Monday, February 25, 2008

Ralph Nader: The Energizer Bunny

Ralph Nader is now the Energizer Bunny of presidential candidates. Much like the Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas, who ran for president during six straight presidential elections from 1928 to 1948, Ralph Nader has competed for the presidency in every primary or general election since 1992.

In 1992 Nader ran as a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries, in 1996 and 2000 as the Green Party candidate, and in 2004 as an independent, who garnered some support from the remnants of Ross Perot's Reform Party.

While reflecting on his six presidential campaigns, Norman Thomas pronounced them successful, because in his view the Democratic Party had adopted his platform.

Ideology is the fuel that drives the candidacies of ideological parties on the far left and far right. They do not define success as winning, but rather as defining the issues and hopefully pulling the major parties in their direction on the issues.

Nader's stated intention in 2008 is to move the Democratic Party to the left on several economic, military, international and social issues. Which, if he succeeds, will seriously damage the Democrats' chances of winning the White House.

Most Americans fall in the center of a bell curve -- neither far right nor far left, but pragmatic and non-ideological. They are the magnet of the middle. When Democrats and Republicans nominate candidates outside the magnet of the middle, they lose overwhelmingly, such as Republicans did in 1964 with Barry Goldwater on the right and as Democrats did in 1972 with George McGovern on the left.

Nader's candidacy on the left is to Democrats what the Libertarian and Constitution Parties on the right are to Republicans. To the extent that these ideologically-driven third parties define the issues and move the major parties to the far left and far right, they lessen their prospects for winning the White House. So it is that Nader on the left and the Libertarian and Constitution Parties on the right are playing a game of tug-of-war, not to win, but to influence the positions of the major parties.

Ralph Nader, the Energizer Bunny, does not run on the fuel of winning, but rather on the fuel of ideology.

Of the third parties receiving 10 percent or more of the vote in eight presidential elections between 1848 and 2004, not one was ideologically-driven. Which points to another type of third party, issue-driven. Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912, Robert La Follette's Progressive Party in 1924, Strom Thurmond's States' Rights Party in 1948, George Wallace's American Independent Party in 1968, and Ross Perot's Independent Party in 1992 focused on selective issues rather than ideology.

Issue-driven parties may win more votes than ideologically-driven parties, but they have a shorter life-span. By co-opting their issues, the major parties bring them back into the fold of the major parties. For example, Richard Nixon moved quickly in 1968 and 1972 to adopt his "southern strategy" in order to co-opt the issues raised by George Wallace.

The eight years and third-party percentage of the vote were: 1848 (10.2), 1856 (21.6), 1860 (30.7), 1892 (10.9), 1912 (35.0), 1924 (17.1), 1968 (13.9) and 1992 (19.6).

Ralph Nader had his day in the sun in 2000 when he won 2.7 percent of the national vote, and probably cost Gore Florida. Assuming Nader's Florida votes would have gone to Gore, Democrats would likely have won Florida without the recounts and legal challenges, which ultimately gave Florida and the White House to Bush, and left Nader with a residue of ill-will among Democrats.

As the Energizer Bunny Ralph Nader's goal is not to win a large number of votes, but to move the Democratic Party to the left by the threat of winning just enough votes to keep Democrats out of the White House. If Democrats move to the left to appease Nader and lose the White House, he wins, and if they don't and win the White House, he still wins. In either case he has stood four-square for his ideology.

For Nader, the Energizer Bunny, it's a win-win proposition.

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