WASHINGTON — It is said that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This is generally true unless you are talking about third-party presidential candidates in the United States.
They generally start as farce and rapidly degenerate into the political equivalent of the "Police Academy" movies.
Consider Ross Perot. When the Reform Party founder first appeared on the presidential stage in 1992, he celebrated by dancing on stage with his daughter to Patsy Cline's "Crazy" while he laughed maniacally. Even Mr. Perot had a hard time making his 1996 campaign more farcical than that.
So when Ralph Nader announces that he intends to "seriously" seek the office of president of the United States armed with a $5 million war chest because, "We get more out of $5 million than the other guys," it's hard not to snicker. Five million? There's probably a Bush campaign budget item labeled "Starbucks" that's larger.
But when the chuckling dies down and you listen to what Mr. Nader has to say, you begin to wonder. Maybe beneath the ridiculousness there is the germ of something, a message that belongs in politics.
Let's get one thing straight: The Chicago Cubs will win the World Series before Ralph Nader wins the Oval Office. America's consumer advocacy institution will not win the White House in 2000. He will not win in 2004. In fact, looking on from here, I would have to say most of the 21st century looks pretty bleak.
This is not a bad thing. Ralph Nader would, in all likelihood, make an atrocious president. He isn't gifted in any essential skills of Washington: kissing-up, spinning, or compromising.
But the 2000 campaign will mark the third consecutive time voters are presented with a real third-party candidate for the presidency - for definition's sake, that is a candidate that may steal enough votes to play some sort of decisive role.
And that's the kind of trend that makes you think that even in economic good times there is an interest in something new.
Nader admits his candidacy may take votes away from Al Gore, but he says he doesn't care.
The problem, he says, is that the system is broken. Democrats and Republicans have become so focused on winning that politics has become a game of picking off voting blocks - women, Catholics, Hispanics - and not about defining a vision. And he has a point. How many more Bush and Gore proposals are we going to see that are so perfectly calibrated to generate interest, but not results?
And while his politics are, without question, too far left for the vast majority of voters, he raises some issues that should go beyond party.
In California alone, he says, child poverty has climbed from 15 percent in 1980 to 25 percent today, even as the nation coasts through an unparalleled era of post-war economic growth. Why is it, he wonders, that petroleum companies are announcing massive profits just as consumers scream about gas prices climbing to more than $2 a gallon? It may not be collusion, he says, but why not have the Justice Department look into it?
Of course, he also proposes raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour - an unfeasible idea that ignores the difference between student workers and adults trying to make a living - and one can only imagine what a Nader-made trade policy would look like.
But aside from policies, the question for everything surrounding Nader is: Where does it all lead? And the answer to that question may be the most interesting aspect of this campaign.
In the coming months, Nader and Pat Buchanan - this year the new and improved Reform Party Pat - will be battling to become top dog in this election's second division. And in the end, who finishes third may be almost as interesting as who finishes first.
Maybe there is something going on in America. Maybe the incomprehensibly mixed messages of the trade protesters in Seattle and Washington have some larger, yet undefined, meaning. Maybe the interest in John McCain was more than just an infatuation with a personality and had something to do with campaign reform.
Maybe, just maybe, somewhere in Ralph Nader's hodgepodge of good and not-so-good ideas there is the seed of an honest-to-goodness progressive movement that, with conservative tempering and a different messenger, can grow.
Then again, maybe Mr. Buchanan will finish third and American politics will get yet another"Police Academy" sequel.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society