact, 2008 does offer opportunities for the left, but of a different kind. The groundswell of excitement evident in the Democratic primaries is a signal that, after eight long years of Bush in White House, millions of people are looking with a sense of hope to the prospect of a new direction in U.S. politics.

Neither Clinton nor Obama deserve such hopes. Both belong to the political mainstream of a party that has surrendered to Bush and the Republicans throughout the last eight years. But the primaries are further evidence of the mass popular rejection of the Bush presidency, and they are emboldening huge numbers of people to believe that change is possible.

Those people can be at the heart of the struggles of the future, no matter who sits in the White House a year from now. Engaging them in a discussion about how real social change can be accomplished--through building the antiwar movement, organizing unions, fighting racism and more--and preparing for future struggles are the most important tasks today for those who want to rebuild the left.

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