The way Ralph Nader talks about himself, you’d think he was one of Werner Heisenberg’s elusive subatomic particles. When it comes to affecting public policy, Nader contends he has mass, heft, effect. What he says matters; he can move the debate. When it comes to affecting presidential election outcomes, though, he is a wave, weightless, undetectable, devoid of responsibility for the Bush presidency and pre-emptively devoid should he now help Bush again.

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This is, of course, totally backward. By segregating himself outside the Democratic primary process, Nader has had nowhere near the effect on public policy or political discourse that Howard Dean has had. And by choosing to run in November, he guarantees that the only effect he could possibly have would be to tilt the presidential election to an ever-grateful George W. Bush.

Not that Nader accepts even a smidgen of responsibility for Bush’s 2000 victory; it is all the Democrats’ fault. “They have no modesty about bringing the country 10 years of losses,” he told The New York Times. “They have become very good at bringing the country very bad Republicans.”

Et tu, Ralph? The Democrats merely failed to defeat the Republicans. But Nader actually thwarted them in their attempt.

But then, if Nader really wanted to change the national conversation, he wouldn’t be running on a third-party or independent line in any case. He would have entered the Democratic primaries, which is the way that liberals and leftists really do affect our discourse in election season. Consider the effect that Howard Dean had over the past 18 months. When he began campaigning in 2002, Dean was far more obscure than Nader, and had access to far fewer resources. Like Nader, he was exasperated at the failure of the Democrats to stand up to Bush. Unlike Nader, he heard and then gave voice to the millions of Democrats who were similarly exasperated, attacking Bush on the war and on the economy and surging into the lead in the process. Dean’s campaign crystallized Democratic opinion against Bush, and required Democratic candidates whose judgments had been more wavering than his — John Kerry and John Edwards in particular — to change their tune, and the very substance of their campaigns.

This was a course that Nader could easily have taken — after all, he, too, opposed the war and Bushonomics and shared Dean’s critique of the congressional party’s leadership. Like Dean — indeed, like Dennis Kucinich, with whom he has no policy differences whatever — Nader could have participated in the two dozen or so televised debates of the Democratic candidates. Instead, he will end up arguing about his exclusion from the fall debates, rather than choosing to participate in debates that have cumulatively altered what the Democrats stand for this year.

By insisting that a leftist makes change by running as a third-party candidate, moreover, Nader totally misunderstands the past 70 years of American history. Since the early years of the New Deal, no third-party or independent presidential candidacies — not those of Norman Thomas, Earl Browder or Henry Wallace, nor the Peace and Freedom Party’s nor John Anderson’s nor Nader’s in 2000 — have had any effect on American politics. Yet the 70 years since the New Deal began to take hold have been a time of remarkable social progress, engendered entirely by independent social movements, not parties. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the ’60s student left, the feminists and environmentalists of the ’70s — all had profound effects on the Democrats and the nation as a whole. They made their causes compelling to millions of people and by so doing forced the Democrats to embrace their cause. But at no point did any of them counterpose themselves to the Democrats in a zero-sum electoral game.

And when those causes took on an electoral dimension, it was within the Democratic Party primary process. The real opposition to the Vietnam War took shape where it mattered — in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern; in the senatorial campaigns of Alan Cranston and others like him. That Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory were standard-bearers of third parties that also opposed the war matters only to masters-level players of left-wing trivial pursuit.

The Socialist and Communist Parties of the ’30s were important to American left politics because of the dedication and skills they instilled in their members, and because those members brought their dedication and skills to mass movements such as labor. Their presidential campaigns were beside the point, save that of Norman Thomas in 1932, in which the socialist candidate’s eloquence and moral seriousness at the very bottom of the Depression converted thousands of listeners to the socialist cause. But one generation later, Thomas’ successor, Michael Harrington, also converted thousands of listeners to the socialist cause, or at least the ’60s left, while consciously opting not to run as a third-party candidate.

What had changed the situation was the creation of the modern Democratic Party shortly after the ’32 election. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership, the Democrats became the political home of the previously unmoored progressive forces in American politics. Thirty years later, the triumph of the primary system over boss-rule in the nominating process meant that progressives had a clear path to wage campaigns within the party and move the spectrum leftwards, as the careers of Paul Wellstone, Mo Udall, Phil and John Burton, and such latter-day liberals as Howard Dean, all attest.

No wonder, then, that Ralph Nader is running against what he terms “the liberal intelligentsia,” for if anyone knows this history, knows how and when the left has made a difference and how and when it hasn’t, it’s the lib-intell. Nader’s chosen course, by contrast, only makes sense to those with historical amnesia, and while many on the left are prey to that, even they can remember back to November 2000, and know the consequences of Bush’s presidency.

That is why Nader will have just a fraction of the support he had four years ago. Then again, in a super-close election, even that fraction could prove decisive. It will be particularly important to scrutinize Nader’s funding sources, since the Republicans have an interest in helping him just as they’ve financed the primary campaign of Al Sharpton. In the meantime, a slogan for the candidate:

Nader, ’04: The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

We can only hope.

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