Jewish World Review June 25, 2004 / 6 Tamuz, 5764

Collin Levey

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Could Nader help the Dems? | In the 1922 children's story, "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams, a favorite stuffed animal, with fur rubbed bare from years of playtime and fevers and tea parties, is unceremoniously discarded. Then something magical happens: The faithful, glassy-eyed bunny becomes real.

The story comes to mind watching this year's third-party candidate and former darling of the left, Ralph Nader. His glory days may be over, his novelty may have worn thin, but he is giving this election ballast for history. Amid the wails of nearly all his old progressive allies, Nader has gone about picking up the Reform Party endorsement in May and is hoping to grab up the Green Party endorsement this week as well.

As one long conditioned to fight entities more powerful than he is, the brimming anger from Democrats at his too-big-for-his-britches attitude doesn't faze him much. Tapping longtime Green Party activist Peter Camejo as his running mate, Nader could be on the ballot at least as widely as he was in 2000.

Worse — or better, depending on the strength and political orientation of your stomach — he is polling ahead of where he was at the same point back in 2000, in the neighborhood of 6 to 7 percent. Common wisdom says this is bad news for the Democrats — but it may end up being as much a problem for George Bush when people finally head into the privacy of the voting booth.

The Nader campaign, in its most powerful incarnation, could turn out to have a flutter effect on Democrats — in the spirit of Michael Moore, keeping the anger and aggravation with the Bush administration front and center. Over the past few months, John Kerry has failed to make headway in the polls even against Bush's worst news cycles. The reason is simple: By Kerry's failing to voice an Iraq policy that sticks in people's minds, voters have tuned him out and gone back to their knitting.

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Hence the peculiar finding of this week's ABC News/ Washington Post poll, which showed Bush and Kerry tied on the leadership question and a slim majority of voters now believing the Iraq war wasn't worth it. Yet, the same poll found that a strong majority of voters believed Kerry had "no plan" on Iraq, and trusted Bush "personally" by a 14-point margin to keep the country safe.

Democrats have been trying to stamp out the Nader kindling as fast as they can. Repentant Nader voters from 2000 have sprouted Web sites in 2004 to decry his candidacy. Liberal standard bearers like The Nation and Mother Jones have abandoned him. The "anybody-but-Bush" sentiment was well captured by Jeff Cohen, former communications director for Dennis Kucinich and founder of the left-wing media watch group, FAIR. "Kerry vs. Bush is not Coke vs. Pepsi," he wrote. "It's more like Coke vs. Arsenic."

The one thing Democrats haven't done, and won't do, is speak clearly enough on Iraq (and in favor of a rapid exit) to steal Nader's thunder. That's why Nader's stronger-than-expected showing in the polls may be carried right through to the election.

Back in 2000, his campaign was basically warmed-over class warfare and an anti-corporate fury. This time he has real grist for the mill with Halliburton and an anti-war left that is furious, not just with Bush, but full of dumb anger at a globalizing world that forecloses any hope of realizing their socialist, environmentalist, anti-growth utopia.

He also has captured some of the frustrated momentum of Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor may have fizzled out following his too-hot performance in Iowa, but the thousands who thrilled to his gutsy anti-war rhetoric (some 10,000 at rallies here in Seattle last summer) haven't just gone away. Kerry cinched the Democratic nomination in part by wrapping himself around Dean's activist base. Looking at the trajectory of the polls, Nader's candidacy has gained momentum in proportion to Kerry's waltz back toward the center.

Being a pariah, Nader doesn't have the sort of fundraising muscle that can draft rock stars and rake in millions. In fact, his high-profile supporters from the last election are unlikely to show their faces now. But he has something more powerful in the land of third party candidates: a real, smoldering issue that is splitting the country.

Back when Ross Perot was out on the trail with his visual aids, questions of free trade and lost jobs were a major fault line on the right but also attracted supporters on the left. His 20 percent of the vote makes Nader's single digits last time look laughable.

This time, though, Nader has a chance to do the same thing with the war. Protest voters of every persuasion have only one place to go; Kerry has made sure of that. Besides, while many anti-war Democrats are likely to hold their noses and vote for Kerry, anti-war Republicans aren't going to turn to Kerry but more likely to Nader if their goal is to register dissent from Iraq.

Indeed, Democrats may only be hurting themselves by railing at Nader, drawing unnecessary attention to Kerry's failure to take a stand on Iraq that satisfies his own party's large anti-war contingent. Maybe it's time for Democrats to zip it — or even cheer Nader on a little.

JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.

06/17/04: Odd man out: Al Gore's journey into irrelevance
06/10/04: A chance to settle down and see where we are

© 2004, Collin Levey