When Howard Dean’s outsider campaign for Democratic presidential nomination began to take off year ago, Ralph Nader was at least somewhat enthusiastic about the enterprise, going so far as to suggest that the Vermont governor’s challenge to the party establishment was in many senses an amplification of his own condemnations of Democratic drift away from core principles. For his part, candidate Dean was far more generous than most Democrats when it came to praising Nader’s 40 year record of talking on established interests. The former Vermont governor actually moved from his old centrist positions toward what could be described as “Naderite” stances on issues such as free trade and regulating corporate power. And he reached out with some success to activists who had backed Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign –especially on the nation’s campuses.
There was even talk among Dean backers that, if their candidate secured the Democratic nomination, Nader might decide against making a third bid for the presidency in 2004.
But that was then, and this is the now where Dean is an enthusiastic campaigner for soon-to-be-nominated Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, while Nader is mounting an independent challenge to both Kerry and Republican President George W. Bush. And, as Friday’s debate between Dean and Nader on National Public Radio’s “Justice Talking” program illustrated, the two mavericks are no longer winking at one another.
“You were an insurgent who has now adopted the role of being a detergent for the dirty linen of the Democratic Party,” Nader told Dean, who appeared on the program to argue that the consumer activist should drop his independent candidacy and back the Democratic ticket.
Dean shot back, “What I see in this (Nader) candidacy is the perfect becoming the enemy of the good.”
And so it went.
“We’re taking apart the Bush Administration in ways that the Democratic party is afraid to,” Nader said, emphasizing his campaign’s antiwar stance and his take-no-prisoners assault on the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists.
“This is not going to help the progressive movement in America,” moaned Dean, who tried his best to suggest that Kerry is a legitimate standard bearer for that movement and added, “I wish you were on our team, Ralph, because we need you.”
Anyone who imagined that Dean and Nader might have found some common ground with regards to the fall race came away from the debate sorely disappointed. But the truth is that no one who has spent much time watching Nader’s campaign this year expected him to back off at the behest of Dean. While Nader has admitted to having been impressed with many aspects of Dean’s insurgent campaign, these guys were never ideological soul mates. Nader was, and is, far closer to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, who continues to challenge Kerry for the nomination–albeit without much notice from the party or the media.
The Nader-Dean debate was less a serious dialogue about the possibility of forging a united front against Bush’s reelection than a reminder that, while Nader and many Democrats share policy stances on issues ranging from opposition to the war to support for fair trade, single-payer health care and public financing of campaigns, they have not reached any kind of consensus with regard to the necessity of cooperation in the immediate political moment.
It wasn’t for lack of trying by Dean, who agreed to debate Nader as part of a stepped up effort by Kerry backers to reach out to left-leaning voters who could stray from the Democratic fold. While Dean stopped short of accusing Nader of costing Democrat Al Gore the presidency in 2000, the former candidate did suggest that Nader could cost Kerry the presidency this year.