I’M ALWAYS HOPING that we’ve finally turned the corner on the ax-grinding about Ralph Nader's role in electing George W. Bush president. So it was a little disappointing to see my friend Peter Dreier’s Huffington Post article on the topic, “Nader’s Hypocrisy,” kicking the new year off. Still, he has done us the favor of articulating a point of view that has survived 13 years of far less articulate grumbling since the 2000 Nader presidential candidacy: namely, that Ralph Nader owes us an apology. He should apologize for making the Bush Administration possible — and specifically, starting the Iraq War — yet figures like Bill Clinton, John Kerry and Barack Obama never owe one for what they themselves have done in bringing us Bush, the Iraq War and things like it.
Set off by Nader’s recent “The Country You Destroyed: A Letter to George W. Bush,” Dreier takes Nader to task for never having “expressed any remorse or shame for the role that he played in making the war in Iraq possible” by “helping elect Bush in 2000.” Dismissing “the well-worn don't-blame-Nader arguments” that shift the blame to popular vote-winner Al Gore’s bad campaign or then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s purging of African-Americans from the voter rolls, he argues that “Nader could have singlehandedly changed the outcome of the race, and of American history, by ‘releasing’ his supporters to vote for Gore,” specifically in Florida.
I’m not going to dispute the central contention here. I find it quite reasonable to imagine Gore winning the White House, absent Nader. Really, the 2000 Nader campaign could hardly have turned out worse: Bush became president and little was left over on the left but enmity. And yet there are some less-remembered aspects of that effort that seem worth recalling.
Following a Democratic primary season in which the only substantial competition for then-Vice President Al Gore came from New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley — who also offered no serious criticism of the status quo — there were those who thought it might be possible to effectively raise issues beyond the Bradley-Gore range through the Nader campaign, while also taking advantage of the particulars of the Electoral College. The idea was that if you lived in a state where the Bush-Gore race wasn’t expected to be close, you’d vote for Nader; if you lived in one where it was close, you’d vote for Gore. Gore would therefore have a shot at the electoral votes — a variant of the “tactical voting” long familiar to voters in the United Kingdom.
YOU CAN’T DO THAT
A series of websites were established to implement this strategy, designed to essentially introduce Gore and Nader voters to each other. The hope was that they might agree to vote for each other’s candidate, so that Nader’s popular vote would remain the same while Gore would get one shifted to a more important state. They were up for only a brief time, however, before the Clinton Administration’s Justice Department shut then down. Just as the Supreme Court decision giving the election to Bush would later be viewed as politically motivated — designed to stop the vote count with Bush the winner — the Justice Department directives were seen at the time as a politically-motivated sort of “unconditional surrender” ultimatum to Nader supporters. This interpretation is not progressive conspiracy-theory handwringing: subsequent federal court decisions found no legitimate basis for shutting the websites down (Was the Clinton Administration irrational for precluding a vote-swapping operation that stood to advance Gore’s cause? No matter — disdain for Nader ran so high that some Gore supporters refused to consider the cross-state voting option even though it might help their candidate).
Did any of this matter? The totals the Supreme Court ultimately accepted had Bush winning Florida by only 537 votes, a number it’s reasonable to think could be delivered thanks to the Internet vote-swapping websites like the ones the Feds shut down.
JOHN KERRY’S MULTIFOLD CULPABILITY
John Kerry’s involvement in the events for which Ralph Nader is held to blame went much further. Senator Kerry declined to join the 13 House members who objected on January 6, 2001 when Congress accepted the Florida electors report that assigned their 25 votes to Bush — and provided his margin of victory. The objection seemed pretty reasonable at the time, given the widespread belief — then and now — that Gore had, in fact, won more votes than Bush in that state. It came in a joint session of Congress, however, and therefore could not be taken up without the support of at least one member of each branch, and neither Kerry nor any of the 49 other Senate Democrats would lend theirs.
We might be tempted to dismiss this vote, and the Justice Department machinations, as technicalities. But Kerry’s culpability runs deeper. If Ralph Nader enabled the first two years of the Iraq War by facilitating Bush’s election, then Kerry guaranteed the next four years of that war. He in fact assured that a pro-Iraq War candidate would be elected president in 2005. How? For starters, he voted to authorize Bush’s war in 2002; that single vote of course wasn’t decisive, since the war cleared the Senate handily. But when he affirmed himself as a war candidate while winning the 2004 presidential campaign over antiwar candidates Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton, he assured that the next president would keep us in Iraq through 2008. Meanwhile, the disappointment and disillusionment that progressives and his own party felt while watching him explain that he voted for the war before he voted against it probably sealed his own defeat as well, thereby giving us four more years of everything else: torture and rendition, the marginalization of the EPA, Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Hurricane Katrina’s "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" — and all the rest.
We’ll never really know the extent of the damage this one-time antiwar politician’s abysmal performance may have done in turning millions of young antiwar demonstrators and voters away from politics when they found that not only couldn’t they stop Bush from starting the Iraq war, they couldn’t even get a presidential candidate to oppose it. Amidst the perennial handwringing over why Ralph Nader owes us an apology, there’s little talk about getting the same from John Kerry. Perhaps the thinking is that Nader is ultimately to blame for this as well, since Kerry wouldn’t have had the occasion to perform this badly had Nader not run four years earlier.
IF GEORGE BUSH DID THAT ...
Peter Dreier argues that Ralph Nader would better have served his cause in 2000 had he run in the Democratic primaries as Jesse Jackson did in 1984 and 1988. I am not privy to what Nader privately thinks about that, but he does appear to think that it’s the route to go in the future. He actually floated a pretty interesting idea during the 2012 presidential campaign. When it was clear that no Democrat would mount a serious challenge to Barack Obama in the presidential primaries, Nader raised the possibility of reviving the old custom of “favorite sons” or “favorite daughters”: candidates who might not be willing and/or able to mount national presidential efforts but could conduct regional or state-level campaigns that could raise issues and conceivably combine forces at the party convention.
Although the idea obviously did not take hold in 2012, it seemed worth keeping in mind for the future. It was actually in the course of passing it along to a friend after the election that I fully appreciated the depth of animosity one might still encounter towards Nader when I found that mentioning the idea’s source pretty much ended the useful part of the discussion. From that moment on, the terrible thing Nader had done in 2000 eliminated consideration of anything he’d said or done since. So what I thought was a good idea was simply tabled.
At this point it was hard to miss the fact that my friend, now shuddering at the mention of Nader’s name, was something of a Barack Obama fan, in that he was displaying a life size cardboard cutout of the man at the party he was hosting and I was attending. I couldn’t help but think that there were a lot of people out there with axes to grind against Obama, who might also feel that he too owes America an apology — yet they generally remained able to participate in discussions even when the President’s name was mentioned.
What type of axes are we talking? Well, since Peter Dreier’s main charge against Nader is that he enabled Bush to start the Iraq war, let’s stick to “Iraq war-like” things. For one, there are those who consider the drone-based missile attacks Obama orders in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere violations of international law, which is to say, war crimes. And there are those who fault him for unraveling the major legal achievement of the Vietnam War opposition, the War Powers Act, when he bombed Libya without Congressional approval. And then there’s those who think that sending more troops to Afghanistan after seven years of war, the way he did, was either a very stupid or a very cynical act — and not that many people think he’s stupid. Some pretty unkind thoughts, huh? But I guarantee that there are people walking amongst us thinking them. And yet most of them remain high functioning, able to withstand even multiple mentions of the President’s name without going off on a rant.
As for that idea about the favorite son/daughter presidential primary candidates — imagine a Hillary Clinton-Joe Biden-same-old-same-old presidential primary race. Seems a reasonable possibility, right? And then imagine New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, entering one or more New York-area primaries to throw a few more potent ideas into the mix — without ever leaving his post as mayor. Not a bad idea, right? Even if Ralph Nader did come up with it.
Really — it’s time to get over 2000.
Tom Gallagher is a writer and political activist currently living in San Francisco. He is a member of the Conspiracy of Beards, a 20-30 member all-male a capella choir that sings only Leonard Cohen songs.