Ralph Nader says he's considering another run for the presidency in 2004. But what I'd rather hear from him is an apology for his run in 2000.
As one for whom Mr. Nader's been a hero, I am pained to say so. But I think his 2000 presidential campaign was an immoral act. It brought disaster to the values that he has long purported to serve. Worse still, he must have seen that this was the likely practical outcome of his run.
Nader made George Bush president. Consider Florida, where the election teetered over a few hundred votes. Nader drew 97,000 votes. Nader voters overwhelmingly favored Al Gore over Mr. Bush. Without Nader in the race, Mr. Gore would have won that state - and the presidency - decisively.
Instead, we now have an administration more wedded than any in our lifetime to the big corporate interests that Nader has long fought; an administration more indifferent to environmental concerns than any since environmentalism emerged; an administration perhaps more plutocratic and less populist than any in American history.
That's the disaster Nader wrought, and many foresaw it and cried out for him to change course. For his persisting, I see no excuse.
It's not that Nader thought he'd win. His justification for a campaign that could only help the Republicans was that there was no real difference between Bush and Gore. Surely, Nader knew better than what he asked voters to believe. His evidence against Gore was, in part, how little the vice president had achieved toward a Nader agenda in the Clinton administration. But, besides the reality that the vice president doesn't call the shots, can a man as knowledgeable about politics as Nader not know that politics is "the art of the possible"? Is it possible he didn't know how unfair it was to condemn for lack of accomplishment the vice president of a White House slogging against a Congress in the hands of the other party?
Gore helped get the Kyoto Treaty drawn up and signed, for example, but without enough domestic support, the treaty had no chance of ratification. Could Nader, a latecomer to environmentalism, really have believed that Gore, author of the impassioned book "Earth in the Balance,"took environmental values less to heart than he?
Nader also condemned Gore for not being like him in speaking boldly in support of populist and environmental values. But did Nader really not understand the difference between people like him whose mission doesn't require majority support and who thus have the luxury of speaking their minds, and politicians actually seeking election who must tailor their words to what the electorate is ready to support?
And that leads to another unsupportable Nader campaign rationale: that he'd teach the Democratic Party that it must move in his direction to win elections. Is it possible that Nader really believed a winning electoral strategy for the Democrats was to move away from the American political center? In all these things, Nader either knew better, or should have. Either way, he seriously discredited himself as a political actor.
Had he worked simply to move the center in his direction, and then gotten out of the way, he'd still be a hero. But in America's two-party, winner-take-all system, the only conceivable consequence of his campaign was to hand power to those most opposed to his political values.
One last spurious justification heard from the Naderites was that old revolutionary canard that things have to get worse before they get better. Surely, anyone who's looked at the past century must know that things getting worse has more often been a recipe for things getting still worse than for the masses seeing the light and rising up to set things right.
Not all the fault lies with Nader, however. Those who fell for his pitch also reveal a serious defect in the political culture growing out of the idealistic '60s: an unwillingness to recognize and deal with the realities of the arena of power. This naiveté has empowered those who scorn his ideals. His followers have an obligation to grow up politically.
I hope Nader stays out this time. If he doesn't, I hope that after his followers listen to him, they'll vote for the better of the real options.
• Andrew Bard Schmookler teaches American studies at Albuquerque Academy. He wrote 'The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.'