Ralph Nader Has a Posse

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 20 2011 8:19 AM

Ralph Nader Has a Posse

If this is the group behind primary threat to Barack Obama, the president can safely ignore it.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

[P]rogressive leaders said Monday they want to field a slate of candidates against President Obama in the Democratic primaries to make him stake out liberal stances as he seeks re-election Ralph Nader warns that without an intraparty challenge the liberal agenda “will be muted and ignored" ... the group’s call has been endorsed by more than 45 other liberal leaders. They want to recruit six candidates who bring expertise ranging from poverty to the military.
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Left unsaid by the Times: Nader announced this initiative seven weeks ago. In seven weeks, he put together 45 fellow travellers to write a letter? Here's the letter, which was mercifully boiled clean of its poise and pretensions by the Times. Notable signers: Gore Vidal, Michael Lerner, and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal.

Let's actually analyze the strategy. Nader's 2000 and 2004 campaigns were good getting on ballots. This is because Nader had professionals working for him. Left to his own devices, he's hopeless. The race to get on ballots has already begun, with the signature-gathering officially open in Illinois. On November 1, South Carolina snaps the trap shut on its primary ballot -- you're in by then or you're not in. So this posse, which has moved boldly and deliberately from writing op-eds to writing open letters, has five to ten weeks to get its slate of six candidates on ballots.

What can the six candidates do? According to the posse, they can "command more media attention for the Democratic primaries" (more than zero: quite the accomplishment!) and "make it difficult for Obama to refuse or sidestep debates in early primaries." I'll give you three quick reasons why this is so revealingly stupid.

1) At his nadir, Obama enjoys the support of 68 percent of liberals and better than 70 percent of Democrats. The last Democratic president to face a primary challenge was Jimmy Carter, whose support among liberals fell below the 50 percent line and support among Democrats fell to the low 50s. Could Carter have lost to Ted Kennedy if the Iran hostage crisis hadn't broken out and given him a temporary popularity surge? I think so. But it did break out, and Carter dispatched a candidate whom Democrats had been trying to get to run for president four elections in a row.

2) Incumbent presidents don't debate primary challengers. Ford didn't debate Reagan; Carter didn't debate Kennedy; Bush didn't debate Buchanan. There would never be a debate between Obama and one of the gang of six candidates. There might be circusy stories about the candidates challenging Obama to debates, but we have candidates being denied debate slots in the GOP primary right now. Are their gripes working for them? When's the last time you heard about Thaddeus McCotter's platform?

3) A weak primary challenge, which is what Nader et al want, ends up enhancing an incumbent president. In 1972, Republicans on the anti-war left (Pete McCloskey) and hawk right (John Ashbrook) challenged Richard Nixon. They got less than single digit support in New Hampshire. The result was that they were discredited. Nader et al are asking for more people to join them in the kingdom of the cloutless.

If this is interesting at all, it's because Nader is revealing that a primary challenge strategy makes more sense than a third party challenge, because the Leninist theory that a party will drive toward the fringe to neutralize the third party is bogus. After Nader spoiled 2000 for them, Democrats didn't move one inch to the left.

DISCLOSURE: Not only did I vote for Nader in 2000, I was on his slate of electors in the state of Delaware. Look it up! My excuse: I was young. His excuse is harder to figure.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.