A reversal on Ralph

March 07, 2004|By Nathan Bierma

CHICAGO - As I groaned at the news of Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy, I could feel my 2000 self staring at me with some disapproval. I was an idealistic college student then, loath to play by the rules of an uninspiring, ideologically straitjacketed two-party system, in which voters' decisions seemed to hinge on who had the better sound bites.

"To vote for Gore even though I prefer Nader is to play a game in which someone else has stated the rules and someone else (the media, the parties, the debate commission) has too much power," I wrote in my college newspaper the week of the election. "I'm voting Nader because he treats us as fellow citizens with whom he can have a frank conversation about our country, rather than as consumers of a sales pitch by a strategy team."

But at the risk of disappointing my 2000 self with my newfound compliance with "the system," I must now, four years later, echo the URL of an anti-Nader Web site: www.ralphdontrun.net.

In my own defense, I must state the obvious about the interval between Mr. Nader's two campaigns: My, how times have changed.

In 2000, the decision between George W. Bush and Al Gore was a choice between two unimpressive middle-of-the-roaders at a time when the country still felt relatively safe and stable internationally and economically. That either man would take the country in a radical direction after Bill Clinton's two terms seemed unlikely. That either would seriously address the corrupting influence of special interests seemed preposterous.

Now, nearly four years after Mr. Bush's dubious election, the country is alert to the threat of terrorism, plagued by joblessness and worried about the credibility of the Bush administration after its alienation of our allies and its removal of an evil dictator who it now appears couldn't have hurt us. Worse, the Bush administration has tried the strange economic experiment of raising spending while cutting taxes, giving Americans some pocket change while threatening the health of federal and state budgets.

It's been an interesting four years on the left as well.

Since Mr. Nader ran, Michael Moore has released an Oscar-winning documentary and written two best-selling books. Howard Dean single-handedly transplanted a spine into a confused Democratic Party, finding the right notes to sound in opposition of the president and sharpening the message of his fellow Democrats.

If 2000 was a 1988 moment - when a candidate named Bush slid by an underachieving opponent into the White House - 2004 now seems prime to be a 1992 moment, with the country unimpressed by a president named Bush and seeking a fresher, more convincing candidate.

So many things are true now that were not true four years ago that Mr. Nader's rationale for running is mostly gone. After the emergence of Mr. Moore, Mr. Nader cannot say that his concerns are not spoken for. After President Bush's tax cuts, militarism and no-bid contract to Halliburton, Mr. Nader cannot say that the difference in policy and corporate corruption between the two major parties is merely negligible. After Dr. Dean's wake-up call to the Democratic Party, Mr. Nader cannot say that the party lacks a straight-shooter to keep it honest.

If this isn't enough to convince my 2000 self, I have one more thing to say , at the risk of sounding world-weary in my 20s:

Politics, like it or not, is about pragmatism. It's about compromises. It's about strange bedfellows. It's not about idealism, and it's not really about changing the system, not all that much. It may seem that way to a wide-eyed, placard-waving college student. But the White House is located in the real world.

Pointing all this out may well prove unnecessary, except for my own catharsis. Mr. Nader's second campaign will probably fizzle the way Ross Perot's second run did in 1996. Fewer Democrats will vote for him this time, and, I hope, unhappy independents will vote Democratic simply to remove Mr. Bush.

I'm not convinced Mr. Nader's ill-advised campaign is an ego trip the way Mr. Perot's was; I believe Mr. Nader sincerely desires change. To prove this now, he should get out of its way.

Nathan Bierma is an editorial assistant at Books&Culture magazine. He lives in Chicago.

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