Washington Short of an economic meltdown or a foreign-policy crisis, the greatest threat to Al Gore's election is Ralph Nader. That's the verdict of Alan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University, whose 13 keys to winning the presidency successfully predicted the last four presidential elections. Nader is not a new face; he's run before, and he is lacking in the performance skills that today's media demand of candidates. So why is Nader getting 7 percent of the vote in recent polls, and what will happen to his candidacy over the next four months?
Nader is addressing issues that the two establishment party candidates prefer to ignore: corporate welfare, the human costs of the new globalized economy, universal health care, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. As the Green party's nominee, he also symbolizes the dissatisfaction among environmentalists with the Clinton-Gore record.
Analysts differ over Nader's likely impact on the presidential race, but they agree that in a contest between two sons of privilege, Nader's gritty politics has attracted a following. Three possible scenarios emerge:
The slow fade: With the exception of Ross Perot in 1992, recent history is littered with examples of third-party candidates who create a wave of initial excitement, then become background noise to the "real" candidates. The Gore campaign believes liberals will come home if it appears their support of Nader could throw the election to George W. Bush. Nader himself concedes he has no chance of winning the election. Voting to send a message tends to lose its appeal the closer it gets to election day. In this scenario, Nader on the left and Pat Buchanan on the right cancel each other out, and do not affect the outcome of the election.
Cashing in: In a country longing for heroes, Nader's quirky individualism strikes a cord among voters of all ages and ideological stripes. If Nader garners 15 percent of the vote in public opinion polls, he would participate in the presidential debates. Short of that, a respectable showing in the high single digits on election day could deny Gore victory in key states like California, Michigan and New Jersey. A mere 5 percent would guarantee the Green party more than $12 million in federal funds in 2004, and launch the Greens as a real force in American politics. Nader, a nominal Democrat in the past, professes no remorse about his role as a possible spoiler.
Warts and all: This scenario presumes that Nader's candidacy is taken seriously, and his views subjected to scrutiny. That process got under way when Nader revealed his stock holdings in Cisco Systems, a corporate giant of the kind that Nader typically deplores. When pressed, Nader said that if he were president he would approint a task force to oversee Cisco. Maybe in a Nader administration, corporations would get special counsels.
Nader's intense distrust of corporations drives his politics. It has been almost 40 years since he took on General Motors with his block buster expose of the safety flaws of the Corvair, "Unsafe at Any Speed." But corporations are not universally hated, and a substantial portion of the public sides with Bill Gates in his fight with the Justice Department over the breakup of Microsoft. And dot-com companies are defining the next cycle of corporate life.
Nader raises a lot of issues that need discussing, and for that he deserves credit. But as his views are dissected and challenged, he risks the heroic loner image he has nurtured for so long. Just as Perot discovered that being an eccentric billionaire is not enough to win votes, Nader could find his anti-corporate paeans ring hollow in the new Internet age.
Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohn are columnists for United Feature Syndicate. Political correspondent Eleanor Clift also contributed to this column.