February 24, 2008

Enter the Spoiler: Ralph Nadar, Again

After the American Century

Just when it looked like the election might soon become focused on two candidates, a familiar Wild Card has appeared in the political deck. Ralph Nadar, admirable crusader for consumer causes, and perennial candidate for president, has declared himself a candidate. This will have little or no effect on the primaries, but it might become extremely important in the national election. Al Gore certainly remembers him, because Nadar did not siphon off many votes from the Republican Party. Nadar's 2.7% of the vote came almost entirely from the liberal side of the electorate. Gore would have won Florida and the presidency had Nadar stuck to fighting consumer issues. Nadar had far less effect on the 2004 campaign, getting less that 0.5% of the votes, although he certainly did not help John Kerry.

I heard Nadar speak in the spring of 2003 at Notre Dame University. To be accurate, no lecture room was big enough for the student crowd, and I ended up seeing him on a closed-circuit TV screen down the hall. But in any case there was not much back and forth with the audience. Nadar spoke long and well, but without much humor, and one often could agree with a what he said. Nadar is a lawyer, and he presents an argument for the prosecution, detailing the sins of the defendant - not just the current president but both political parties - and offering prescriptions for change. He is, after all, the man who wrote Unsafe at Any Speed that led to greatly improved automobiles and undoubtedly saved many thousands of lives. Nadar is also an Arab-American, which may give him an extra reason to join the political fray, though neither Iraq nor the Palestinians are even mentioned on page one of his homepage. There, he attacks the "corporate Democrats" and the "corporate Republicans" and their domination by the lobbyists. His homepage slogan is "Corporate Greed, Corporate Power, Corporate Control." The targets of his wrath are "the health insurance industry, agribusinss grants, corporate criminals, nuclear power, big banks, drug companies, polluters, union busters, war profiteers, credit card companies, Wall Street, and big oil." Nadar reportedly liked John Edwards' message, and he might have supported Obama. After all, the Democratic front-runner has accepted no money at all from the lobbyists. However, Nadar's psychology is combative and adversarial. His idea of a dialogue takes place in court. Obama is more pragmatic and looks for negotiation.

Nadar's candidacy is good news for John McCain for several reasons. Nadar is 73, a year older, so McCain is no longer be the oldest one running for president. More importantly, when Nadar attacks McCain it will help to consolidate the Republican base. Even better, when he attacks the Democratic candidate, some voters will be drawn away to the Green Party.

Nadar has no chance to win, but he can be the spoiler. Should the race be close, count on the Republicans to donate a little money, quietly, to his campaign. They want Nadar to have a large megaphone. McCain might conceivably attack Nadar in a few speeches, but more likely he will ignore him and hope a brawl breaks out between Democrats and Greens. To make this a fair fight, we need a comparable figure on the far right to run to take some support away from McCain. Will someone please call Ross Perot?