Bethesda, Md. It's amusing to watch Democratic politicos denounce Ralph Nader for running for president, claiming the consumer champion cost Al Gore the presidency and could do the same for their candidate in 2004. The Republicans similarly complained Ross Perot cost Bush Sr. the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.
Bull! Losing candidates lose elections all by themselves. Gore campaigned so poorly he didn't even carry his home state. Bush Sr. ran the economy into the ground.
Actually, neither party has anything to fear except in a very close race. Over the years both parties rigged elections by passing state election laws that keep out other candidates and other points of view. For the most part, minor parties and independents are mired in a swamp of outrageous petition requirements and punitive regulations that don't apply to the major parties. Thus, a lot of voters won't even have the chance to vote for Nader.
Elections laws are often rigged so voters can't even register in a minor party. The major parties get away with this election rigging because the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that "states rights" trump "free speech" and "equal protection" when it comes to election laws. Go figure.
Public debates rarely include outsiders. The now "private" presidential debate committee includes only Democrats, Republicans and lobbyists. That's certainly fitting, but it makes it unlikely Nader will be invited to this important forum.
The broadcast media, ever dependent on Congress, ignores and belittles outside candidates. The networks refused to run Ross Perot's paid ads during the 1996 campaign, until a court suit forced them to, just before the election, after he'd lost any momentum. Later, when Congress granted these same networks new bandwidth worth billions, was it a payoff? OK, maybe I'm too cynical.
All this would be funny if it were not so dangerous. Both parties sell the public that they are the only real avenues of political representation.
The chronic budget deficit and campaign finance scandals, created by both major parties, were not addressed until Perot harped on these two issues in 1992. The threat of his candidacy motivated the Republicans to push for and achieve a balanced budget. As a result, interest rates dropped like a stone and the economy soared. A bit later, both major parties tackled campaign finance reform, though the resulting legislation is still untested.
This is exactly the historical role outside parties and independents have played. The Republicans were once a third party. They replaced the Whigs during the turmoil of the civil war and slavery era. The populist movement spearheaded much of the labor laws and other social legislation that the Democrats later co-opted and now claim as their own.
In the same vein, the Libertarians force us to look at what expanding government is doing to personal liberty and personal responsibility. The Greens focus on the environment.
The Democrats claim corporate welfare is their issue, but they feed at the same trough as the Republicans. Both parties in Congress lard spending bills with pork and legislate lavish tax/spending giveaways to constituencies who, in turn, rain rich campaign contributions on the two parties. At least the Nader candidacy will keep this issue alive.
Elections must be more than about any particular candidate. Elections must also be a way to express real political currents to meet changing times and challenge corruption and the abuse of power.
The politicians that are embedded in statehouses and in Washington by the legal primacy of the two parties will not be innovators, because they benefit from the status quo.
Only with a real threat from outside can the entrenched Republican/Democratic duopoly adapt and change for the future. In the long run, Ralph Nader is really the Democratic Party's best friend.
Is that so bad?
Rachel K. Mann is a former national committee member and Maryland state chair of the Reform Party. Readers may write to her at 7823 Custer Road, Bethesda, Md. 20814, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.