Looking For Lefty

Progressives Could Choose the Next President—For Better or Worse

This was a phat week for Al Gore. With Friends of the Earth in his pocket and the Teamsters up his sleeve, he had reason to believe he'd won back the voters with a big wet populist kiss. He could take heart in a New York Times report that Ralph Nader's star is fading as Gore generates "an unexpected level of enthusiasm" among core Democrats. Even progressives are returning to the fold, the paper of record proclaims.

But some pollsters think Nader's currently modest showing—hovering between 3 and 4 percent—is deceiving. "My numbers say this is going to be a very close race," says John Zogby, "and in that sense, Nader looms large."

Nader's backers are at pains to say that his support comes mostly from folks who would otherwise sit the election out. But in addition to ragers against the machine, he attracts a lot of left-leaning Democrats—twice as many as he does Republicans—and in a hair-tight race, that could be very significant, indeed.

Consider Missouri, where Gore and Bush are statistically tied. Nader's 2 percent could clinch this state for the GOP. In Michigan, another toss-up, Zogby has Nader at a heady 7 percent. In the Northwest, his numbers are high enough to give Bush a buzz. The latest polls show Nader at 7 percent in Washington and 9 percent in Oregon. About 40 percent of those Naderites "would be definite Gore voters as their second choice," notes the Vancouver Columbian. No wonder savvy pollsters think Nader is about as dead as God.

"He's the John McCain of the general election," says Zogby. Whether people agree with Nader or not, "they see him as the only honest guy out there."

Zogby's Republican creds may be coloring his rap. But his numbers are widely respected, and they show Nader polling 13 percent among crucial independent voters, 4 percent among the elderly (think Florida), and an awesome 15 percent among the young. Most striking of all is Nader's standing among those progressives allegedly gravitating to Gore. According to Zogby, one in five lefties back Nader. "This is a core constituency for any Democrat, and if he's grabbing some of it, especially in the battleground states, he could make the difference."

For better or worse.

The Times may not take Nader seriously but the Gore campaign clearly does. In the past few weeks, it has dispatched a crew of celebrity progs to strengthen Gore's left flank. While Jesse Jackson Sr. preaches the gospel of defeating Bush, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. works the eco-hustings for Gore. But the most pointed attacks on Nader have come from Barney Frank. In a series of letters to any editor who will print them, the ambitious congressman from Massachusetts berates Nader for ignoring issues like abortion and gay rights. Nader's reply to this familiar charge is to reiterate his support for choice (with a caveat about preventing abortions) and same-sex marriage (making up for his infamous 1996 remark comparing gay rights to "gonadal politics"). "Barney Frank," Nader said on Meet the Press, "often speaks faster than his mind."

These fusillades from the Democratic faithful are a sure sign that Nader counts. With his blunt talk and earnest mien, he has created a presence for ideas that have long been regarded as marginal in American politics. Nader advocates blocking global-trade agreements that exploit workers and savage the environment, taxing stock transactions and replacing Alan Greenspan at the Fed, fining polluters and using the money to fund children's cultural centers. And despite Nader's gnat treatment by the major media, people are listening. He recently drew the largest crowd of any presidential candidate: 10,000 people in Portland, Oregon.

It remains to be seen whether this will get the Green Party the 5 percent vote it needs to qualify for federal matching funds. But one thing is clear: Nader's unlikely charisma—think Jimmy Stewart as Ichabod Crane—has transformed this chaotic coalition of progressives into the most powerful alternative to the two-party system. As a result, the Democrats are sucking up to the left for the first time in perhaps 30 years.

Not that Gore is humming the Internationale, but his speeches are peppered with rhetoric the Republicans call "class warfare." And it's working. In the industrial Midwest, his newfound solidarity has blown away the Prince Albert image. If Nader accomplishes nothing else, he will have pushed Gore to act like the people's alpha male.

In a more fundamental sense, Nader has shattered the myth that liberalism can only survive by co-opting the right. Like Joe Hill in the old union anthem, he's proven that progressive politics never died. And he's shown the centrist Democratic leadership that the left can bite.

But this halo is dimmed by the dark suggestion—circulating even on the left—that Nader's campaign has made overtures to Bush as a way of getting into the debates. A slander perpetrated by Gore? Perhaps, but while Nader often makes fun of Bush ("a corporation running for president disguised as a person"), he digs venomously into Gore, whom he calls "a legitimate political coward. He knows so much and he refuses to act on his knowledge." This may be a sincere assessment, but it's also a given on the left that your worst enemy is the one closest to you.

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