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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2000 / 20 Tishrei 5761

Evan Gahr

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Consumer Reports

Hey conservatives, Nader wants your vote! -- TALK ABOUT tilting at windmills. Ralph Nader, the peripatetic "consumer advocate," says conservatives should help elect him president.

Is he serious? Apparently so. But don't dismiss this endeavor as yet another of Nader's quixotic crusades. A conservative case for Nader is, ultimately, no laughing matter.

In his June acceptance speech of the Green Party nomination for President, Nader tried to cultivate the right: "Don't conservatives, in contrast to corporatists, want movement toward a safe environment, toward ending corporate welfare?"

He repeated that motif later in the summer and again early this month. "It is not extremism for people in this country to say no to the hucksters and the corporate child molesters, 'Get off the backs of our children.'"

Heavy stuff, and what you might expect to hear at a gathering of GOP faithful. But Nader issued that call to arms at a festive rally-concert held at the University of Illinois before an overflow crowd of nearly 10,000.

True, Nader's bow to family values and attack on corporate welfare was interspersed with live music from Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. The veteran rocker closed his show with Bob Dylan's classic, "The Times They Are A Changin'."

Are they? It might not seem like he's preaching to the choir, but Saint Ralph should pick up a few minions on the right.

With his genuine opposition to corporate welfare and his support for real campaign finance reform, Nader should provide some right-leaning voters a principled alternative to Al Gore and George Bush.

Gore's negatives are legion. The vice president's unique brand of situational ethics turns on a decidedly flexible notion of the truth.

Worse yet, Gore, unlike Clinton (who did sign welfare reform legislation) lacks New Democrat credentials. Instead, on domestic matters, he seems grounded in a 1970s' sensibility that big government can solve or ameliorate virtually every social pathology.

Bush, for his part, seems utterly bereft of any core beliefs or values. Just what animates him? Has he articulated a forceful rationale why Americans should elect him president at this crucial moment in our history? "I'm a reformer with results," could be the slogan for everyone from dogcatcher to circuit county judge.

Where's the beef? "I'm a uniter, not a divider." Again, a great slogan for a bureaucrat, but any politician worth his salt invariably takes controversial positions and leaves at least one constituency jilted.

Back to the nuts and bolts of politics. As president, Bush would likely give the Republicans free ride to indulge corporate welfare. Halliburton, the oil company Dick Cheney headed until he joined the Bush ticket, has long guzzled at the federal trough.

The online magazine Salon tells how Halliburton enjoys the largesse of "two little-known federal agencies whose programs are sometimes impolitely derided as 'corporate welfare.'" Both agencies effectively subsidize, either through loans or insurance, overseas investments by American companies.

Republicans in Congress recently rejected an effort to scale back one of the agencies, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. The stated desire on the part of conservatives to dramatically slash government social programs rings hollow when they refuse to cut benefits for their corporate friends.

What about the obvious reasons to oppose Nader from the right? The biggest, of course, is that Nader has long played handmaiden to the regulatory state.

But again the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and all the rest are, for better or worse, and usually worse, a fixture of Washington.

There's no reason to think Bush would seriously endeavor to declaw these agencies. Recall that the FDA was remarkably activist-and launched a crusade against Big Bad Tobacco-under the senior Bush's presidency.

On social issues, if you accept former Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's analysis the country is slouching toward Gomorrah, it will likely continue in that direction regardless of whether Bush or Gore win.

Bush, for his part, doesn't have the stomach or inclination to pick a fight with the left over "lifestyle issues." Abortion rights advocates and gay rights advocates-already heady with recent victories in courts and the legislative arena-are likely to proceed full steam ahead regardless of who is president.

So what's left? On a personal level, Nader is both smart and funny. True, he's a bit of a hypocrite in some areas. Nader, normally Mr. Full Disclosure, is reportedly in cahoots with the trial lawyers-but refuses to disclose in any details the funding sources for his organizations.

So much for the full disclosure he undoubtedly asks of businesses. Still, unlike Gore, who presumes to know better than everyone else, Nader almost always makes careful and elaborate arguments to prove his point.

Better a long-winded exegesis, even if misguided, than a quick sigh. Like anyone else with a finally honed touch of irony, he is amused by, rather than contemptuous of, opponents.

In short, his vast intelligence falls just short of arrogance. He's a scold but not an arrogant one. Moreover, he avoids the vituperative and divisive rhetoric employed by many on the left, such as prominent Democratic congressmen who often compare the GOP to Nazis.

Besides the politics of personal destruction, Nader scrupulously avoids making the personal political. Introduced by feminists, that concept has infected the entire body politic.

As John Miller writes in the October 23 National Review, Nader "doesn't do things that virtually every politician does, such as talk in the first person. You wouldn't know from listening to him that he's the son of immigrants...that his mother ran a restaurant and bakery."

As for personal stuff, Nader may be an ascetic but he's no bohemian. He wears wrinkled suits, not fashionably ripped jeans. At a time when activists on both the left and right seek to define themselves by their clothes, Nader's unwillingness to tailor his dress to political fashions is refreshing. And of course, thanks to some savvy investments, his net worth is reportedly in the millions. For that he has been widely mocked, and can probably cry all the way to the corporate conglomerate.

Whether that constitutes "selling out" on his part or "buying in" is not really germane. What's far more important is that Nader at his best raises serious questions about an unbridled free market's effect on children.

His provocative style is redolent of William Bennett and other conservative "cultural warriors." The free market has many glories, but it also presents a downside. As both Nader and Bennett argue, entertainment companies need not be accorded carte blanche to spew cultural pollution.

It's possible to contain these excesses without impaling profit or the First Amendment. Some five years ago, New York City officials, emboldened by public outrage, forced the clothing company Calvin Klein to withdraw some advertisements which depicted young teen-agers in a prurient manner. The company survived. So did free speech.

Although voting is a right, in the larger sense, it's a privilege.

Conservatives need not shuffle into the voting booth and grudgingly cast their ballots for the GOP standard bearer Gov. George W. Bush rode to his party's nomination on the sense of the inevitable. He was "the anointed one."

Is a vote for Nader a wasted vote? Maybe, maybe not. That's literally impossible to know until after the election. Moreover, voting is supposed to hinge on more than a cost-benefit analysis. You want a sure winner? Go to the horse races. Or better yet, fix the races.

To paraphrase a famous conservative, the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a vote for Nader in pursuit of virtue is no vice.

JWR contributor Evan Gahr is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. To comment click here.


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© 2000, Evan Gahr. This piece is adapted from Bridge News.