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Sit This One Out, Ralph

By Adam T. Thomas

According to recent news reports, Ralph Nader is now in the process of deciding whether to seek the presidency for the third time in as many election cycles. While discussing the possibility of making another run for the White House, the longtime consumer advocate and ardent critic of the Bush administration described Democrats as “unwilling to go all out to stop the destructive tax cuts for the wealthy,” saying that “they have been soft on corporate crime. They have gone along in almost every issue except judicial appointments. They have cowered, surrendered or divided themselves.”

This brand of rhetoric is reminiscent of the rationale that Nader articulated for his candidacy three years ago. In a campaign speech delivered barely a month before the 2000 general election, he declared that “the only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is the velocities with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door.”

We all know what happened next. Nader’s vote totals in Florida and New Hampshire easily exceeded the margins by which then-Governor Bush edged out Al Gore ’69 in those states. Exit polls from 2000 indicate that, had Nader not been in the race, his supporters would have voted disproportionately for the Democratic ticket, and a win in either state would have ensured Gore the presidency.

The closeness of the last few national elections suggests that the 2004 presidential race could be another nail-biter. Should he step into the presidential fray next year, Nader could tip the balance of power to the Republicans once more. Judging by his recent comments, it appears that he will attempt yet again to rationalize his candidacy by claiming that there are few meaningful differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

However, a review of the Bush administration’s record to date suggests that such a claim is either remarkably disingenuous or equally naive. The administration has racked up three tax cuts in three years, fundamentally altering the government’s long-term fiscal outlook in the process. According to a recent Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center report, the tax cuts have helped to convert a 10 year surplus of $1.3 trillion into a 10 year deficit of $4.5 trillion. This fiscal deterioration has tremendously important implications for our government’s ability to preserve Social Security, Medicare and other critical programs for future generations.

In addition, the increasing bellicosity of the United States has recast our image abroad, strained our relationships with many longtime allies and embroiled us in a thorny nation-building enterprise in Iraq. President Bush will also probably make at least two lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court (he will be all but guaranteed this opportunity if he wins reelection), which has the potential to transform the legal landscape on issues ranging from abortion to affirmative action.

This is only a partial list, but it suffices to illustrate a critical point: The Bush administration is pursuing an ambitious and far-reaching policy agenda whose repercussions will be felt for decades to come. One may try to assert that a Democratic president would pursue basically the same agenda, but a comparison between, say, the Clinton and Bush administrations—with respect to fiscal policy, foreign policy, environmental policy and a host of other issues—simply belies this notion. Remember, for example, that President Clinton raised taxes in the first year of his presidency and left office with the budget in surplus, quite a contrast to the situation we now face.

As fundamental as the differences are between the Democratic and Republican parties, it is certainly the case that a Nader candidacy would, in some respects, present an even starker contrast. However, it is also certain that Nader would have essentially no chance of actually winning a general election—he received about three percent of the national vote in 2000.

There are moments when forward-thinking leaders look to the future and realize that they can best serve the principles they hold dear by fighting losing battles in the short run, so that they can reshape the debates of their day in the long run. This is not one of those moments. The future has already arrived, and the long run has begun to play itself out in vivid fashion. Nader can best honor the causes that he champions by sitting this one out.

Adam T. Thomas is a second-year student in the Kennedy School of Government’s doctoral program in public policy.

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