In his own special way, Ralph Nader is trying to be a team player. He's going to meet with John Kerry this weekend "even though we're competitors" to discuss their "common goal" of unseating George W. Bush, who is, according to Nader, "a giant corporation… masquerading as a human being."
He's talking a good game. Still, Nader can't seem to bring himself to praise his Democratic brethren. When asked by an agitated Paul Begala on Crossfire two days ago how running against Kerry could possibly help the Democrats take back the White House this November, Nader gave the pundit a glare one imagines he normally reserves for those wacky "corporate paymasters."
"I think I know ways to beat Bush that John Kerry and the Democrats are too cautious or unimaginative to come up with," he said. "But they can pick it up when they see it working."
You could almost see Nader's mind working after that jab. Don't smirk, Ralph. Don't laugh. Stay serious. He was obviously proud of himself.
BUT THEN, AFTER taking the beating Nader has over the past five weeks, it's probably not easy to play nice. Democratic luminaries have been laying into him with a gusto that stops short only of their daily diabolization of George W. Bush.
At the recent Democratic "unity" dinner, the man who could even find something to love in North Korea's Kim Jong-il, Jimmy Carter, delivered the following wilting line to the cheers of Democratic bigs: "Ralph, go back to umpiring softball games or examining the rear end of automobiles, and don't risk costing the Democrats the White House this year as you did four years ago."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called Nader's candidacy "an act of total ego." Howard Dean, after briefly praising Nader's career, said he hoped the activist would withdraw "in the best interests of the country." This from the famed "straight talker" who now lets John Kerry's staff script his appearances so he can hold on to some sort of relevance.
It is difficult to understand why the Democrats are giving Nader so much free exposure. Their critique of him is not based on policy disagreements but on his ability to receive votes Democrats do not want to have to earn. At the core of their anger is a fear of competition.
They are willing to whip their base into a frenzy during the primaries, but do not want to have to make concrete promises to those same voters while running to the center in a general election campaign. What they fear is their own policies in undiluted form.
Nader's cool admonishment to his critics, even as he offers to work with them, is damning. "Democrats should just stop whining and go to work," he said. "Their expectations are so low, they'll go for anything. I've had liberals say to me 'Genghis Khan rather than Bush.' 'My cocker spaniel rather than Bush.'"
SO WHAT, PRECISELY is Nader's plan? It's actually not as crazy as he often sounds. He plans on making an appeal for votes not only to his longtime supporters, but also to "Reagan Democrats" and "disgruntled conservatives" upset over the ever-growing deficit, the "sovereignty-shredding effect" of the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, corporate subsidies, and the erosion of civil liberties under the PATRIOT Act and similar legislation.
In fact, there's not much in a standard Nader speech that wouldn't seem at home in the Reform Party platform that Pat Buchanan ran under four years ago. Nader is right when he points out that Kerry's current Massachusetts liberal campaign strategy is unlikely to tip the scales in his favor in Midwestern battleground states.
Is it a winning strategy? Of course not, but then the goal is not to win the election. Nader wants to build a populist voting block he hopes will eventually sway the Democratic Party.
Instead of pandering to him like they do with every other special interest group, the Democratic establishment is going on the warpath. Ask any FBI negotiator: This is not the way to get those hostage votes back safely. And prickly Nader is going to be that much more determined. He'll also be positioned as the anti-establishment candidate should any of the so-called Deaniacs actually decide to vote.
I would love to be a fly on the wall this weekend, watching Kerry try to schmooze Nader as he rants about corporate power. But since voting is a zero sum gain (e.g., a vote for Nader cannot be a vote cast for Kerry, except in Chicago) the idea of an alliance between the two conferees makes little sense, unless Kerry wants to put Nader on the ticket.
The best that Kerry can hope for from this meeting Nader's agreeing not run an aggressive campaign in states that the Dems need to carry, but that isn't looking likely at this juncture. As Nader insisted the other day on CNN, "We all have an equal right to run for president in this country. And we should respect that, and compete, and see who does best by the voters in this country."
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