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Jewish World Review June 29, 2000 / 26 Sivan, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Consumer Reports

Are Nader's raiders faders? -- I AM NO FAN of Ralph Nader. His anti-corporate views are extremist, counter-factual and demagogic. His anti-trade positions come from Neanderthal caves. Moreover, it is a time of general prosperity, following massive de-regulation of industry. Entrepreneurs are often idolized. Nader-style business-bashing deserves less credence than ever.

But do not mistake my own views for political relevance. Nader is now the presidential nominee of the Green Party. His outlook resonates with many voters. And third parties in America have been more important in our political history than is generally understood. I bet Nader will do quite well, with powerful ramifications.

America has never developed a major socialist political party. Some scholars say that's because we never had serfs or peasants. But many Americans do have a conspiracy-theory streak that comes out against big business, which gives forth a screeching socialist sound.

Gasoline prices up? Forget OPEC, new environmental regulations and pipeline malfunctions. In Naderland, a cabal of big oil companies are responsible for stacking the deck. (Prove it, and oil company executives go to jail.) Jobsgoing overseas? Forget Adam Smith and the market system, forget that we have full employment, forget that imports yield lower prices for consumers -- keeping inflation down and allowing the economy to keep on bubbling. No matter; Nader says the big boys stole your job.

Nader, and Pat Buchanan too, are running on an old American principle: "We're Getting Screwed" -- usually partially true. Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote in 1992, after leading the pack and running in the high 30 percentiles that spring. George Wallace got 13 percent in 1968 (after running in the low 20s earlier on). Wallace said, "there's not a dime's worth of difference between the parties." So did Perot. So, today, do Nader and Buchanan.

Will only one of them emerge as a serious protest candidate? For now, Nader is polling higher than Buchanan (7 percent to 4 percent in a recent survey.) I'd guess this gap will widen. There may be space for only one candidate to "send <\#213>em a message." While Nader is of the left and Buchanan of the right, American ideology often forms into a U-shape, putting the two in competition for certain anti-establishment voters. (Anti-trade, anti-immigrant Reagan Democrat union members, for example.)

Both candidates complain that they are frozen out of major news coverage and that they will not be allowed to appear in the televised debates of the major candidates in the fall. (Another corporate conspiracy.) They moan: How can voters possibly get their message? (Of course, even more people don't know my message, or yours.)

But Buchanan has run twice in high-profile Republican presidential primaries, and began a third before bolting the GOP when his poll ratings plummeted. Most Americans know who Buchanan is and what he stands for.

Although Nader is no newcomer, he is not yet known as a political leader. His brief Green Party campaign in 1996 was unfunded. This time he says he'll raise $5 million. If he gets 5 percent of the vote, he will qualify the Greens for federal funding in 2004.

There is a pattern. A Third Party candidate with ideas gains momentum. As support grows, his ideas are swiped, echoed, diluted and partially absorbed by one or both of the political vacuum cleaners we call major parties. It happened with Perot, George Wallace, and earlier with Progressive Robert LaFollette and Socialists Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. It is a healthy process. (Watch the "Think Tank" one-hour special "A Third Choice," airing on PBS on August 18 at 9 p.m.; consult local listings.)

For example, Gore is lashing out at pharmaceutical companies for overcharging. Is this a response to Nader? Is it what Gore believes? Is it focus-group driven? It's hard to tell with Gore. But is trashing Big Pharma a good idea? Just as the Human Genome project takes off? When aging Baby Boomers need medicines, some of which haven't been invented yet and won't be unless Big Pharma makes big profits to finance big research?

As major party candidates accommodate some of the views of third party candidates, they draw off some potential votes. As Election Day approaches, this process is compounded by the "Wasted Vote Syndrome." Some Nader supporters will say, I like Ralph, but he can't win, so I'll vote for Gore because he's better than Bush.

According to this analysis, Nader will go up some at first, Gore will move left some, Nader will then go down some, but still take some Gore votes.

What about Bush? Not needing the Buchanan vote, he will keep moving toward the center to occupy some turf previously held by Gore. Which means Bush will win by a bigger margin than now expected, and Nader may set up a permanent party of the left, crippling Democratic presidential candidates for a long time.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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