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.
Describing the threat of a second Bush term as "an extraordinary emergency," the man whose own candidacy shook up the Democratic establishment almost as much as has Nader's, declared, "When the house is on fire, it's not the time to fix the furniture." Sure, Dean admitted, he might have differences with Kerry on some issues. But he argued the "progressives must unite behind Kerry" line with passion.
Nader was unconvinced. At several points, the independent candidate read down a list of sharp shots at Kerry--"corporate clone," "lesser of two evils." And then he reminded the Vermonter that those were Dean's own words from the primary season.
Nader allowed as how he preferred "Howard Dean the First," who took on the party establishment last year, as opposed to "Howard Dean the Second," who he accused of carrying the establishment's water this year.
Predictably, the conversation grew heated.
Dean accused Nader of peddling "disingenuous nonsense," and then noted that a group Nader founded, Public Citizen, had hailed Kerry's stances on many of the issues that are of concern to progressives. After a few more jabs at Nader, Dean announced that, "My purpose here is not to smear Ralph Nader."
At that point, a bemused Nader interjected, "Oh, no, not at all."
By now, the crowd was laughing.
But Dean remained serious, and on message. "I ask you not to turn your back on your legacy," he pleaded with Nader. A few minutes later, Dean banged on the independent candidate for what he suggested was just such an abandonment, citing reports that the Nader campaign had accepted the aid of religious right groups, such as the Oregon Family Council, in its quest to achieve ballot status.
"The way to change the country is not to get in bed with right-wing, anti-gay groups to get on the ballot," said Dean.
Nader griped about efforts by Democrats to keep him off ballots. Dean told Nader to renounce the Oregon Family Council and other right-wing groups that have allegedly aided his candidacy.
"Just renounce them!" demanded the Vermonter.
"Alright, I renounce them," Nader replied. But then he demanded that Dean renounce corporate wrongdoers that have donated to the Democrats, which the governor did. Then Dean started talking about someone else Nader should renounce. And, when all was said and done, neither Nader, nor Dean, had convinced the other man of much.
The most interesting question remained unasked and unanswered: Would Nader have backed off if Dean had emerged as the Democratic nominee?
But we do know the one suggestion that Dean would make to Nader. When "Justice Talking" host Margot Adler sought to ease the tension by soliciting advice from a former contender to a current candidate, Dean said that Nader should: "Lighten up."
Nader smiled and allowed as how, "That's better than what I thought he was going to say."