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'Free ride' to the ballot costly for Nader and Bush
by Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist
Boston Globe
February 24
, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH and Ralph Nader -- allied in the goal of punishing Democrats -- also share political tactics preferences. Neither really likes primaries or other forms of nomination struggle, and each has searched for a route to the ballot this November that involves the least amount of work. Bush's status derives from his position as the incumbent president; Nader's stems from a refusal to face voters along the way.

There are no free rides, however. The price for easier access to the general election is turning out to be steep for each -- and for basically the same reason. Nader did not want to subject himself even to the minor rigors of getting the Green Party's spot on the ballot again, and he has never agreed to subject himself to the major rigors of competing for Democratic votes.

Howard Dean, by contrast, spent nearly two years climbing the hard way from obscurity to prominence, using small contributions from individuals solicited for the most part over the Internet to fuel his campaign. He failed ultimately, but from a beginning far more obscure than Nader's would have been as a Democratic candidate, he came very close.

Nader's major domestic policy idea (repeal the post-2000 tax cuts and use the proceeds for a massive public works program to create jobs that can't be exported) is the same one Dean took around the country. Nader cannot argue that evil corporate forces prevented Dean from getting a hearing.

Similarly, Dennis Kucinich has labored for a year to advance at least two big ideas among Democratic voters -- that the United States should get quickly out of Iraq while quickly bringing the United Nations in and that the United States should withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. He has been in every debate, doing his best but promising to support the winner of the nomination -- as have Dean and Al Sharpton.

Nader is now presenting the same ideas as central to his campaign, proposals that voters have already had a chance to consider.

Nader claims he avoided the Democratic contest in 2000 and this year because it is really a "wealth primary" -- a claim refuted by Dean's success and Kucinich's diligence. He has no answer for the grass-roots unity that has emerged from the primaries thus far for the eventual struggle with Bush. Indeed, this unity forced him to accelerate the announcement of his own plans, even before he had demonstrated the ability to get on the ballot in a single state.

"They don't practice Democratic politics the way I want to practice Democratic politics," he said yesterday.

That example of his willfulness is not the only one. Even more remarkable is the fact that because of the broad progressive unity this year, Nader has been forced to come up with bizarre ideas for vote trading via computer -- for example, between Democrats in swing states and Democrats in overwhelmingly pro- or anti-Bush states, or between disgruntled conservative Republicans and Democrats. The idea, Nader says, is to avoid helping reelect Bush but still to help Nader; that is a helpful statement by Nader that Nader's priorities involve Nader.

Four years ago, Nader went to the country with the preposterous proposition that it didn't matter whether Bush or Al Gore became president. After that, it is understandable that he begins another run with handicaps. Wake me when he is on enough ballots to produce an Electoral College majority. In the meantime, instead of having to argue the merits in the trenches of the same ideas advanced by Dean and Kucinich, Nader is taking the easier route of sound bite advocacy and ritual denunciation; his supporters during the weekend's media blitz were calling John Kerry a "corporate whore."

For President Bush, no competition in the primaries has not proved to be the typical advantage. His incumbency turned out to have prevented major arguments on the right from occurring in Iowa and New Hampshire. It has not prevented them from emerging nationally.

The grievances are several -- the hemorrhaging budget deficit and soaring federal spending, a Medicare prescription drug program fiasco that is still escalating, an immigration proposal that accepts at least the temporary presence of millions of people here illegally, an education policy that damps down the voucher movement and celebrates vastly increased federal supervision of public schools, and a lack of muscular opposition to the desire of gay people to get married.

It is almost March, but an incumbent president is still far from having solidified his party behind him because he is still at odds with much of its conservative wing on a variety of issues. Eventually he will succeed, but the president has squandered valuable time. A principled opponent from the right -- a la Pat Buchanan -- might have accelerated this process. Ironically, the absence of opposition set the stage for more serious dissent.

As the Democrats are demonstrating, sometimes the primaries forge unity that even Ralph Nader can't immediately threaten.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.
Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

Posted: February 25, 2004


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