Consumer activist Ralph Nader has made a significant charge against former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe — that of attempting to bribe a political foe in order to influence an election result.

Remarkably, McAuliffe, now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia, is not denying it.

That ought to concern Americans as much as the wrongdoing itself.

If we have become a country where it can be revealed that a political party chairman offered to pay a troublesome candidate to get out of the way politically, then all the talk of campaign finance reform and ethics that gets bantered around is just that: talk.

In an upcoming book, Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny (The New Press), veteran Nader aide Theresa Amato — who managed his 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns — details efforts by McAuliffe, then the DNC chair, to get Nader to stop campaigning in key states. (It’s part of a smart, thorough dissection of what ails the political process, which Phil Donahue hails as “the biggest swing–not a jab, but a roundhouse punch–at America’s corrupt electoral system.”)

The charge is that then-DNC chair McAuliffe offered Nader — who was mounting an independent campaign that some observers thought could pose an electoral threat to the candidacy of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry — an unspecified amount of money, presumably in the form of contribution checks from big donors allied with the Democratic party, to avoid campaigning in nineteen battleground states.

Nader confirms that McAuliffe made such an offer.

“When you get a call like that, first of all it’s inappropriate,” the consumer activist told the Washington Post.

Nader says he immediately refused the money. “[If] you don’t immediately say ‘no,’ it’s like taffy, you get stuck with it,” he explained.

That’s the appropriate response to the offer of an old-fashioned political bribe — and, make no mistake, paying a political rival to pull his punches is just that.

So what does the former DNC chair who now seeks to serve as governor of Virginia have to say for himself?

“McAuliffe isn’t denying the charge,” says Post writer Anita Kumar.

In fact, quite the opposite.

Elisabeth Smith, a spokeswoman for McAuliffe, sounds like she is confirming the charge when says her boss “was concerned that Ralph Nader would cost John Kerry the election as he did Al Gore in 2000 and give us another four years of George W. Bush.”

Then she took a shot at Nader, suggesting there was no reason to be concerned about the issue.

“It looks like Ralph Nader misses seeing his name in the press,” Smith griped. “Terry’s focused on talking with Virginians about jobs, not feeding Ralph Nader’s ego.”

Nice spin.

But it does not get to the heart of the matter.

McAuliffe is asking the Democrats of Virginia to nominate him for a position of public trust. If he does not have a better explanation than the one that has so far been offered, there can and will be serious questioning of whether he’s got what ought to be expected of major-party nominee and a governor.

But this is about more than Virginia.

Even if no legal actions are brought against McAuliffe, and no matter what happens in Virginia’s primary, Democratic National Committee members should press for an investigation of the charges. And they should demand an absolute commitment by the DNC that it will not be in the busy of bribing candidates to quit contests.