The Rap on Ralph

Angry Democrats Eat Their Greens

Last week, as the big political parties scrapped over an elusive throne, Gore supporters took turns spitting at Ralph Nader. From campaign offices to editorial rooms, the Green candidate was denounced as a "grim reaper," "that bastard," and an "infantile," "narcissistic" "megalomaniac" who will burn in the "sixth circle of hell." At a late-night election party, editor emeritus Harry Evans told Hillary Clinton, "I want to kill Nader!"

Evans later apologized. But by week's end, homicidal fantasies had given way to blacklisting. The Nation's Eric Alterman warned of payback in Washington ("Democrats will no longer return his calls"), and one Gore worker said of Nader, "He had better never show his face again at any event we have anything to do with."

If Gore had won (still possible), Nader might be getting credit for rallying 3 percent of the voting nation behind such simmering issues as the death penalty, sweatshops, and decriminalization of marijuana. Instead, he's getting blasted because in Florida he turned out 96,837 voters, about half of whom said they might otherwise have voted for Gore. According to conventional wisdom, those votes cost Gore the election.

An appealing argument, but why so shrill? The leader of the ad hominem pack is The New York Times, whose favorite term for Nader these days is "narcissist." In fact, the Times first set the tone back on June 30, in an editorial titled "Mr. Nader's Misguided Crusade." The editorial dubbed Nader's run a "self-indulgent" exercise that could be "especially harmful" for Al Gore, concluding that "the only realistic role [Nader] can play this year is to tilt swing states" in a conservative direction.

The Times was right: Nader did have the potential to derail the Democratic Party. But the paper took the wrong approach to the right conclusion. In addition to scolding, the editorial called Nader's position on trade bad for Americans and swept other defining issues under the rug. Because Gore and Bush had big differences on all the key issues, the Times said, "There is no driving logic for a third-party candidacy this year."

Robert McChesney, the author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy and a Nader supporter, says the June 30 editorial contained "some of the most patronizing, elitist political philosophy I've ever seen." It was "classic propaganda" in which the Times declared Nader's issues to be "issues that the American people shouldn't be debating."

Over the months, the Times obsessed about Nader's personality. Covering a Nader rally, James Dao played up the ironies of a "superstar" in a "wrinkled blue suit," while reducing Nader's platform to a seven-sentence "smorgasbord of liberal ideas."

After election night, the rap on Ralph hardened into consensus. In a November 9 editorial, The Washington Post declared, "We said before the election that Mr. Nader's candidacy threatened some of the very causes on behalf of which he campaigned. The results confirm what he continues to deny." The Times' Bob Herbert said of Nader, "All he did was gift-wrap Florida and deliver it to the Texas governor."

But even Nader-haters seem to realize it's unfair to make him bear all the blame, so they turned next to Nader supporters. Writer John Judis wondered how they could believe that "voting was a matter of conscience, like something you do in a confessional or a church." Salon's Todd Gitlin likened them to cult followers and predicted they will learn the meaning of responsibility in the four years to come. The Times quoted from the Nader Web site, where some supporters were waking up to resent their leader and feel ashamed "for what we've done."

"Ralph actually likes The New York Times," says McChesney. "He knows a lot of the reporters. But even with his critique, he was surprised at the viciousness." McChesney says that by trivializing Nader, the Times is playing a traditional role of professional journalism, which is to exclude dissident voices from legitimate debate.

Times editors misjudged Nader's staying power. But it's not their fault he self-destructed. Nader supporters naively convinced themselves that it was OK to vote for him, because there was no difference between Bush and Gore, and no chance in hell Bush could win. McChesney told me that while he "wouldn't have voted for Gore under any circumstances," there is no doubt in his mind that "if Gore loses it really sets the Greens back dramatically." For that reason, he says, "Most of us wanted Gore to win."

If Bush wins, Nader voters must share the blame. But the same is true of the party faithful. The Nation's David Corn says that Gore voters are blaming Nader so they "don't have to look at what Gore did wrong in the campaign." Author Dennis Perrin says the Gore camp "needs a scapegoat" to cover up the fact that Gore's campaign was "the worst one since Dukakis."

McChesney pins it on the New Democrats. "This election is about the failure of the DLC strategy," he says. Instead of fashioning a consistent platform, the party has been privately "sucking up to business" while publicly "moving to the center on issues like welfare, crime, and the military." The Democrats can't decide if they are a "business party" or "a party of the people," and that alienated a lot of voters.

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