Ralph Nader. Theodore Roosevelt. Bernie Sanders. Howard Schultz. Oh my!
One of the highlights of my college career was getting to meet Ralph Nader. He came to campus to speak my senior year. Although I was awed by his reputation, his speech left me nonplussed. He was never known as an inspirational speaker, and that was certainly the case that day in Amherst.
Few people have had as big an impact upon progressive policy than Nader. With his book “Unsafe at any Speed,” he basically founded the modern consumer protection movement. The Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) spring directly from his advocacy.
But how will Ralph Nader be remembered? As the guy who threw the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
Nader was certainly a spoiler. His vote total made the difference in Florida, which resulted in a Bush/Cheney presidency, the Iraq war, and thousands of dead. As Obama once said, elections have consequences.
Similarly, Jill Stein certainly made the difference in 2016. She won far more than the number of votes that would have made the difference in the critical states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Unlike Nader, however, I do not believe Stein was sincere. She and her Russian connections are now well documented.
Nader however had pure motives: he had to feed his ego. Certainly, he had good reason to be discouraged. He is right in his positions. Cars and other products should be safe for consumers. We need to reduce our impact upon the environment. Good policy can impact both those goals.
But politics is a tough business. Once described as “the art of the possible,” the challenge is balancing various points of views in an effort to achieve positive goals. You will never get the full loaf in politics. The goal is to get as much of it as possible.
Anyway, Nader believed he was different and could achieve his goals despite the diffused power that is the nature of our system. He believed he was essential. And so he ran, and we got George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Was Al Gore perfect? Certainly not. But he was a hell of a lot better than Bush and Cheney. Would Nader’s aims have had greater success in a Gore administration than they did in the Bush administration? Certainly.
Despite his impact on the 2000 election, Nader chose to run again in 2004 and 2008. By then, however, his support was limited because people saw what happened in 2000. But yet his ego did not allow him to step aside for the good of the country.
The reality is that nobody is essential. We are all replaceable. Obama was an amazing campaigner. But he was also the right person at the right place at the right time. Were there others who could have done what he did? Certainly. But they weren’t there then.
In truth, Nader is part of an American tradition of spoilers in Presidential races. In 1908, progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt (you know, the guy who brought us the National Parks and anti-trust law) stepped aside so his friend and Vice President William Howard Taft could run for the Presidency.
Over Taft’s term, however, Roosevelt felt his one-time VP had become too conservative. As a result, he ran against him first for the Republican nomination, then as leader of the “Bull Moose Party.” His candidacy certainly split the Republican vote, resulting in the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Back then, you have to remember, the parties were very different. Wilson was a racist whose greatest accomplishment was the segregation of the American government. Yes, amazing as it is to think, the federal government was not segregated until 1913. If you saw the movie Hidden Figures, the racial discrimination those women faced can trace its origins to Wilson and Roosevelt’s third party candidacy.
Another example is John Anderson. In 1980, this liberal Republican ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Presidential nomination against Ronald Reagan. Upon Reagan’s nomination, he ran as an independent, generating enthusiasm among many well educated liberals. Ultimately, it is unclear if he was a spoiler in that race, since polls showed that his supporters would have split evenly between Reagan and Carter. But his candidacy certainly introduced a challenging element into the race that Carter struggled to manage.
So now Howard Schultz, the successful and politically liberal founder of Starbucks is considering a third-party bid for the Presidency. As Nate Silver has pointed out, his impact upon the 2020 race is difficult to predict. He may, like John Anderson, have little impact upon the final result. However, it introduces a level of uncertainty at a time all progressives need to be mobilizing to defeat Trump and take back Congress.
But like Nader, Schultz somehow thinks he is different, essential. His ego demands that he run even though there is really no demand for his candidacy, and a lot of arguments against it.
Bernie Sanders is also talking about running again. In his case, he deserves credit for the fact that he worked within the party system. Upon his defeat for the nomination by Hillary Clinton in 2016, he stepped aside and supported her candidacy. Many of his supporters, however, were less sanguine, taking the position that it was “Bernie or Bust,” and many of them supporting the spoiler, Jill Stein.
Bernie, like Nader, however, has had a huge impact upon our politics. We must remember that the Democratic party had moved quite far to the right, passing the legislation that ultimately resulted in Wall Street’s meltdown in 2008. Bernie has pushed the party back to the left and raised income inequality to the place of importance on our agenda it deserves.
If you want a progressive President, elect Elizabeth Warren
What the data tell us about the potential Democratic Presidential candidates
If you look at the current crop of candidates, you have Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Corey Booker, among others, staking out extremely progressive positions. One-time Sanders supporter Tulsi Gabbard is running, with Sanders’s former deputy campaign manager working for her. Even Kirsten Gillibrand, who once represented a conservative house district, and once represented big tobacco as a lawyer, has taken extremely progressive positions on economic and environmental issues.
So where does Sanders fit into all this? The answer is nowhere. There is no longer the need for the idiosyncratic Bernie in this race. Where he was needed to counter Hillary Clinton’s moderation, there is no longer a need for such an influence in this race.
So why is he running? His ego can’t let it go. My fear is that Sanders’s amazing legacy as a progressive champion will be sullied by this candidacy just as Nader’s has been. As one of my friends once said, “ego is the most expensive vice.”
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