Kausfiles Special

The Gift of Nader


[To read Ralph Nader’s response to this article, click here.]

The commentariat agrees that the energetic Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader threatens Vice President Gore’s campaign. Nader is pulling 7 percent in national polls, most of it from Gore. Experts note that if Nader gets hot, or even warm, he could steal enough votes from the Gore to tip a big state like California to Bush. True, some analysts argue that Pat Buchanan threatens Bush more than Nader threatens Gore. Some argue that support for both third-party candidates will collapse at the last minute. But nobody thinks that, taken by himself, Nader doesn’t hurt Gore by stealing his votes.

What’s Gore to do? It seems obvious. He must “secure his base” and head off the Nader threat by wooing Nader voters–that is, voters disaffected by Gore’s globalism on trade and by his centrism on issues such as the death penalty. Maybe the wooing can be accomplished with some tough talk in favor of campaign-finance reform. Maybe attacking the drug and oil companies or proposing a $75 billion “clean technology” plan will help bring the Naderites back into the fold. Maybe, as Slate’s Robert Wright recommends, it can be done with labor protections that actually help integrate America into a global economy. Or maybe, as the Nation’s William Greider hopes, it will derail the globalist train and “halt the [Democratic] party’s rightward drift.” But Gore must do it.

Am I alone in thinking that this universally offered advice is more or less completely wrong–and that Nader’s candidacy is not so much a threat to Gore as a great opportunity for Gore? Why? Because instead of securing his base on the left by co-opting Nader and appeasing the Naderites, Gore can now seize a large chunk of the center by bashing Nader. Using Nader as a foil, Gore can a) reestablish himself as a genuine New Democrat, in synch with the views of the vast middle, and b) change the public’s impression of his character from “boring-but-ruthless panderer” to “leader with the guts to take on part of his own coalition.” So what if some voters go with Nader, and this costs Gore 5 points from his left flank? By seeming to be a reformed Democrat and a leader, Gore can steal twice that many points from the center.

It’s been done before, and I’m not talking about Sister Souljah. In 1988, why did the unprepossessing and not-very-likable governor of Massachusetts seem, for a brief moment, as if he might be presidential material? Because he was traveling the country beating up on an unabashed paleoliberal activist, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Why did Gore himself seem like such a large figure just a few months ago? Because he was traveling the country beating up on an unabashed paleoliberal challenger, the hapless Bill Bradley. Gore must wish he could bring Bradley back. But Bradley is back–or at least the political tendency Bradley represents is back, in the form of Nader and his flock of disaffected activists on the left wing of the Democratic party. Mug them again! They’re an even smaller part of the national electorate than they were of the Democratic primary electorate.

I’m not saying Gore should make Nader-bashing the centerpiece of his campaign–that would make Nader seem a bigger deal than he is. I am saying that at some point soon, maybe at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Gore should make it clear, in a confrontational, put-downy way, that he disagrees with a lot of what Nader stands for and is willing to take the heat for saying it. The press, which is bored with Gore vs. Bush but isn’t expecting Gore vs. Nader, will take care of the rest. The vice president–his temperament and his principles–will be the big story, something that hasn’t been true for a while. Bush will be relegated to the sidelines (though he might, for analogous spotlight-grabbing reasons, pick his own fight with Buchanan).

Certainly there are plenty of issues on which Gore could take a stand against Nader, and which would provide confrontations in which a heavy majority of voters would be on Gore’s side. Here are three: 1) Free trade. Gore’s for it. It’s made our country richer. Nader and many of his allies seem to be against it. Are you better off, etc. …. 2) Death penalty. Gore’s for it. Nader’s against it. Most voters are with Gore. 3) Welfare reform. Gore supports requiring welfare recipients to work, one of the themes of the so-far-largely-successful 1996 reform. Nader has called for reviving Richard Nixon’s idea of a “negative income tax,” which would send checks to the able-bodied poor whether or not they worked–indeed, whether or not they even tried to find jobs. Shouldn’t welfare recipients be required to work?

If Gore is unable to firmly argue why Nader’s wrong on these issues, without being so nasty that he alienates everyone to his left, then he doesn’t have the political skill to be president anyway. …

Photograph of Al Gore on Slate’s Table of Contents by Brendan McDermid/Reuters.