Nader, the Trimtab Candidate

In a 50-50 nation, it's easy for one person to tip the balance in the presidential election. Will Ralph Nader once again make a difference in the 2004 race as he did in the 2000?

No one knows yet if he'll siphon off critical votes in critical states from the Democratic nominee. But this champion of public reform will be able to shine a new spotlight on what most ails the two major political parties: big-money influence in Washington.

Mr. Nader refers to his quixotic quest for the presidency as a "trimtab" campaign. That's a nautical term, made famous by the late engineer-philosopher Buckminster Fuller, for a small flap on the rudder of a ship. When shifted just a bit, a trimtab helps rotate the rudder which then "turns the great ship of state," as Bucky used to say.

But would a vote for Nader really provide such big leverage for the little guy in America? In changing Washington's money politics, perhaps.

Since the 2000 race, Congress passed and President Bush signed the McCain-Feingold law that bans so-called soft money from being given (mainly by business) to political parties. Nader's advocacy on this issue, combined with his ability to influence the election, no doubt helped push both parties to act. (He got only 2.7 percent of the vote, but it was enough to help turn the ship.)

His main reason for running rests on the notion that a Democratic president would not be much different from a Republican one in allowing corporate interests to influence government decisions. Even though he sides with Democrats on most issues, that one issue of corporate power overrides all others for him.

As for the leading Democratic candidate, Nader told The New York Times that John Kerry has "been known to bend before the will of corporatism." Mr. Bush receives an even harsher critique.

Like most third-party candidates, Nader should help force the campaign back to fundamental issues and not let it drift along on tactical concerns such as electability and reelectability. His quest represents a century-long effort to eliminate the political influence of wealthy groups. In 1907, Congress barred corporations from using their money to support candidates for federal offices, while a similar ban for unions was passed in 1947.

Independent candidates often thrive on single issues. They offer voters a way to send a message, even to a political party they might prefer. They are a safety valve when the political system itself needs to be fixed.

Congress has made progress in curbing money politics, and yet the expense of campaigns forces candidates to seek ever-higher donations. Perhaps if more curbs were in place, government would function better, many issues would be less contentious, and Americans would be less divided. Then Nader wouldn't need to trimtab elections one way or the other.

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