Against all hope and most of the conventional wisdom, Ralph Nader is running again for the presidency. He argues that the two major political parties are both dominated by corporate lobbyists and thus out of tune with the concerns of most Americans. He wants to give this overlooked majority a choice in November. Nader is right that Americans deserve more choices and more competition in elections. Do they want what he is offering?
Nader says his presidential campaign will focus on providing universal health care, regulating campaign finance, fighting poverty and protecting the environment. Dennis Kucinich has tried out all those positions with Democratic primary voters and found few takers. With one or two exceptions, Kucinich has received from 1 percent to 3 percent of the overall vote in state Democratic primaries, support that has produced a grand total of two delegates for the nomination.
Of course, Nader may believe that large numbers of voters are well to the left on the issues but have given up on the Democratic Party. He often notes that 100 million eligible voters skipped the election in 2000. Perhaps some of those people are simply waiting for a candidate to take on the corporations and expand government to European size.
Unfortunately for Nader, Kucinich has done about as well as could be expected given the political outlooks of American voters. For at least 30 years, from 1 percent to 2 percent of the nation have identified themselves to pollsters as "extremely liberal." Not surprisingly, Nader received a little over 2 percent of the presidential vote in 2000.
Nader does have an audience for his views and his issues. Only someone who mistakes intensity of concern for breadth of support, however, would think Nader's constituency is both large and ignored.
We also should keep Nader's 2000 presidential bid in perspective. In 1968, George Wallace received 14 percent of the national vote and 46 electoral votes. H. Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote but no electors in 1992. Nader's showing in 2000 pales by comparison with the two earlier populist, third-party candidates.
Wallace and Perot suggest another unpleasant lesson for the new Nader effort. Both Wallace and Perot followed up their strong showings by running in the next presidential election. In 1972, an assassination attempt brought Wallace's bid for the Democratic nomination to a halt, but even before that his effort was faltering. Perot returned to battle in 1996 and received less than half as many votes as in 1992.
Nader probably hit his ceiling in 2000 because Democrats were willing to consider an alternative to the putative moderation of Bill Clinton. Now Democrats are focused on defeating Bush. Nader will be lucky to repeat Perot's rate of decline in 1996. It will not be surprising if Ralph only gets 1 percent of the vote.
For all his problems, Nader has a point about the lack of choice. The current president has contradicted many of the principles espoused by his party and his campaign. He has allowed government spending to explode without demurring and even pushed hard to add an expensive new entitlement to Medicare. His education law increased spending and ran roughshod over federalism. He advanced protectionism for the steel industry to garner votes. He signed a campaign finance bill that he said violated the First Amendment. Finally, President Bush decided to spend more than $100 billion on an optional war now justified by the unlikely prospect of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Had a Democratic president done all these things, Republicans devoted to limited government would be up in arms and rightly so.
Yet the Democratic candidates don't really offer an alternative. They promise more spending and more entitlements than the current administration. Their leading candidates for the presidency -- Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards -- both supported the war in Iraq. So conservatives and partisans of limited government want but will not get a real choice in November. Ralph Nader cannot be that choice after four decades of calling for more government regulation of almost everything.
Karl Marx once said that history always repeats itself twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. As much as I disagree with just about everything Ralph Nader advocates, he has stubbornly stuck to his positions through the thick 1960s and the thin 1990s. If nothing else, his dogged refusal to bend with the political winds should make us hope that his third and final bid for the presidency proves that Marx was wrong.
John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.