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Al Gore

Guess who’s back?

“‘If the Democrats can’t landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, emerge in a different form,’ Nader said. ‘You think the American people are going to vote for a pro-war John McCain who almost gives an indication he’s the candidate for perpetual war?’” And with that on Meet the Press, consumer advocate Ralph Nader is back in the hunt for 2008. (That being said, he did have some relatively kind words for Sen. Obama: “Senator Obama is a person of substance. He’s also the first liberal evangelist in a long time. He’s run a brilliant tactical campaign. But his better instincts and his knowledge have been censored by himself.“)

Now, this is a year where I definitely support Sen. Obama over Ralph Nader, and I hope that those voters who are thinking about pulling the lever for Nader do give Obama a long, hard look first. To my mind, as with John McCain (who might’ve been a decent president in 2000, particularly compared to the ultimate GOP alternative), Nader is now a candidate whose time has come and gone. That being said, I don’t know why we have to keep going over this, but Nader has every right to run, and, if people decide to vote for him over Obama, so be it. Nader’s potential votes are not and never will be the Democratic Party’s votes by fiat. They must be earned.

Dredging up a stale (and rather whiny) Election 2000 talking point, TPM’s Josh Marshall today calls Nader “Bush’s Chief Enabler,” and that’s not only wildly off the mark, but symptomatic of a type of narrow, scapegoating impulse that speaks poorly of Democrats in general. As I noted at the time, Al Gore lost the election of 2000 for many reasons, even notwithstanding the Supreme Court endgame: Gore lost his home state of Tennessee. He tried constantly to distance himself from the still very popular Bill Clinton — I’m looking at you, Joe Lieberman — and even refused to send Clinton to places where he could easily have made the difference for Gore, like Arkansas and West Virginia. He gave some thoroughly terrible debate performances. (Remember the sighing?) He asked for a targeted recount aimed at helping him, rather than a full statewide recount. And so on. So blaming Nader makes very little sense. (As Nader himself pointed out today, every single third-party candidate got more than the 537 votes Gore needed in Florida.) Here’s the question I’d put to Marshall, Chait, and anyone else who keeps up this sad Blame-Nader meme long past its sell date: Even notwithstanding all the people who voted Dubya in 2000, why would you blame the 2% of voters who followed the process enough to vote third-party in 2000, rather than the 40% of Americans who didn’t even bother to vote?

Now, with all that in mind, it’s interesting to look at Obama and Clinton’s respective responses to the Nader candidacy. First, here’s Sen. Obama. “I think anybody has the right to run for president if they file sufficient papers. And I think the job of the Democratic Party is to be so compelling that a few percentage of the vote going to another candidate is not going to make any difference” Speaking of Nader specifically, Obama said: “You know, he had called me and I think reached out to my campaign — my sense is is that Mr. Nader is somebody who, if you don’t listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks you’re not substantive. He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work. Now — and by the way, I have to say that, historically, he is a singular figure in American politics and has done as much as just about anybody on behalf of consumers. So in many ways he is a heroic figure and I don’t mean to diminish him. But I do think there is a sense now that if somebody is not hewing to the Ralph Nader agenda, then you must be lacking in some way.

Notice how Sen. Obama respects Nader’s decision to enter the race, and agrees that all votes must be earned. Then, while calling Nader a “heroic figure” who “done as much as just about anybody on behalf of consumers,” he makes the case that Nader might just be missing the forest for the trees this time. This is in keeping with Obama’s usual argumentative method and the reason why his talk of bipartisanship is more than just a soundbite. Obama begins a conversation by respecting his ideological opponent, explaining what he sees as valuable in their view, and then goes on to argue his position. It’s a much more encompassing, inclusive rhetorical strategy, which respects differences and doesn’t accuse people of acting solely in bad faith.

[Update: At a campaign stop today, Sen. Obama pushed back on a Nader candidacy a little harder, saying: “I think his view is, unless you’re Ralph Nader, you’re not tough enough on any of these issues. He thought there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush, and eight years later, I think it’s obvious that he didn’t know what he was talking about.” Saying Nader was wrong in this regard, however, is not the same as saying the Bush presidency is Nader’s fault.]

Which brings us to Sen. Clinton. Now, her antipathy to Ralph Nader is well-documented. (There was her off-the-cuff remark in 2000 that killing Nader was actually worth contemplating, and just today a “senior adviser to the Clinton campaign” said of Nader, “‘Loathe’ isn’t a strong enough word.“) So, here’s her response to Nader’s announcement: “His being on the Green Party prevented Al Gore from being the greenest president we could have had, and I think that’s really unfortunate. I think we paid a big price for it. I’m pretty sad about that…Well that’s really unfortunate. I remember when he did this before. It did not turn out very well for anybody, most especially our country.

Notice there’s that nothing nice said about Nader’s 40-year-career as a consumer advocate here, or anything other than “shame” offered to those who might be drawn to his candidacy. Rather, Clinton just perpetuates the weak-sauce, scapegoating contention that Nader caused Gore to lose. Frankly, her answer — pass around the Nader-Haterade! — reeks of the same sense of entitlement that seems to propel her candidacy, based as it is on the notion that Gore deserved Nader’s votes just because he was the Democratic candidate. Besides being a rather undemocratic way of looking at elections, this is emphatically NOT the way to rally possible Nader voters to your standard.

Fortunately, Sen. Clinton will be long out of the race before this really becomes an issue.

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