A Republican Nader?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 19 2004 7:38 PM

A Republican Nader?

The third-party candidate Democrats want and need.

Democrats fret too much about who among their various candidates should get the presidential nomination. Any one of the contenders who now enjoy significant financial support would be an improvement on the Republican incumbent, and, honest to God, there isn't all that much in the way of policy differences among them. A much better expenditure of Democrats' mental energies right now would be to figure out who should wage a third-party candidacy in the general election.

Do not mistake this for a brief urging Ralph Nader to run again as a third-party candidate. No Democrat should root for a third-party candidacy by Nader or anyone else likely to draw votes away from the Democratic nominee. Rather, Chatterbox is suggesting that Democrats think hard about how they can help entice a third-party candidate to enter the race who will draw votes away from the Republican nominee. It's time to begin the search for the Republican Ralph Nader.

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Although Chatterbox is no political scientist, it seems to him that the way to get elected president these days is to provoke a member of the opposite party into splintering off and running for president on a third-party ticket. The ideal candidate is someone sufficiently extremist that he won't take votes away from your party, but with a sufficiently large following to guarantee he will siphon a meaningful number of votes away from the opposition. Such a person can do serious damage.

Consider the historical record. In 1948, third-party candidates Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond drew enough votes from Harry Truman to persuade the Chicago Tribune that Republican Tom Dewey had won. Since then, party loyalties have grown much weaker. In 1968, working-class whites and Southerners still resistant to supporting Republicans voted in sufficient numbers for third-party candidate George Wallace that Wallace can be credited plausibly with putting Richard Nixon in the White House. Third-party candidate John Anderson didn't throw the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan—Reagan's lead over Jimmy Carter was too great, and Anderson's vote totals were too small. But the Center for Voting and Democracy claims that Anderson's candidacy may have boosted Reagan's electoral-college victory relative to his popular-vote victory, and that without Anderson Reagan might have entered office with a less-clear mandate for change. (Chatterbox should here note that Anderson is chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy.) Political scientists argue about whether Ross Perot's 19 percent of 1992's popular vote put Bill Clinton in the White House—it hinges on whether you think Perot voters would have otherwise voted Democratic, Republican, or not at all—but Chatterbox, who covered that race for the Wall Street Journal, always felt at the gut level that Perot's appeal was more powerful to potential supporters of George H.W. Bush. Exit polls contradict Chatterbox's gut; they showed Perot voters splitting their preferences fairly equally between Clinton and Bush. But a survey by Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg found that Perot voters had a "largely Republican voting history." The 2000 election, of course, was so absurdly close that just about anything—including Ralph Nader's 3 percent of the popular vote, which otherwise would probably have gone to Al Gore—can be called a determining factor.

Even if you don't buy that third-party candidacies determined the outcomes of presidential elections during the past 30-odd years, there's no disputing that they were a very large factor, particularly last time out. And if Red America and Blue America still divide the electorate with anywhere near the same precision as in 2000, a Republican Nader could be a very large factor yet again.

Which group should Democrats seek to splinter off? Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, takes a dim view of Chatterbox's counterfactual history but suggests that Republican deficit hawks have some potential for third-party rage. (For his part, Chatterbox doubts there are enough of them left to make much difference.) It's fun to imagine Steve Forbes deciding that President Bush is too weak-willed a supply-sider to remain in office; he's never been all that crazy about Bush, and he has the money to run on his own ticket. The too-clever-by-half Clintonites and Hollywood types who've thrown their support to Gen. Wesley Clark would have done better to encourage Clark to run as a third-party candidate. This niche would have allowed Clark to take more conservative positions on domestic policy (about which he clearly doesn't give a damn anyway) while appealing to military voters angered by the troops' lengthy stay in Iraq and by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's high-handed treatment of uniformed Pentagon officials.

But Chatterbox thinks the best bet for a third-party candidacy would be someone like the Dr. James Dobson *, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family. Christian fundamentalists have the funding base to sustain a third-party candidacy, while at the same time they aren't so numerous as to risk actually putting a Dobson in the Oval Office. And it's laughably easy to stoke their alienation from the mainstream culture. One tack might be to get them even more riled up than they already are about gay marriage. Democrats could campaign more overtly for repeal of the idiotic and bigoted Defense of Marriage Act, thereby clearing the way for interstate recognition of gay marriage. Bush would denounce this, but probably not as loudly as the Christian right would want him to. Enter James Dobson.

It shouldn't be all that hard to persuade Dobson that Jesus Christ wants him to run for president. One strategically aimed mass e-mail could generate a draft movement by the Christian right rank and file. If that didn't do it, maybe some Hollywood Democrats could recruit their special-effects people to manufacture a fake visitation from the Man Upstairs himself. Presidential politics isn't for the fainthearted! Do you want to be nice, or do you want to win?

Correction, Jan. 21, 2004: An earlier version of this column erroneously referred to "the Rev. James Dobson." Dobson is a lay Ph.D., not an ordained minister. (Return to the corrected item.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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