Bernie Sanders: Liberal Democrats' savior or Ralph Nader spoiler?

Sen. Bernie Sanders has jumped into the 2016 presidential race. He insists he won’t be a 'spoiler' undercutting Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. But the memory of Ralph Nader in 2000 remains.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference after he announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, on Capitol Hill in Washington April 30, 2015.

Democrats can get really exercised over Ralph Nader’s role in the 2000 presidential election, which Republican George W. Bush won – in the Electoral College, but not in the popular vote, which he lost by about half a million votes – when five Republican-appointed US Supreme Court justices stopped a vote recount in Florida that might have made Democrat Al Gore the winner, changing the course of US history, especially the Iraq War.

That whisker-close result and Mr. Nader’s role in it comes painfully to mind for many Democrats with the entry of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont into the race. First, some history.

When the polls closed in Florida in 2000, just 537 votes (out of nearly 6 million total) separated Bush and Gore there, with Bush having that miniscule lead when the Supreme Court halted the recount. But Nader, running as the Green Party candidate, tallied 97,488 votes in Florida – less than 2 percent of the total but a whopping figure when factored into the outcome.

If just a fraction of Nader voters – 10 percent or so – had held their noses and voted for (in their view) the less-objectionable major party candidate, the results might have been very different. That’s the lament of many Democrats who saw Nader as a spoiler.

Nader supporters vigorously reject this view, of course, asserting the right to vote for the candidate of their choice – even if that candidate has no realistic chance of winning, even if (as in Nader’s case), their man had tried and failed before. Besides, they argue, what’s become a two-party system in the US isn’t chiseled in constitutional stone; it only seems that way with a winner-take-all system.

There may have been other reasons why Gore lost in the Electoral College overall (including his home state of Tennessee). But in Florida, where the race was ultimately decided, exit polling showed that if Nader’s name had not been on the ballot, 47 percent of his Florida supporters would have voted for Gore, 21 percent would have voted for Bush, and the rest (32 percent) wouldn’t have voted for president. That would have given Gore another 45,000-plus votes and a clear victory.

Spilt milk, water over the dam, etc. What does any of this have to do with Sen. Sanders and the 2016 presidential race?

Nothing, perhaps. He runs as an Independent and calls himself a “democratic socialist,” although he caucuses with Senate Democrats. He announced this week that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president.

“People should not underestimate me,” Sanders told The Guardian newspaper. “I’ve run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country.”

Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton – not the first or at least the enthusiastic choice of many liberal Democrats – was quick to welcome Sanders to the fray. “I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America's middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race,” she tweeted.

Would the Democratic Party require Sanders to change his “I” to a “D” in order for him to run in the party’s primaries and caucus? No, a senior Democratic National Committee aide told CBS.

A candidate need only demonstrate "a commitment to the goals and objectives of the Democratic Party," the aide explained. "If you're good with us, we're good with you.”

It’s possible that Sanders would do so well during the early days of campaigning and debates – there could be major political icebergs ahead for the USS Hillary (private emails? Clinton foundation funding?) – that he could decide that running as a true Independent would be worth it.

John Anderson thought so in 1980, although his presence didn’t change the outcome of Ronald Reagan’s rout of Jimmy Carter. On the other hand, Ross Perot certainly did make a difference in 1992, when his 19 percent of the vote bounced George H.W. Bush from the White House, ushering in eight years of Bill Clinton.

But, Sanders has said, "If I run, I want to run to win. I will not be a spoiler…. There are ways to do this, but let me make it very clear. I will not be a spoiler and elect some Republican."

Nader footnote: The former Green Party candidate is no great friend of Sanders.

In a recent letter, Nader accuses Sanders of being “a Lone Ranger, unable even to form a core progressive force within the Senate…. speechifying, putting forward amendments that go nowhere and an occasional hearing where you incisively question witnesses.”

Nader’s primary complaint seems to be that Sanders never returns his calls: “Your staff dutifully takes my messages, forwards them to you and you do not call back. Never.”

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