Will Deaniacs Become Naderites?

19 February 2004

By Stentor Danielson

Ralph Nader, the Green Party's candidate for president in 2000, is gearing up for another shot at the White House. Nader has been widely reviled by liberals who blame him and his voters for tipping the election to George W. Bush. He has been turned down by the Green Party, whose members resent his ego and feel he's damaged goods after the 2000 mess. His campaign exploratory committee website has been deluged with requests for him to stay out of the race. But to judge from Nader's recent words to the press, he remains undeterred from making an independent run for the presidency.

Conventional wisdom says Nader would need a miracle this time around even to scrounge up the few percent of the vote he got in 2000. With Bush touting himself as a "compassionate conservative" and Gore choosing Joe Lieberman -- one of the Senate's most conservative Democrats -- as his running mate, it was plausible to think that 2000 was a low-risk time to cast a protest vote. Now, however, after three years of corporate cronyism and two wars, "Anybody But Bush" (ABB) sentiment runs strong on the left.

The smart money says that Nader will be little more than a blip on the electoral radar screen. But to completely count him out, you have to ignore what has been done by one of the Democrats' most prominent moderates: former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

There are basically three types of people who supported Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination -- the pragmatists, the frontrunners, and the idealists. The pragmatists are those -- like myself -- who saw in Dean the best combination of an ability to beat Bush and a commitment to a realistic yet progressive policy agenda. We pragmatists may not be thrilled about or inspired by likely nominee John Kerry, but we'd take him -- or any of the other Democratic candidates -- over Bush any day of the week. I would place Dean himself in this group, and I fully expect him to back Kerry at the convention. Nader has nothing to offer us.

The frontrunners are the people who just want to back a winner. Earlier this winter, when Dean was at the top of the polls, the frontrunners flocked to Dean. Among them were such high-profile figures as Gore, 2000 contender Bill Bradley, and former president Jimmy Carter. When Dean tanked in Iowa and failed to recover in New Hampshire, these voters jumped aboard the Kerry bandwagon as quickly as they could unbuckle their seatbelts on the sinking Dean Express. There's no worry that they will vote for Nader.

The third type of Dean supporter has gotten the most attention, though to judge by his poll numbers they're the smallest group. They may never have voted if Dean hadn't gotten into the race. Now that Dean has finally bowed out, they may give serious thought to Nader.

Dean's earliest message, to which he has returned as softer support has fallen away from his campaign, bears a certain resemblance to Nader's claim that it's hard to tell the Democrats and the Republicans apart. Dean made headlines for forthrightly attacking Bush. What made that message stand out was the fact -- emphasized by Dean -- that the other Democrats weren't saying the same thing. They had fallen in line behind Bush, afraid to stand up to a popular wartime president. Dean called for a revolution not only against the "fundamentalist preachers" of the Republicans, but also against the "Washington insiders" who controlled the Democrats. The fact that this revolution was to be carried out within the Democratic Party framework was secondary.

As Dean surged in the polls, the other candidates picked up on the Bush-bashing. The primary turned out to be not damaging intra-party fighting, but a contest to see who could wallop Bush the hardest. Yet this change is somewhat hollow, especially for Kerry. There's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in the quintessential Washington insider railing against special interests, in a man who voted for the Iraq war resolution attacking Bush's misuse of pre-war intelligence. This fits the standard storyline about Kerry -- that he'll say anything to get elected, and say only what his focus groups tell him the public wants to hear. And it fits the storyline Dean has been promoting, since Kerry was the leader -- and hence the man who had to be taken down -- back in 2002 when Dean was polling in the single digits as well as today.

Many of the idealists are incredibly disillusioned by Dean's loss. They were drawn into the campaign by the promise of change, but November now looks like yet another choice of the lesser of two evils. They may slide back into that 50% of the population that doesn't vote. It's hard to see what either Kerry or Bush could do to gain their support. But perhaps Nader, with his outsider credentials and his "a pox on both your houses" rhetoric, could pick up on the interest, enthusiasm, and experience that the Dean campaign built.

For Nader to score big in the support of disillusioned Deaniacs would require strategic thinking, which he didn't always evidence in 2000. And he could be headed off by some smart moves by the Dean campaign (which, for all the hype, hasn't always evidenced the best strategic thinking).

Though he's not a contender, Dean intends to make use of the network of supporters he built up. One rumor says the Dean campaign may shift into backing the Democrats' efforts to take back Congress. His campaign already solicited donations in December for Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell. If Dean shifts his energy into promoting key Congressional campaigns, he may be able to keep up the grassroots' enthusiasm, rather than letting it dissipate with the shift to a focus on the party's lackluster Presidential nominee. By keeping the idealists working for the Democrats, this strategy would lessen their likelihood of giving up on the party at the top of the ticket. If successful, this effort would also demonstrate the power of the Dean phenomenon in a way that -- in contrast to online fundraising and the blog format -- can't be easily co-opted by the party elite.

Nevertheless, there are barriers in the way of this shift. Iowa showed that Dean's organization was not as killer as it had been hyped to be. Dean himself is no genius when it comes to grassroots organizing -- he was merely the figurehead for Joe Trippi, who has left the campaign. The Congressional candidates that most need support are unlikely to be as inspiring as Dean (one of them is the arch-insider and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle). And an organization fighting a dozen battles around the country loses much of the cohesiveness and shared purpose that made the Dean campaign strong.

The Dean campaign brought to light a cadre of idealist new voters, then dashed their hopes with poor showings in the primaries. It remains to be seen whether they will go to Ralph Nader or John Kerry, or just go back home.

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