Solving the Democrats' Nader Problem

The biggest news on the campaign trail over the past month was not Sen. John Kerry's near lock on the Democratic presidential nomination -- more than a year ago no less an authority than The Washing

Mar 17, 2004 at 2:06 pm

The biggest news on the campaign trail over the past month was not Sen. John Kerry's near lock on the Democratic presidential nomination — more than a year ago no less an authority than The Washington Post reported, "Chances are, (Kerry has) already won the 2004 Democratic nomination."

The fact that electronic voting machines — the cure for polling problems in 2000 — might be worse than the hanging chad syndrome came into stark relief on Super Tuesday. Thousands of voters in Orange and San Diego counties in California had problems casting ballots on the new equipment. Of course, media reports about this issue cropped up last year.

The most underreported story is that, with little acknowledgement from the mainstream press, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton have stayed in the race and done surprisingly well. Kucinich claimed nearly one-third of the votes in Hawaii's primary, and both he and Sharpton appear poised to take a handful of delegates into the convention in July. Unfortunately for their supporters, they stand little chance of having much impact, as Kerry has almost enough delegates to claim the nomination on the first ballot.

The biggest story related to the race in the past month was Ralph Nader's decision to run again, this time as an independent. As soon as he announced his intentions during an interview on NBC's Meet the Press, liberal pundits and Democratic wonks began to denounce him.

In The Los Angeles Times, Robert Scheer wrote Feb. 24, "In an act of pure egotism, Ralph Nader — who has been largely silent on the main issues of the day, nursing his wounds since the last time he messed up an election — insists on another chance to play at electoral politics on the national stage.

Does he have no sense of accountability or shame?"

Some, however, might think it shameful to suggest that any eligible candidate, especially one with a lifelong record of public service, shouldn't participate in this country's (more or less) democratic process.

Before we look deeper into the source of this vitriol and a solution to the "problem" raised by Nader's candidacy, full disclosure is in order. After sitting on my hands in 1996 because I couldn't stomach either of the major candidates — and the Libertarians and Greens were polling so low that it seemed a waste of time to figure out which one to support — I was completely behind Nader in 2000.

I feel absolutely no guilt about the way I voted. It comes as no surprise that the Democrats vilify Nader rather than come to terms with the fact that they nominated a loser and then backed down when a bully came by to steal the election they'd nonetheless managed to win.

Which brings us back to the present day. Perhaps not wanting to bring any more negative attention to the movement he helped germinate, Nader took his name off the Greens' nomination ballot.

While the Democrats can't bar Nader from running, their rhetoric makes it sound as if they wish they could. They can ban him from full participation, though. The nonpartisan (read: bipartisan) Commission for Presidential Debates (CPD) has ultimate authority over who is included in the debates, and it's almost sure to exclude any candidate without the clout of a major party nomination; its criteria for inclusion contains a catch-22. No one can participate in the CPD-sponsored debates unless they have a "realistic" chance of winning the election, even if no one has a realistic chance of winning if they are shut out of the debates.

Recall H. Ross Perot, who met the CPD's criteria after spending part of his personal fortune on half-hour, prime time, infomercial-style campaign ads. After the debates, he received 19 percent of the popular vote and might have spoiled the first President Bush's re-election bid.

Rather than shutting him out, what the Democrats should do is bring Nader, along with Kucinich and Sharpton, into the fold. As Lyndon Johnson once quipped, it's better to have a dangerous man inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.

Nader just might be dangerous. In the March 5 Associated Press/Ipsos Poll, Bush and Kerry tied within the 3 percent margin of error at 46 and 45 percent respectively. Nader scored 6 percent.

The scenario is simple: Approach Nader with the proposal that he drop out and throw his support behind the Democratic ticket with the understanding that he would be nominated as attorney general in the Kerry administration.

Face it. Despite being the best candidate in 2000, Nader isn't really presidential material. He would, however, likely be one of the best attorney generals in U.S. history and a perfect counterpoint to the near-despotic vision that seems to guide John Ashcroft. Nader has devoted his life to protecting the least powerful in our society; and as head of the Justice Department, he would be perfectly poised to defend us against the über-corporations he and his supporters claim threaten our way of life.

Kucinich would be a perfect candidate for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Kerry's platform includes plans to expand affordable housing and revitalize America's cities, and the Ohio congressman has a track record of protecting citizens' interests in the face of extremely powerful opposition. Adding him to the cabinet in advance would allow a gentle integration of some of his positions into the party platform and tap into his relatively successful nationwide grassroots organization.

Kerry could also bolster his flip-flop record on the Iraq war by bowing to the anti-war candidate. After all, it was Kucinich, not the Massachusetts senator, who voted against the war and the Patriot Act. Kucinich will headline a national protest Saturday in New York, marking the anniversary of the start of the debacle in Iraq.

While Sharpton might not have reached cabinet level, he is a powerful leader with nationwide appeal who fits the role of advising the White House on minority issues.

While these moves would require the Democratic leadership to swallow their pride, Nader has said that his goal this year is to help the Democrats beat Bush and take back the House and Senate. There probably isn't a better way for them to let him do it.

Joshua C. Robinson writes monthly about the presidential campaign for CityBeat.