The Spoiler's Fuzzy Math
Nader's Defiance and Evasion Reflect Schizophrenia of a Third-Party Campaign That Was Essentially a Liberal-Democrat Revolt
NewsForChange.com, November 8, 2000
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The day after the weirdest election in at least 120 years, the corporate media-bashing third-party candidate who seemed to have tipped the presidency to George W. Bush, suddenly became Tom Brokaw's biggest fan.
At his first post-election press conference, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was asked straight away whether his campaign prevented Al Gore from being elected president Nov. 7. And he refused to say "yes."
"I don't think anybody knows. Tom Brokaw said that most of my vote came from non-voters who came in for the first time, young voters, and people who dropped out of voting for many years. There's too many variables right now," he said. "It could have been the Democrats were energized because of this challenge to get out more of their votes."
Before the recount in Florida, the state that will decide the election, less than 1,800 votes separated Bush and Gore. Nader received in excess of 92,000.
Second question: "Didn't you in fact cost Al Gore the election? Specifically when you look at Florida, if you look at your own campaign numbers, about 50 percent of your voters would have voted for Gore, and he may not win in the race."
Answer: "Not at all. First of all, I really don't know the way these figures play out. If you hear Tom Brokaw, you would think that was not the case."
If you hear drunk young Republicans, you would think something a little different. At 3:00 a.m. election morning, just after George W. Bush was prematurely announced the winner, 100 or so of the crew-cutted fraternity boys celebrated the Restoration with chants of "Thank you Ralph! Thank you Ralph!"
That Ralph Nader was relying on the flip comment of a talking head illustrates the extent to which his campaign is willing to fudge any number, and skew any logic, to sustain the probable fiction that he was not "the spoiler" in this election. And it also shows how his renegade run could never overcome the schizophrenia of mounting an independent new party which appealed overwhelmingly to disaffected Democrats.
This intellectual flexibility was on full display at Nader's election-night party -- when Green supporters gathered anxiously around television sets to cheer for Al Gore, even as speechmakers insisted that Naderites "know it doesn't matter who wins" -- and it was written all over the candidate's appearance on the bloody morning after.
For the umpteenth time in this campaign, Nader insisted that the differences between the two major-party candidates doesn't really matter, since they are both servile to "the permanent corporate government that runs Washington." Then he acknowledged that those differences do matter somewhat, when he took the Democrats to task for failing "to defend this country agasint the extreme arch-corporatist reactionary wing of the Republican Party." Then he said his candidacy is aimed at forcing the Democrats to "re-evaluate themselves on the political spectrum ... [and] decide whether they're going to return to their roots," then he said he would happily take on even a returned-to-roots Democratic Party.
If it sounds like a tortured transcript from a family fued, that's exactly what Nader's campaign was. Besides bringing in hundreds of thousands of new and mostly young voters, the Green candidate mostly tailored his pitch to the disgruntled Left. "A lot of [Green Party proposals] are old agendas of the Democratic Party," he yesterday. "They're still often rhetorical agendas, but they don't fight for it any more."
Nader knew his lapsed-Democratic supporters were worried about electing George W. Bush, just as he knew his army of young idealists couldn't care less, which is why his positions on strategic voting and campaigning veered from one day to the next -- today he's sweet-talking Democrats in "safe" states like Texas, tomorrow he's pulverizing Gore's environmental record in leafy battleground states like Oregon, the next day he's urging his supporters to vote Democrat "down ticket." For a while he encouraged vote-swapping between residents of different states, then he discouraged it.
Above all, Nader encouraged his supporters to believe they could have the best of both worlds -- voting their conscience, and defeating Bush. Which may explain why he was so reluctant to fess up when Americans, by the narrowest of possible margins, seemed to call his bluff.
Even before the first secret exit polls were leaked on the Internet Election Afternoon, Nader campaign staffers were preparing formulas to explain why any Bush state victory wasn't Ralph's fault. The math was based in part on a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 193 Nader voters between Oct. 23-Nov. 1, asking what they'd do if they couldn't vote for the Green Party. Forty-three percent said they'd vote for Gore, 21% said Bush, and 21% wouldn't vote.
Another poll put the non-voter total higher, and it seemed reasonable to expect a last-minute defection of the Gore-leaners, so the campaign settled on an easy-to-digest former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis told the Washington Post. "It's obvious the bulk of those votes would have gone to Gore. If he keeps Gore from winning them, I'll strangle the guy with my bare hands."
Asked about mending fences with the Gore-voting progressive Left, who were only topped in the harshness of their anti-Nader campaign by New Republic editor (and Gore buddy) Martin Peretz, the Green candidate took an optimistic view.
"If we're, as they imply, the swing factor, they're going to be calling on us," he said. "And when they call on us, we won't engage in petty recriminations. ... And I think when they put aside these recriminations they will find that they are allies of our causes, and we are allies of their causes."
Will it Be Worth it?
All of this back-and-forth begs one question: if Gore loses, was it worth it? Nader's answer -- yes -- depends on three leaps of faith: that the Green Party will build into a widely popular progressive movement, that the Democratic Leadership Council will be replaced by old-style liberals, and that George W. Bush won't be so bad after all.
Nader seems to truly believe, as he repeated daily on the campaign trail, that "If one-hundred thousand people raise $100 a year, and donate 100 hours of their time, the Green Party can quickly become a majoritarian party." This belief rests not just on his peculiar fondness for selective math, but on yet another leap of faith: that when Americans finally realize how repressed they are under the corporate boot, they will sign on to the Green platform in the tens of millions.
"Our agenda will be the agenda of the future," he said yesterday. "It always takes the first start, doesn't it? Ask Barry Goldwater. It always takes the first start. Our issues represent traditional values against corporate extremists, corporate supremacy. Our issues poll very well among the American people."
That may be true, but those issues look suspiciously like the issues left-wing parties spent the 1970s and '80s losing elections with all over the western world. Yesterday, in specifically inviting "progressives," "young people," "organized labor" and workers "who cannot make a living wage" to "reconsider their support" for the Democratic Party and join the Greens instead, Nader listed the following issues he insists will build the foundation of "majoritarian" party: a living wage, universal health insurance, repeal of restrictive labor laws, a "sustainable economy," slashing the military budget and spending the money on a "Marshall Plan" for inner cities, ending the Death Penalty and the Drug War, and boosting federal funding for the arts. Throw in a little industrial hemp, and even hiring 100,000 new IRS agents, and you've got a platform guaranteed to scare off most supporters of John McCain, Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot.
Nader's theory is that the Democratic Party would still have this agenda if it wasn't for their conversion to corporate money-grubbing.
"I don't think people here realize how much ground has been lost by citizen groups in the last 20 years, since Tony Coehlo taught the Democratic Party how to raise money from business interests like the Republicans do, how to become more like them," he said.
Asked Nov. 6 whether the Democratic Leadership Council -- which, after all, delivered the White House to the Democrats after 12 years in the wilderness -- had accomplished anything useful for the country, Nader could come up with only two flimsy bits: Supporting the 1964 Civil Rights, and supporting environmental protection laws. Then he went on to batter Democrats for "selling out" even those ideals.
So, if only the corporate-dominated media were somehow "liberated," he says, the masses would finally realize they crave some Old Left politics.
Of course, Nader has made the frequent claim that his campaign was the spiritual heir to those of Bill Bradley, McCain, Ventura and company. But, although campaign finance reform was a key element in the conduct and rhetoric of his run, it was at most a subset of his overall message of rolling back the "avaricious powers of multinational corporations, who seem to have no recognized boundaries of restraint as they extend commercialism and corporatism to all areas of our lives."
Asked Nov. 6 why he didn't run on a more focused campaign-finance platform, Nader answered simply: "Because justice cannot be compartmentalized."
It is an open question how much support there is for a stacked Left agenda in a country that votes 48% for George W. Bush. Nader' elliptical explanation for Bush's success is that the Democratic Party has "abandoned its progressive roots," and "been seized by its conservative, reactionary pro-corporate wing, and the leadership of that group produced a candidate and a platform that simply did not excite the voters."
And Nader's disappointing 3% showing?
"It's clear to me that the people who, shall we say, got cold feet in the polling booth, were subject to an incredible scare campaign," he said. "Both candidates magnified the difference between them, to scare their constituencies. But no one did it better than Al Gore."
This is where the full pretzel of Nader's logic is finally baked. After running an alarmist campaign, telling voters that the same corporations who run both political parties would basically like to re-impose slavery, Nader the Spoiler in Denial now says that a Dubya presidency wouldn't be so bad, after all.
"Al Gore treated George W. Bush as if he was Genghis Khan, when he's basically his father's son, in temperament and otherwise," he said. "He also has three attributes that Al Gore ignored: George W. Bush is not very knowledgeable, he's lazy, and he doesn't like controversy."