Friday, February 15, 2008

On Nader

A friend asked me what I thot of Ralph Nader's exploratory committee. My first reaction is that I look back on his run for President in 2000 from the perspective of 8 years' distance. Nader made the argument that there was no difference between the Republicans and Democrats, between Gore and Bush. After 7 years of Bush, that argument is hard to take seriously. Bush leads a party that tries to deny the existence of global warming - Gore has made that his raison d'etre. I think we can safely assume that Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq or used torture.

But, again from the perspective of 8 years away, I can better appreciate Nader's position. To me, the argument that there was no appreciable difference between Dems and Republicans was hard to understand - I can see lots of profound differences. But I'm a total political junkie, and I pay very close attention to politics, so my perspective is different from a lot of people's.

But the key point that I think Nader missed is that Clinton had to deal with a Republican Congress. The President does not propose legislation - he takes what Congress sends him. In his first term, Clinton fought Republicans successfully on some key issues, particularly on the budget. He raised taxes to balance the budget, and did so despite fierce opposition from the GOP.

In 1994, the Republicans took back Congress. They had not been in control of the House for 40 years. The Democrats were completely blindsided - they had no idea what hit them. Clinton had no plan on how to deal with a Republican Congress. He had to fight them, and did, sometimes successfully - he won the showdown over shutting down the government. But Newt Gingrich set the agenda for a large chunk of Clinton's presidency.

So when Nader claimed that there was no significant difference between the Democrats and Republicans in 2000, I think he was ignoring the fact that the Republicans were setting the agenda. If one party controls one house of Congress and the other party controls the other, each party has a chance to pass their own legislation and force the other to deal with it. A Democratic House can force a Republican Senate to compromise. The Republicans controlled both - Democrats could do nothing but fight back. Sometimes they fought back successfully, sometimes they lost, sometimes they gave in.

Nader is right about one thing: sometimes the Democrats caved because they were just scared of Republicans, and were unwilling to fight on principle. A great example is the Defense of Marriage Act, which was an anti-gay piece of legislation. Clinton signed it because he didn't want to be defined as "anti-family." Politically, it was expedient. But as a matter of principle, it was horrendous.

Ralph Nader's campaign for President in 2000 fits into one of the basic templates that define American democracy: the eternal conflict between compromise and principle. There will always be people who prize ideological purity above compromise, and there will always be people who compromise too easily. Nader does not believe in compromise. But he has the luxury of not being an elected official. Clinton compromised because he had little choice. But Clinton also had to compromise, in part, because of his personal failings. He never had a strong mandate. He never won a majority of the popular vote (Ross Perot helped him out there in both elections). And, particularly after Monica Lewinsky, he did not have much moral authority.

I didn't agree with Ralph Nader's decision to run for President in 2000, and I still think it was a mistake, although now I have a better understanding of why he did, of why he was frustrated with Democrats. I think he took away enough votes from Gore to make Bush President, which has been an unmitigated disaster. This time around, I think he has even less justification for running, essentially because Obama has two qualities that Clinton lacked. First, Obama has the moral authority that Clinton lacked. Second, Obama is not afraid of Republicans. Obama understands that if he is not afraid of Republicans, that he can set the agenda, and force Republicans to react to him. Hillary does not understand that. She still reacts, often out of fear, to Republicans, and does not try to set the agenda on her own terms. Obama claims that he can change the terms of the game. I get the impression Hillary isn't even sure what he's talking about.

Finally, I have one particular issue with Ralph Nader. As I said above, I think he has some responsibility for Gore losing. Not complete responsibility - Gore did not run a particularly good campaign, and, let's face it, the man is not a great politician. What bothers me about Nader is that he refuses to take responsibility for Bush being President. Doesn't even seem interested in discussing the possibility. This strikes me as arrogant and self-righteous. I have a great deal of respect for Ralph Nader's career - he's done a lot of good for the world. But taking a position of ideological purity carries its own risks. That kind of position gives someone like Nader a license to pass judgment on other people. Passing judgment on others is an exercise of power. As such, it is subject to the laws of power. Specifically, it can corrupt. Ralph Nader has a great deal of moral authority as a result of his long career. He deserves it. What he doesn't seem to appreciate is that that moral authority, like any kind of power, carries with it a certain amount of responsibility. I think his ego has gotten in the way of his ability to affect real and substantive change.

1 comment:

Gwennegaia said...

Interesting comments on Obama/Clinton and fearing repub's.........he does stay on a high ground, doesn't he? I think you're right - he doesn't seem to fear them, and that sure is relevant for a future pres.........Len's comment is that he is coming from principle, and as such, is not reactive as Clinton tends to be.

Also like the comment on Nader - I have been put off by his lack of remorse/acknowledgement of what his candidacy cost this country - arrogance is a good word!