Published on Friday, February 29, 2008 by The Denver Post
Dems Should Thank Nader, Not Trash Him
by Heath Haussamen
Hillary Clinton blamed Ralph Nader this weekend for Al Gore’s 2000 loss to George W. Bush. She’s hardly the first to make such a statement, but the comment reveals the patronizing attitudes that still pervade her party.
Barack Obama wasn’t much nicer, saying Nader “did not know what he was talking about” when he claimed there was no difference between Bush and Gore.
But it’s Clinton’s comments that really got to me: She said categorically that Nader “is responsible for George W. Bush.” She’s wrong. You know who is “responsible” for Bush being elected? Gore. The Democratic Party. The American public.
I first became aware of Nader as a high-school senior in 1996. I didn’t get to vote that year - the election was held about five weeks before I turned 18 - but I would have voted for him.
I’ll be honest: I was completely ignorant at the time about what Nader believed. I was part of a group of people in my class at St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe who, when we were assigned to participate in a mock presidential election, decided Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were unacceptable choices and began looking for another option.
We discovered Nader.
We decided to try a political experiment: We wouldn’t engage in any debate on the issues. We wouldn’t even really educate ourselves on what Nader believed. We would simply try to make voting for him cool, and see if we could win the school’s mock election that way.
For many of us, it wasn’t about the issues. It was about protesting the two-party system that has been dominated by white men and corrupted by money.
A few weeks before the election, a poll of students confirmed what we suspected: Nader was way ahead of Dole and right on the heels of Clinton in our mock election. We called the Nader campaign. He was going to be in Denver the following week, and his campaign was excited enough about our news that Nader scheduled a visit to Santa Fe to meet with us and speak publicly at the Roundhouse.
So in 1996, Nader held a press conference at the Roundhouse, with me and another student by his side, and talked about his presidential campaign and the importance of the next generation, using us as the example. Before the news conference began, he pulled us aside and talked with us for several minutes about the importance of being involved.
Clinton won the mock election at St. Mike’s. Nader finished a close second, and Dole’s finish was pathetic.
The point is this: Nader has taken the time during his presidential runs to foster excitement in independents and young people, and he had some success in 2000. That scared Democrats. But instead of looking inward and considering why they were failing to bring Nader supporters into the Democratic Party, they blamed Nader for Bush.
That’s like saying the car manufacturer is responsible when a drunken driver crashes its automobile into a crowd of people. Or like saying the gun maker is responsible when a psychopath goes on a rampage on a college campus. Nader didn’t force people to vote for him. They made that choice.
As proof that Nader wasn’t to blame for Gore’s loss, an equally uninspiring John Kerry lost four years later without Nader garnering any significant support. The problem wasn’t Nader. It was the Democratic Party.
This year, people are turning out in record numbers to see Clinton and Obama. To some degree, the party has changed. It has figured out that it needs more than white, male candidates. It’s decided to pay more attention to Hispanics. Obama, and to a lesser degree Clinton, have learned that if they speak to the issues of young people, some young people will pay attention and get involved.
I give Nader some of the credit for the Democratic Party’s awakening. The support he gained in 2000 forced the party to begin a serious examination of its own problems. It took another devastating loss in 2004 for the party to really take those problems seriously, and in 2008 we’ve seen a slate of Democratic presidential candidates much different than any in this nation’s history.
Clinton and Obama can trash Nader all they want, but his 2000 run helped pave the way for them to be where they are today. They should thank him, and realize that his insistence on continuing to pester the Democratic Party by running for president again this year is helping keep Democrats honest.
I wish the Republican Party had a similar thorn in its side.
Heath Haussamen is an independent, online political journalist based in Las Cruces, N.M.
Copyright 2008 The Denver Post