Nader And The Push For Purity

When they were building that overexposed bridge to the 21st century, Al Gore and Bill Clinton left the liberals behind. The old guard was resurrected for one night at the Democratic convention, waving from the left bank. Teddy's hair has grown white and his waistline thick in the service of his country. Jesse's voice is more gravelly, his gestures less grandiose. And Mario, perhaps the greatest political orator of our lifetime, was reduced to opining for the benefit of the television audience at home. For unreconstructed liberal voters, they are like Cher: no last name necessary, but yesterday's news nonetheless.

Out of the left-wing wilderness has emerged a presidential candidate who has long been one of its heroes. A modern monk who looks like Lincoln and lives like Gandhi, Ralph Nader has in his lifetime as a consumer activist helped change the face of America, his influence felt in everything from seat belts and air bags to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Freedom of Information Act. The notion that the legendary progressive has decided to play the spoiler in this presidential race is a sad testimonial to how politics drive men mad.

Nader has built a campaign on a big lie of this election year: that there is little appreciable difference between the two major parties, or their presidential candidates. Why this should have become conventional wisdom in some circles is peculiar and mysterious. Sure, there are the empty commercials and the empty conventions, the Ivy League backgrounds and the second-generation political scions. The polo-shirt quotient is undeniably high.

But on a panoply of issues the Democrats and Republicans diverge sharply. It is all there for anyone to read in recent legislative history. A voter who wants gun-control legislation and favors affirmative action will turn to the Democrats. A voter who believes abortion should be legal and legal protections for gay men and lesbians should be continued would do well to vote for Gore.

The current prosperity, the direct result of paying down the massive federal debt rather than continuing to dole out feel-good tax cuts that increase the deficit, has been the work of a Democratic president. Nader has complained that the Democrats have not done enough on the minimum wage, but they have long been more likely to increase it than the Republicans. He has attacked Gore as not sufficiently pure on environmental issues, but, as the vice president's Sierra Club endorsement attests, chances for conservationist policy are likely to be greater, if not great enough, in a Gore administration.

But this kind of calculation requires a relativism with which Nader has never been comfortable. A friend was once quoted as saying he'd told her he'd never married because he couldn't have both a family and a cause. It's that either-or attitude that most of us had when very young, which is not accidental; well into his 60s Nader continues to be surrounded by a revolving coterie of idealistic young people, so that, like Peter Pan, his politics need never grow old.

If the election is decided late in the day by the citizens of the state of California, Nader could help throw the presidency to George W. Bush by picking up a critical mass of what would otherwise be Democratic voters. His poll numbers there and in some other states are rising. He taps not only into the dreadlocked and the Birkenstocked, but also into young people and union members opposed to globalization, and liberals dispirited by the drift to the center of the Democratic Party, moderation in exchange for victory, activism traded for consensus.

But Nader is no antidote. He is not even a particularly compelling third-party candidate. History tells us that those candi-dacies have revolved around charismatic, sometimes wacky characters who bring to the forefront an issue that the major parties are forced to confront. But campaign-finance reform has already been ably showcased by John McCain. And despite every effort to suggest otherwise, the movement toward universal health care was begun by the Clintons, who in a scant eight years turned the notion from a socialized-medicine bogeyman to an accepted inevitability.

The rest of Nader's program focuses on the redistribution of wealth, the overweening power of the corporate culture and the dangers of globalization. These are important and complex issues that are oversimplified by Nader, who tends to demonize all businesses bigger than a bodega, and by the platform of the Green Party, from which Nader is running. The Greens propose nationalizing the Fortune 500 and taxing at a rate of 100 percent any income that exceeds 10 times the minimum wage, suggesting that they missed the economic lessons of the fall of communism. The party also suggests a "reappraisal" of the use of animals in zoos and the teaching of vegetarianism in the public schools.

All of this takes me back, not to the '60s, but to the platitudes of an earlier era. Half a loaf is better than none. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. Some voters say they will vote for Nader to make a statement about their disgust over a process that seems designed less for the electorate than for lobbyists and party leaders. They are right about their disgust. They are right about the process. They are wrong about the statement. Statements don't provide hot meals in poor schools, or contraceptives at family-planning clinics. Statements help a small group of people to feel pure and pious and superior for a day or two, and there is still too much need in America to waste a vote on a feeling so fleeting and meaningless.

The chance that Al Gore is going to insist on vegetarian instruction in America's schools--or, for that matter, the $10-an-hour minimum wage that Nader proposes--is nonexistent. But on civil rights, reproductive freedom, child care, clean air and water, you need only look at Gore's record to know that he will be closer to the liberal ideal than his opponent. If the election goes to the Republicans because Nader siphons votes from Gore, it will be interesting to hear him explain how this advances the agenda for which he's worked so tirelessly.