Washington This is a story about an 8-year-old Boston dinner party, a 3-week-old phone call and something to keep an eye on this fall that could affect the outcome of the presidential race.
The dinner story, told to me by a member of the Massachusetts House delegation who attended, concerns a gathering of congressmen from the Commonwealth, summoned for counsel and assistance by Sen. John Kerry soon after he had learned that his opponent in 1996 was going to be the popular two-term Republican governor, William Weld.
After a rather bibulous evening, Kerry put his fears on the table: Voters don't agree with Weld on the issues, he said, but they really like him, while for the senator, the reverse was true. How to avoid defeat?
The answer, my informant said, was to lure Weld into a series of debates, and use the debates to force the amiable governor to specify his policy differences with Kerry, thereby defining himself as much more of a conventional Republican than ever before. It worked brilliantly and cost Weld the support of many independents and Democrats who had previously backed him in his gubernatorial races.
The recent phone call came from Ralph Nader, urging me to attend a news conference announcing the formation of the Citizens' Debate Commission, a nonpartisan group aiming to challenge the Commission on Presidential Debates, the privately financed consortium created by the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties that has staged all the general election debates Americans have watched in recent cycles.
Nader, Patrick Buchanan and another minor-party candidate are still suing the existing commission over their exclusion from the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George Bush, so Nader's interest in the new group, whose leaders range widely across the political spectrum, was obvious. As it happened, I was out on the campaign trail and missed the news conference, but I have caught up with the group since then.
When Nader announced last Sunday that he was running for president again, I naturally thought back to the phone call. And minimal checking revealed that the ground rules the new group has proposed are much more to candidate Nader's liking. The old commission, dominated by the two major parties, set a threshold of 15 percent support in some reputable national poll to qualify a candidate for inclusion in its debates. The rival commission would set the threshold at a much more attainable 5 percent.
Further, it says that any candidate whose presence in the debate is favored by at least 50 percent of the public in a reputable poll is in automatically -- whatever his or her likely share of the vote.
That much is fact. Now, a plausible surmise. Ask yourself which candidate other than Nader would benefit from having Nader in the debate -- Bush or Democratic front-runner Kerry?
The answer, I think, is clearly Bush. Kerry, like all politicians, wants to do what has worked in the past, so he wants one-on-one debates with Bush -- and as many as possible.
Nader has claimed in interviews that his candidacy opens "a second front" against Bush and would appeal greatly to disillusioned conservatives and Republicans. That is malarkey. Republican pollster Bill McInturff surveyed likely voters last month and found that the subgroups most prone to consider voting for Nader were "younger white men, liberals and Democrats, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and Pacific regions," the Democratic heartland. "This data makes it clear that Nader's entry into the presidential race will have no impact on Republican or Bush voters," he wrote.
If you assume, as most Republicans and Democrats I've interviewed do, that Bush prefers as few debates as possible this year, Nader's candidacy gives Bush a great card to play. Whoever the sponsor, Bush as the incumbent can bargain for Nader's inclusion -- or use the issue of Nader's role to delay negotiations and reduce the number of debates that can be scheduled.
And if Nader gets into the debates, you can count on him making his argument that both the Democrats and Republicans in Washington are puppets in the hands of corporate interests -- a contention that thoroughly undercuts one of the major themes of Kerry's campaign, the argument that he would fight the "special interests" he claims have free range in the Bush administration.
I have no real idea what motivates Ralph Nader to run for the presidency, and I cannot begin to guess how many votes he will win. But thinking about how Kerry beat Weld in their debates and about Nader's phone call promoting the rival debate commission, it's easy to see how Nader might influence the outcome of the election -- even before Election Day.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.