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Ralph Nader’s Conscience

October 6, 2016

It is generally accepted that Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy on the Green Party ticket cost Al Gore the election in 2000 although Nader took only 2.7 percent of the vote. Gore won a small plurality of the popular vote (48.4 percent to 47.9 percent for George W. Bush). But for only the fourth time in American history, the popular winner was the electoral loser.

The Electoral College voted for Bush over Gore, 271 to 266. Flipping any one state from Bush to Gore would have flipped the election. And in fact, Bush won two states by exceedingly small margins: Florida and New Hampshire.

The vote in Florida got the post-Election Day attention, with its hanging chads and enough litigation to warm the heart of the coldest attorney. The final, official result in Florida awarded the state to Bush by 537 votes out of more than 5.8 million votes cast – a victory margin of less than one-hundredth of one percent. Nader took more than 1.6 percent of Florida’s votes, more by many times than Gore needed to win the state.

Less famously in New Hampshire, the popular vote went for Bush by less than 1.3 percent. Nader did especially well in that state, with 3.9 percent of the vote. Although perhaps less certainly than Florida, Nader’s candidacy probably cost Gore the electoral votes of New Hampshire – and therefore the election.

It’s impossible to know how a Gore presidency would have handled unforeseen events like 9/11. Whether Gore would have invaded Afghanistan in order to capture Osama bin Laden, whether Gore would have followed up with an invasion of Iraq to “disarm” Saddam Hussein – these are not knowable things.

But it is certain that Al Gore’s secretary of defense would not have been Donald Rumsfeld, and therefore it is certain that if Gore had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq the invasions would not have been overseen by a man who was hell-bent to disprove the Powell Doctrine that American military force should never be committed except as a wholehearted commitment of overwhelming force.

It is also certain that Gore would not have pushed tax cuts for the wealthy, would not have disarmed American financial regulatory authorities, and would not have passed off No Child Left Behind as serious national education policy.

Bush turned a large, long-term federal budget surplus into a large, long-term deficit that has cramped federal spending ever since, and will continue to impair critical investments from infrastructure to Social Security for decades to come.

In other words, elections have serious consequences.

Today’s New York Times publishes a letter to the editor from Ralph Nader, listing a number of “sine qua non” causes of Gore’s defeat by Bush: Nader blames Governor Jeb Bush’s secretary of state for misidentifying thousands of Floridians as ex-felons, barring them from voting; deceptive “butterfly ballots”; Gore’s loss of his home state of Tennessee; and the “political” Supreme Court decision to stop the statewide recount and award the state, and the election, to Bush.

All four of these were serious problems, and two of them were responsible for the election outcome. But none of them would have been an issue at all had Nader not taken 1.6 percent of Floridians’ votes.

There is something in the nature of youth that makes us prone to believe we have discovered things our parents never considered. This is usually a good thing, leading to social progress and technological innovation. But this youthful zeal to change the world also leads us to rash thinking and, sometimes, big mistakes.

In politics, young people are especially prone to the appeal of third parties. In my day as a young Baby Boomer it was John Anderson’s independent candidacy in 1980. Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, did unexpectedly well in the early Republican primaries, but ultimately fell to the conservative juggernaut of Ronald Reagan’s campaign. Running as an independent, he appealed largely to moderate voters who were disillusioned with Jimmy Carter’s economy. Reagan clobbered Carter, of course, and Anderson’s 6.6 percent of the popular vote came nowhere close to making a difference. (For the record, I voted for Carter.)

Gen X had its third-party fling with Nader’s Green Party. Now it’s Millennials’ turn.

The rhetoric of Millennial fans of Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson has a familiar ring to those of us who remember the John Anderson and Ralph Nader candidacies. It’s about new choices and rejection of the old, stale, limiting alternatives.

Millennials are especially drawn to Johnson’s social libertarianism – expanded freedom of personal choice manifested in reduced regulation of civil liberties, abortion, immigration and recreational drug use. Millennial Johnson supporters tend to overlook Johnson’s economic libertarianism – Johnson’s boundless faith in unregulated market capitalism and his libertarian “hands off” approach to economic policy and jobs, climate change, health care, gun ownership, education and campaign finance.

As of today, Hillary Clinton’s odds of winning the election are better than four to one; if the election were held today, she would have a slight edge even in Arizona, where Democrats haven’t won since 1996. But of course it’s not certain that things will stay that way, so it’s not clear yet whether Gary Johnson will be the John Anderson of 2016 or the Ralph Nader.

I do know this – if Donald Trump wins, and if the margin of victory is less than Gary Johnson’s vote total, then Johnson voters, like Ralph Nader in today’s Times, will have to explain themselves to the next generation – desperately trying to disown the millennial disaster of President Donald Trump.


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