We need a Nader

October 03, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

RALPH NADER is one of the most maddening tormentors of the powerful in the history of our nation.

If his 97,488 votes in Florida had gone to Al Gore in 2000, the world would still think chad was a country in Africa or someone's name.

So some choose to see Mr. Nader as an ego-driven spoiler, a man who loves the spotlight too much to do the responsible thing and bow out.

His own view apparently is that bowing out would be the opposite of responsible: the shirking of a citizen's duty. In this case, that duty is to remind the nation that it needs a healthy political dialogue if it wants the best possible long- and short-range policies.

Mr. Nader further enrages his critics by being absolutely unmoved. He's gotten himself on the ballot in Maryland by convincing the courts that he was wrongfully denied access. If the race is close here and in the other states where he's competing, he could affect the outcome once again. If he's a threat, he's not an abstract threat after 2000.

But isn't he asserting the strength of our system? He's arguing that political orthodoxy is not a core American value. He's saying change can be discussed in the most important arena without destroying the Republic.

OK, he's hard to take. Like every gadfly, he's running on the irritation platform. He has the zeal of those men and women who buzz around school boards, city councils and legislatures. They sometimes know as much or more about official business than the officials. They offer themselves as positive irritants. They apply brakes to the locomotive of power. Gadflies get in the way. It's their job.

There's an element of arrogance in these battlers, to be sure. But too few of us have the time or inclination to demand accountability until we're shown where it's urgently needed. Mr. Nader observes that essential reforms - universal suffrage, an end to slavery and civil rights - were all fought from outside the usual channels by people who offended the status quo. Change won't come if people are unmoved, unconcerned and unwilling to risk anything. To be effective - and more than self-indulgent - a gadfly needs outrage.

So, with risk high on his rM-isumM-i, Candidate Nader returns to reprise his 2000 role - not to defeat the Democrat, not to help the Republican, but to offer his critique of the two-party system, which offers, in his view, limited leadership options and an impoverished discussion of issues. He is the absolute antithesis of the modern candidate who speaks in such cautious tones as to merge with his opponent.

The mostly likely victim of Mr. Nader's candidacy, Democrat John Kerry, has said he would nullify the Nader effect by besting him on the issues. It's absolutely the right course.

If Democrats are smart they will go further and use Mr. Nader's presence as a prod to those who are charged with getting out the vote. The way to deal with him is to convince large numbers of Democratic voters that they can nullify his impact. Mr. Kerry, the Democratic worker bees and the voters need some of Mr. Nader's gritty determination. Republicans, too, can draw motivation from his presence if they believe it is stimulating more Democratic voters.

His candidacy has a kind of little-man grandeur. It runs on his nerve, on his analysis of issues and on the support of other true believers. If the system must be cleansed of citizens such as Mr. Nader, it's not worth preserving. If we are a strong nation, we shouldn't be threatened by people with challenging ideas. If he's overreaching and wrong, he can be rebuffed at the polls. In the best of all political worlds, he would inspire a massive turnout.

Voters - more than John Kerry or George W. Bush or Ralph Nader - have the power to decide. That's why it's called a democracy.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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