Sometimes a vote for Ralph Nader is just a vote for Ralph Nader.

It’s not that hard to understand. For the first time in decades, there’s a progressive candidate actively campaigning, one who articulates the left’s concerns about the global economy, the domestic safety net, the environment. It should be obvious why like-minded voters would want to express their support for his ideas, to cast an affirmative vote for once instead of settling for the lesser of two evils. But that notion is one the Democrats seem to have trouble grasping.

They’ve been doing a lot of whining lately, all of it about the Greens. The chief of the Democratic Party in Oregon termed Nader’s bid for the presidency “irresponsible and reckless to the progressive movement.” They’ve called him a “spoiler” and urged him publicly and privately to pull out of the race and throw his support to Gore.

There are important reasons to vote for Gore in states where the race is too close to call (the Supreme Court, the First Amendment, Social Security and our national parks, to name a few). But the “Nader as spoiler” refrain coming from the Dems is getting old. If they want to know why Green voters aren’t hopping on the Gore bandwagon, they don’t need to look beyond their own candidate. Since the Dem ocratic Convention, Gore has barely given progressives a nod: He seems to believe that being less awful than Bush is enough.

And so, rather than address the issues Nader is raising, the Gore campaign has sent out its fearmongers. “A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,” Joe Lieberman has warned from podiums across America. A Gore adviser, speaking to university students in Portland, inveighed against a Nader vote, urging Green voters to “ask themselves, if they like Nader, do they like him enough to want three more Scalias on the Supreme Court?” And California Governor Gray Davis, stumping for Gore in Los Angeles, warned potential Nader voters last weekend that “It’s one thing to cast a protest vote when you are certain your vote will not affect the presidential arithmetic. It is another thing to cast a protest vote when you know it will affect the arithmetic.”

But all this misses the point of the Nader candidacy. After a long period of dormancy, the American left is finally showing some signs of life. People are deeply concerned about NAFTA, about the gulf between rich and poor, about the shredding of the safety net. And a significant chunk of them are voting their hearts. If Gore wants to win these people — who’ve found in Nader an articulate spokesman for their views — he needs to stop attacking the messenger and start embracing the message. It’s been almost 30 years since the Dem ocrats fielded a real liberal, George McGovern, for president (and got trounced for their trouble). Since then, their strategy has been to run a centrist candidate, knowing they could count on the left for a lesser-of-two-evils vote. It was the fickle voters in the political center, the Reagan Democrats and their spawn, that the party felt it needed to court. It’s an approach that worked well as long as the left slumbered. Now, though, as progressives begin to rouse themselves, they want something more. They dare this time out to want a candidate who really believes as they do.

Nader has come a long way from his lethargic cartoon of a campaign four years ago. This election he’s on fire. His speeches — more like teach-ins — outline the possibility of an America committed to its citizens, not its corporations. He has dedicated himself to fanning that small flame of activism ignited in Seattle. He is a candidate of hope at a time when progressives have again dared to feel a bit of hope.

People of conscience have room to disagree on the Nader/Gore issue. Nader himself has made clear that he understands the concept of poll watching to help in deciding a vote. (In one California speech, he noted that “if Gore is nine points ahead of Bush” on election eve, then voters “can vote for the Greens and have it both ways.”) And I’d be surprised if a majority of Nader supporters in states where the race is close don’t decide on Election Day to hold their noses and vote for Gore — it’s something they’ve had a lot of practice doing. But they won’t enjoy it.

It’s hard this year, after having our hopes raised last spring in Seattle, to settle for Gore, the architect of Clinton’s welfare reform, a candidate who supports the death penalty, who supports NAFTA, who wants to increase defense spending. It’s impossible to feel good about casting a vote that affirms those policies, and it’s important for the Democrats to understand they can’t automatically count on the left wing of the party.

If, on Election Day, the polls are close, I’ll vote for Al Gore. But if California is safe, I’ll vote for Nader. And it won’t be a protest vote.

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