Ralph Nader is running for President, and a fair number of progressives are excited by the prospect. They should be.
Run properly, a Nader candidacy could offer the electorate a dose of radical democracy and a progressive alternative on trade policy, corporate welfare, criminal justice reform, the farm crisis and a host of other critical issues ignored by the front-running candidates of both major parties. With close to 100 percent name recognition and approval ratings that Al Gore and George W. Bush would trade their bankrolls to achieve, Nader brings to a national campaign a forty-year record as a reformer that puts the modest claims of John McCain and Bill Bradley to shame. If Nader wages a serious campaign, he can force the other candidates to address issues that will otherwise be dismissed, and he could push to the left whichever Democratic candidate prevails in the primaries.
But will Nader, who says he is planning a formal announcement within days, run a serious campaign?
His track record is not encouraging. In 1992 and again in 1996, Nader allowed his name to be floated as a presidential prospect. The ’92 initiative never amounted to much more than a halfhearted write-in campaign in the New Hampshire primary–an effort best recalled for having given Jerry Brown some useful ideas for that year’s We the People campaign. The ’96 effort was modestly more engaged. Nader allowed his name to be placed on twenty-one state ballots as the Green Party’s nominee, but he limited his spending to $5,000, failed to campaign in most regions and never built a real national organization. Despite the lack of effort, Nader drew close to 700,000 votes, helped the Greens win ballot status in a number of states and–in cities like San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, where grassroots activists mounted something resembling actual campaigns on his behalf–beat Bob Dole in some precincts.
This year, Nader says things will be different. There will be no $5,000 limit; in fact, the candidate and his aides talk of raising and spending $5 million. There will be efforts to get his name and that of Green vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke on the ballots of all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Nader intends to devote at least 100 days to “on the road” campaigning and says he will fight hard for a place in the fall debates with the Republican and Democratic nominees.
But Nader is starting very late in the game. And there is still far too much talk about achieving ballot status for future campaigns and far too little talk about what it will take to make a real imprint on this year’s race. Nader’s instinctive realism and genuine modesty make it difficult for him to suggest that his campaign is much more than a political good deed–an effort to help break up the major-party monopoly by lending his name to the Greens, an attempt to force some dialogue about trade issues in the post-Seattle era and perhaps a turnout booster that will help Democrats retake the House of Representatives.
Frankly, that’s not enough of a rationale to give a Nader-for-President bid the support it will need to shake up the status quo. Indeed, it may not even be enough to avoid the sort of embarrassment that could do harm to Nader’s reputation and to the causes he holds dear. To be taken seriously, not merely by the pundits but by the voters, Nader must construct a campaign that presents him as a credible contender. Certainly, he will have to discuss the ballot-access barriers erected to block third-party candidacies in such key states as Texas and Illinois, and he should be as vocal as possible about the ridiculous limits on participation in the fall presidential debates and about the unfair advantages that attach to major-party candidates in a system that is sick with special-interest money. But Nader must not run a campaign of complaints and excuses.