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Fall Guy

Washington Diarist

Nader's dishonesty stems in part from his dogged unwillingness to admit any fact that complicates the rationale for his candidacy. He begins with the unshakable premise that the electorate is a vast left-wing majority waiting to be awakened from its apathy. Any evidence to the contrary--which would justify liberal pragmatism--must be dismissed. So when a TV anchor brought up Gore's poor showing in West Virginia, Nader replied that Gore had lost because "he went down with King Coal instead of the people of West Virginia." It's not that coal miners were afraid that Gore's environmentalism would cost them their jobs! They voted for Bush because Gore was not environmentalist enough! Asked what surprised him in the election, Nader observed that Bush was struggling in Florida. "I think the two mistakes Bush made," he elucidated, "were on Social Security and on this tax cut that benefits the wealthy." But wait: These were not merely tactical missteps--on the order of spending too much time campaigning in California--but highly consequential policy stands that offer a strong rationale for voting for Gore. Nader seemed to notice that this logic veered perilously close to a conclusion that would have induced cognitive dissonance. So he righted himself at once, declaring in the next sentence, "But you know, don't worry, the Democrats are very good, Larry, at electing very bad Republicans." Any criticism of the Republicans can only be explained as a consequence of the weakness of the Democrats--which can only be remedied, of course, by weakening them still more.

Nader's election-night attempt to spin his 3 percent showing at the polls resembled nothing so much as Orrin Hatch straining to explain why his sixth- place Iowa Caucus finish had positioned him perfectly for the New Hampshire primary. "What we know for sure," boasted Nader, "is that we're coming out of Election Day with the third-largest party in America, replacing the Reform Party." So, despite what he had said all along, getting 5 percent of the vote and millions of dollars in matching funds didn't really matter after all. Under Nader, the Greens have achieved the loftier goal of surmounting Pat Buchanan's 0 percent of the popular vote. And the Natural Law Party, needless to say, has been left in the dust.

If bush is indeed elected, Nader will be doomed, and not just because he failed to win his much-needed loot. The fantasy that is the basis of his candidacy depends upon the absence of a Republican president. Why, one might ask, did Nader run a stronger left-wing insurgency against Gore this year than against Clinton four years ago? (Especially considering that Gore's 2000 campaign is more liberal in both substance and rhetoric than Clinton's Dick Morris-ized 1996 effort?) The answer is that, four years ago, we were just a year removed from the Gingrich revolution and only four years removed from an era of Republican presidents. The fear of Republicans controlling Washington still had resonance on the left. Now, though, the Naderites have forgotten what it's like to have a Republican president--clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, anyone?--and concentrate instead on the tragedy of Democratic moderation. By wishing away conservatism, lefties can imagine that the only choices are between liberal centrism and full-throated radicalism. And if you accept that premise, voting for Nader doesn't seem so counterproductive. Nader's lies are designed to nurture in his followers the fantasy that they can escape the crushing logic of a winner-take-all electoral system.

But if Bush takes office, there will be a living, breathing conservative in the White House, privatizing social programs, deregulating business, and generally throwing the fear of God into the Naderites. According to Nader's calculation, such a conservative administration will catalyze his movement, forcing the Democrats to move left to co-opt his followers or risk losing ever more members to the Green Party. In fact, the opposite outcome is all but certain: A Bush presidency will instill in Nader voters a renewed appreciation for the comparative virtues of moderate liberalism. The Democrats will have no reason to move left, because the left will move toward them. Nader's candidacy will serve as an object lesson in the futility of voting for a third party. Each of Bush's conservative accomplishments will lay bare Nader's dishonesty, and the destructive power of left-wing maximalism will be extinguished for a generation.

I wrote above that Nader had no redeeming qualities. I now correct myself; that is one.