HAND-WRINGING AND name-calling by Democrats is an understandable reaction to Ralph Nader's announcement Sunday that he will make another quixotic bid for president. They blame the crusading consumer advocate for drawing away votes in 2000 that might have gone to Vice President Al Gore and thus tipping the race instead to Republican George W. Bush.
But the 69-year-old reformer was less a spoiler than a scapegoat. Mr. Gore had all the advantages of incumbency in a period of peace and prosperity, yet ran such a poor campaign against a relative novice that he couldn't even carry his home state. It wasn't Mr. Nader charging around on his white steed who made that election so close.
As this fourth Nader quest for the impossible dream begins, it's harder than it was four years ago to buy his argument that Democrats haven't offered progressive voters a real alternative to Mr. Bush. The early primaries have featured several, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose role in shaping the party platform continues though his nomination bid collapsed.
And yet, if an independent candidate with no money, no organization and nearly insurmountable obstacles to getting his name on the ballot in 50 states can keep a resurgent Democratic Party from ousting President Bush - who has neither peace nor prosperity going for him - it deserves to lose again.
In fact, what would the prize be worth if it comes at the price of shutting down a veteran iconoclast railing away against corrupting corporate influences and the tyranny of the two-party system?
Since Mr. Nader burst on the scene four decades ago exposing safety flaws in the popular Chevrolet Corvair, he has been an outspoken advocate for reforms that put the public interest before corporate influence - on the environment, health care, trade and a host of other issues.
He's not pragmatic, he's not practical, sometimes he's not even reasonable. Typical of his obstinacy is this latest campaign, launched amid widespread protests from Democratic Party leaders and undisguised glee from Bush backers who share the belief Mr. Nader will split the anti-Bush vote.
Now he risks capping a distinguished career as a social agitator with a humiliating comeuppance. Already, he's being described as an egomaniac run amok, a faded folk hero more enamoured with attention for himself than with any of the causes he serves.
No matter, he says, critics call him names because they can't dispute his point that democracy thrives with more competition, not less. He's right about that.