How to make sure that Nader doesn't do it again

The Democrats need to take his issues seriously.

By Seth Colter Walls
Published March 12, 2004 10:16PM (EST)

It's easy to forget that, up until the desperate final weeks of the 2000 campaign, Team Gore's official line about Ralph Nader was that they weren't "losing any sleep" over his candidacy. Nader wore this patronizing dig as if it were a badge of honor, even working it into his stump speech. "Slumber on, Al Gore!" he'd chant to the thousands gathered at his surprisingly vital rallies. To Naderites (full disclosure: I used to be one), the Democrats' inattention was seen as a kind of playground taunt, further evidence of an arrogant party elite that was unwilling to recognize sincere political passion within their own natural base. John Kerry, already thought by many to be aloof, cannot afford to sleep on this front. If he wants to be president, he'll need to actively defeat two candidates: Bush and Nader. To do so, he will need to engage Nader directly in September and October.

This contradicts conventional political wisdom. It's taken as gospel that the last thing a front-running or major-party candidate wants to do is legitimize a quixotic campaign by deigning to acknowledge its existence. (Gore's "not losing any sleep" approach was textbook in this regard, though it probably helped doom him to many a sleepless night after the election.) But Nader is not your average political Don Quixote: He starts out with high name recognition, a base (admittedly small, but large enough to matter), and a public persona based on an impressive record of accomplishment. It's not as though Kerry would risk alerting people to a little-known challenger if he were to name-check Nader during an interview.

Another lesson of 2000 is that the Democrats can't prevent Nader's candidacy from becoming a story by pretending it doesn't exist. This is the political equivalent of playing dumb, and it's far from clever. As long as he keeps polling at 6 percent in AP polls, Nader is going to draw attention from the press. (Other current polls have Nader drawing as little as 2 percent, but as everyone should be able to concede, 2 percent can turn a few blue states red.) He will likely end up on enough state ballots to pose a problem for Democrats. Moreover, if Kerry chooses not to engage with Nader, he gives Nader a de facto monopoly over defining what Nader's candidacy is all about.

Some will argue that Kerry should leave this work of engagement to surrogates and pundits. As a former Naderite, I can tell you this alone will not suffice. It would be disastrous for the Democrats to dispatch Howard Dean to Nader country as a stand-in for John Kerry. Whatever you make of the Naderites' political savvy, they aren't oblivious: They know who was savaging Kerry as a "handmaiden of the special interests" as recently as Jan. 31. Likewise, relying on opinion pieces from Gloria Steinem as your rebuttal to Nader's message (as was attempted in 2000) seems a little, well, feeble. Besides, what would shying away from Nader mean for the "bring it on," "I'm a fighter" bravado of Kerry's own political identity?

Another question certain to be raised is whether Naderites are persuadable voters, or simply lost causes (I happen to be evidence of the former). It might sound petty, but the best way to win Naderites' votes in 2004 is to take them seriously. In 2000, Nader and the Greens nailed a damning bill of particulars to the door of the DNC. Instead of responding to the claims, however, Democrats chose to mock the quality of the paper on which they had been printed (home-pressed hemp, perhaps). Forget whether you think Nader deserves a response from the new nominee; Naderites think he does. The good news is that Democrats have, at long last, begun to exhibit the tenacity of a true opposition party to the Republicans.

This is why Kerry should also move beyond the "spoiler" argument if and when he addresses the Nader threat. That Nader refuses to concede his candidacy's impact on the 2000 election is frustrating, as it's a settled issue among nearly everyone else. But the Democrats still need to get substantive. Those even thinking about voting for Nader this time around are clearly not interested in strategic voting -- they've decided to vote for someone who reflects their values, and a stern lecture won't convert them. There's a passionate, values-based message Kerry can deliver to Nader's base about "fixing" trade agreements and aggressively going after corporate crime. (One can also imagine Edwards doing wonders in this respect, should he be on the ticket.) But Kerry can't wait until late October to start.

Contesting Nader on the merits can take several forms, as long as the Democrats drop their prideful prohibition on speaking his name. For example, in states where Nader has a strong base of support, state Democratic parties should target some direct mail at Greens and liberal Democrats. Such a campaign could outline areas of commonality between Nader and Kerry on specific policies (reining in corporations who use overseas sleights-of-hand to avoid paying taxes, protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, etc.).

What is often overlooked in the debate over whether Nader is a jerk for running is the fact that he's not at all a person you'd want to lead the executive branch (though he'd make a truly ripping senior Justice Department official). I didn't realize this myself until after 2000, in part because Gore had handcuffed himself by adhering to a strategy of disengagement. Whatever else the presidency is, it's a job fit for someone who's comfortable with authority. While it's true Nader has founded many successful organizations, his model has always been decidedly collectivist and anti-authoritarian: He would empower a group of young lawyers or citizens to realize their civic potential and then decamp to organize another group of young lawyers or citizens in a different arena. He has experience in shepherding legislation, but displays a shocking inflexibility when it comes to compromise and negotiation. As a candidate, he's more than vulnerable when it comes to national security concerns. But Kerry can't make any of these valid criticisms until he acknowledges that Nader matters.

The boldest way to engage Nader, obviously, would be to debate him once during the fall. Of course this would be risky, as the 70-year-old lawyer's greatest political strength is his rhetorical ability -- but, traditionally, if you want to vanquish a nemesis you have to make peace with the idea of a final confrontation. A widely perceived victory would pay huge dividends for Kerry. Before the debate, he could challenge Bush to participate in a truly gloves-off forum. When the leader of the free world inevitably chooses to hide behind the skirt of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Kerry would be able to attack Bush as a political coward. Then, when debating Nader, Kerry could stake out middle-ground positions, putting the lie to the Bush machine's (almost certain) "big scary liberal" approach. As long as he treated Nader respectfully, he would have a decent chance of coming out smelling like a rose in liberal as well as moderate circles. Plus, you can bet Nader would use his platform to hammer Bush something fierce.

A large percentage of Nader's righteously indignant anger is focused on process discrimination in our elections ("locked out of debates," "barriers to the ballot," etc.); Kerry would take a big arrow out of Nader's quiver just by appearing on a stage and rebutting some of his positions and agreeing with select others. And then what? If the results from 2000 (and current polls) are any guide, a slender majority of the country's voters will decide whom to vote for instead of George W. Bush. Kerry needs to win about 99 percent of that vote to become president. It's an achievable task, but it won't happen without his conceding that he has more than one opponent.

Seth Colter Walls

Seth Colter Walls is an editorial staff member of The Daily Star, an English-language paper based in Beirut, Lebanon. He volunteered across the country for Nader in 2000, and worked as the canvas director for a Democratic U.S. Senate challenger in 2002.

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2004 Elections Al Gore John F. Kerry