Ralph Nader can run for president if he wants to.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 3 2008 7:32 PM

Lay Off Ralph Nader

Third-party candidates are people, too.

Ralph Nader. Click image to expand.
Ralph Nader

I have never understood why people get upset whenever Ralph Nader runs for president.

The principal indictment is that Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election by drawing votes from Gore in Florida. Gore lost Florida to George W. Bush by 537 votes. Nader received 97,488 votes. National exit polls indicated that had Nader not been on the ballot, 47 percent of Nader voters would have voted for Gore, 21 percent would have voted for Bush, and 32 percent would have stayed home. Therefore, if Nader hadn't run, then Gore would have won.

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Well, sure. But in an election this preposterously close, you can blame the outcome on almost anything. In a Feb. 24 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Nader pointed out that seven other third-party candidates on the Florida ballot outpolled Bush's 537-vote margin, too. These included James Harris of the Socialist Workers Party (563), David McReynolds of the Socialist Party (622), and Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party (1,804). Granted, we don't have exit poll numbers on these candidates, who stood much further left of the mainstream than Nader. But it's doubtful their supporters would have defaulted to the GOP. Should we vilify them for costing Gore the election, too?

Nationwide, Nader won 2.9 million votes in 2000. Four years later, he won only 466,000 (PDF), which, as Steve Kornacki pointed out in the Feb. 25 New York Observer ("Who's Afraid of Ralph Nader?") is much closer to the 685,000 he won in his little-remembered 1996 bid and is probably a truer expression of his natural level of support. (In 2000, Kornacki argues, Nader got an unusual boost from independent voters stranded by the defeats of Bill Bradley and John McCain in the primaries.) Nobody particularly objected to Nader's 1996 bid, because he didn't get very many votes. In 2000, though, Nader was condemned, in effect, for being too popular. He was, the liberal consensus pronounced, on an "ego trip." (The word/phrase combination Nader, ego trip, and president yields 3,200 hits on Google.) He was tarnishing his legacy as a champion of government and corporate accountability. That criticism has stuck, even though Nader has once again reverted to being a fringe candidate who poses no apparent threat to the Democratic nominee. He's damned if he wins too many votes, and he's damned if he wins too few.

I've never cast a presidential vote for Nader, and I never will. Nor do I agree with Nader that the similarities between the Republican and Democratic parties render superfluous any choice between the two. But as someone who has observed (and admired) Nader all my life, I don't doubt for a second that Nader sincerely believes that. He's never remained satisfied with Democratic politicians, even those with whom he enjoyed a warm working relationship before they entered politics. (The only possible exception is Mark Green, who may have maintained Nader's affections by losing a series of bids for high office: the House, the Senate, the New York mayoralty.) Nader doesn't believe in compromise, and, yes, that would be a problem if he ever really did become president. But his stubbornness has been only an asset in his long career as an advocate, and I'm not so sure it's a liability in his newer career as a perpetual candidate. In the current election, Nader is the sole presidential candidate you're likely to hear about (now that Dennis Kucinich has dropped out) who stands forthrightly for adopting a single-payer solution to the health-care crisis, a stance universally regarded as politically impractical. But single payer is the only solution of much practical value in the real world, as evidenced by the experience of nearly all advanced democracies. If Nader does no more in the 2008 election than oblige major-party candidates to consider that stubborn reality for five minutes, he'll have done us all a big favor.

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