The audacity of narcissism

I thought no politician could be more self-involved than Ralph Nader -- until I heard Matt Gonzalez had agreed to be his running mate.

By Joan Walsh
Published February 29, 2008 7:31PM (EST)

I took a vow of silence Sunday morning: I promised myself I wouldn't say a word about Ralph Nader's running for president a fifth time, hoping maybe that would make him go away. (We all retain some capacity for childlike magical thinking.) I also tried to ignore Nader because I believe anger can be unhealthy; I've forgiven my friends who voted for Nader in 2000, believing there was little difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, even though I believe it cost Al Gore the presidency. (I still haven't forgiven Antonin Scalia.)

But the news that San Francisco's own Matt Gonzalez is Nader's running mate made me break my vow of silence. In fact, a reader broke it for me, in a letter quoting from my coverage of Gonzalez when he ran for mayor in 2003. (A longer version of the story is here.) The Nader-Gonzalez ticket makes a certain kind of perverse sense: Both men have proven that they're political narcissists, with extremely high regard for their own status as visionaries and no patience for the messy realities of electoral politics.

Remember: Gonzalez came within a few thousand votes of upsetting Gavin Newsom in the 2003 mayor's race, despite Newsom's advantages in money and establishment support. But then, unbelievably, instead of building on the movement he'd galvanized from his perch on the Board of Supervisors, maybe setting up a rematch for 2007, he retired from the board barely a year later to start a private law practice. Newsom sailed to a second term with no credible left-wing opposition last year.

In an excellent column today Joe Conason runs down all the reasons Nader and Gonzalez can only be spoilers to the Democrats, as well as all the evidence that Republicans, understandably, have worked to help Nader's candidacy in the past. To those who argue Nader and Gonzalez give voters a choice, I'd say that in our system of government, it's likely to be a wasted one: U.S. third party candidates don't get seats in government if they win some reasonable portion of votes. All they do is siphon support away from the party closest to them on the ideological spectrum – in this case, Democrats. (The election of lefty Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or, cough, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman shows that the calculation can be a little different in congressional, state or local races.) In a year when either of two historic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, will face the tired old politics of John McCain, it's delusional to suggest there's little difference between the major parties.

To be fair, just before his Nader announcement Gonzalez outlined the reasons he wasn't on the Obama bandwagon, unlike his friend and successor on the Board of Supervisors, Green Party activist Ross Mirkarimi, who has endorsed Obama. (Don't read Gonzalez's piece if you objected to Bill Clinton calling Obama's supposedly staunch Iraq war opposition a "fairy tale"; Gonzalez is far tougher on Obama than either Clinton would ever dare to be.) I also know that one reason Gonzalez says he's running is to advance election reform ideas that would give third parties more of a shot at winning power. Those are good ideas, but there's no evidence a national presidential campaign will make them a reality.

It just looks like Gonzalez, who tired of the dreary confines of local politics, found he missed the spotlight, and he's trying to grab it again with Nader. He's entitled to his decision; I'm going to try to renew my vow of silence about him and Nader, and pray their latest political stunt doesn't put McCain in the White House.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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