By Richard S. Dunham In 1984, I interviewed Harold Stassen, eight-time candidate for President of the United States. Forty years earlier, before I was born, Stassen had been the "boy wonder" governor of Minnesota, a champion of LaFollette-style progressive Republicanism. But it was all downhill from there. By the end of his career, he had managed to transform himself into a national joke as a perennial candidate for the highest office in the land.
Stassen was a very intelligent and decent man who insisted that the issues he cared deeply about, such as bipartisan internationalism, were getting short shrift in the political discourse. When I talked to him about current events and American history, the aging Republican warhorse seemed so smart. And yet his insistence on running and running and running -- with no chance of winning -- was a sad sort of terminal ego trip to Nowheresville.
NASTY BLASTS. I thought of Stassen when I watched Ralph Nader announce his candidacy for President on Feb. 22. Forty years ago, Nader was a boy wonder in his own right. While Corporate America -- and particularly the auto industry -- viewed him more as an enfant terrible, Nader was a trailblazer in consumer protection. Later, with his Congress Watch project, he shined a much-needed spotlight on the influence of corporate lobbyists and campaign contributions.
Alas, the thirtysomething Nader, a hero to millions back then, is today a 69-year-old gadfly who announced his candidacy for President with a nasty blast at pragmatic liberals who have been begging him to remain on the sidelines. His issues remain alive -- Stassen's issues were still viable, too, to the very end.
Like Stassen, Nader is a smart man. He remains a champion of consumer protection, America-First trade policies, and gay rights, and he's an articulate critic of corporate excess and preemptive war. But it's obvious to everybody, including Nader, that he's never going to be President.
PLANET RALPH. His timing is exquisitely discordant. Rarely in politics do you see so much unanimity among Democrats. Liberals are strongly united behind the candidacy of ABB -- Anybody But Bush -- whether that be John Kerry or John Edwards. Even many ultraliberal purists are prepared to hold their noses and vote for a Democrat who agrees with them 95% of the time.
Yet, Nader denounces The Nation, a publication closely linked to his causes these past decades, as part of a "liberal intelligentsia" -- all because it asked him not to run again. I have to wonder what planet Ralph is inhabiting these days.
Nader is convinced that President Bush is a captive of corporate interests. But the core of his conviction is that the Democrats are equally guilty as sellouts to the CEO set. It reminds me of George Wallace's provocative 1968 campaign slogan about the two parties -- "Not a dime's worth of difference." Wallace was wrong. There was a huge difference between prowar liberal Hubert Humphrey and future Watergate conspirator-in-chief Richard M. Nixon. And there are huge differences between prowar liberals Kerry and Edwards and the current conservative occupant of the White House.
DIMINISHING FORCE. Nader says he needs to run to make sure the issues he champions are discussed in 2004. He must not be listening very hard: On domestic issues, Edwards and Kerry sound a whole lot like Nader. And if history is any judge, Nader will receive a smaller fraction of the vote than he received in 2000. A shrinking plurality has followed the insurgent candidacies of Third Force candidates from Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan.
Despite polls showing Nader with 4% of the vote today (he received 3% of the 2000 Presidential vote), I'd be surprised if he takes much more than 1% in November. That's similar to Eugene McCarthy's performance as an independent in 1976, but a fading Gene still almost tipped the election to Republican Gerald Ford.
Democrats are scared silly what 1% might mean, if American has another dead heat of an election such as it had in 2000. That's why they've moved so quickly to quash Nader's candidacy. "If George W. Bush is reelected, the health, safety, consumer, environmental, and open-government provisions Ralph Nader has fought for will be undermined," argues another liberal insurgent, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who recently suspended his candidacy because he realized he couldn't win. "George Bush's right-wing appointees will still be serving as judges 50 years from now, and our Constitution will be shredded. It will be government by, of, and for, the corporations -- exactly what Ralph Nader has struggled against."
HOOKED ON ATTENTION. Even a tiny Nader vote could still push the balance to Bush in swing states such as Arizona, Minnesota, Oregon, Missouri, or, need I mention it, Florida. It's not likely, but neither was the 2000 scenario. No wonder Republicans are cheering Ralph on so loudly. The only consolation Democrats have: Running as an Independent, Nader will struggle mightily to qualify to appear on the ballot in many states, which could mute his impact on the race.
Nader has every right to run. So did Stassen and McCarthy. But Nader ought to just own up to the reasons why he's doing it: He craves the spotlight, and he would rather have George Bush serve four more years as President than live without the applause of a dwindling band of adoring college students and aging hippies. Makes you wonder about the old boy wonder. Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington-based chief political correspondent