If Ralph Nader cares at all about his legacy, he should drop out of the presidential race. This is not the advice of another DLC type intent on keeping the Democratic Party muddling along in the fuzzy center of American politics. It's the heartfelt plea of George McGovern, the last Democratic nominee to run a passionately liberal campaign for the presidency. "It would be a crying shame if, after all he has done for the country, Ralph goes down in history as the man who elected George W. Bush president twice," said McGovern, offering his thoughts on the current campaign by phone from his home in Mitchell, S.D.
"It's possible that he still might drop out. If I thought it would do any good, I would make a personal appeal to him. I've known him over the years. Maybe Ralph will come to his senses when it fully dawns on him what four more years of Bush will do to the country. For one thing, it means more war. They already have plans on the drawing boards to assail a half dozen other countries. And then of course they'll make their absurd tax cut for the rich permanent, which would be an absolute disaster. You and I will be paying off the interest on the sky-high deficit for the rest of our lives."
McGovern is not an uncritical advocate of the Democratic Party. He thinks the party took the wrong lesson from his landslide 1972 defeat against Richard Nixon, by distancing itself from the liberal convictions that are the Democrats' "heart and soul."
"We're supposed to represent the rank-and-file citizens of America, to give voice to the dispossessed. It's true that if you run campaigns on your liberal principles, you're going to win some and lose some. But at least people will have a clear-cut view of the differences between the two parties. Too many people think there is no difference now. But I believe that there is a striking contrast this year."
McGovern credits Howard Dean with electro-shocking the Democrats' listless liberal heart back into full pumping rhythm this year. "If we win, which I believe we will, he deserves a lot of credit." McGovern thinks that Dean, who is busy organizing the party's progressive base while stumping for Kerry, should be rewarded in a Kerry administration with "a major Cabinet post. He's a courageous, clear-thinking, first-rate human being."
McGovern wishes Nader had done what Dean and other uncompromising progressives like Dennis Kucinich did this year and run for president within the Democratic Party. "He would have been given a major national platform to air his views, and he might have nudged the party to the left, because much of what he has to say is right on the mark."
What's McGovern's advice for Kerry as he prepares for his first debate with Bush? "I want to see him continue to directly and forcefully attack Bush on the war. In 1972, during the Vietnam War, we couldn't tip the public against Nixon. Every time I denounced his administration as corrupt, I think I lost 100,000 votes. The public -- and the press -- just wasn't ready to hear what we were saying until the Watergate hearings. But I think it's different this time.
"I'd like to see Kerry contrast the performance of Bush Junior with Bush Senior. The first Bush knew how to fight a war against Saddam. He made sure the whole world was on our side when we finally went to war, and as a result it was over in 100 hours. This Bush doesn't have a clue, which is why we've ended up in this morass.
"I'm sure that deep in his soul, John Kerry believes we should never have gone into Iraq and he will get us out of there at the earliest opportunity. I think he was genuinely startled, after he voted to give Bush authorization to use force as an option, that Bush gave up so quickly on the UN and just went in."
While not beating the drums for regime change, the 82-year-old McGovern is writing books (his latest, "The Essential America," argues that liberal values are what made America a great nation) and raising money for the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Public Service Center at Dakota Wesleyan University, "a little Methodist campus across the street from our house" where McGovern and his wife met as students. The McGovern center will train students interested in careers in the Peace Corps, foreign service and other branches of government where diplomatic skills are essential. With America's esteem at an all-time low around the world, the center's graduates should have their work cut out for them.