WHAT DOES IT say about the Democrats that they appear to feel their best hope of winning is to ask the competition to politely bow out?
Ralph Nader just announced he will once again be running for president, throwing the party faithful yet again into a tizzy.
For the record, I have never voted for Mr. Nader and likely never will, even if he runs every four years until the tricentennial. But politics seem richer, democracy more vibrant, when fringe candidates are in the mix.
Choice and competition: These are hallowed American values. Nowhere is this more evident than in business, where it would be anathema for a giant corporation to demand that a rival start-up simply shut down and go away. Say Coca-Cola's CEO phoned some fledgling soda-maker to say: "Back off, pipsqueak. You're hurting our chances against Pepsi." How would people react? But for some reason, the same rules don't apply to politics, or at least Democratic politics, where Mr. Nader is concerned.
Contrary to myth, Al Gore didn't lose in 2000 because of Mr. Nader. Mr. Gore lost because he ran a singularly inept campaign.
As Mr. Nader once put it: "Gore slipped on 15 banana peels. I just happened to be one of them."
True, Mr. Nader siphoned away a fateful 97,488 votes in Florida. But don't forget that Mr. Gore also managed to lose states where Mr. Nader was a nonfactor, such as West Virginia (a traditional Democratic stronghold), Arkansas (Bill Clinton's home state) and Tennessee (his own).
The Democrats view 2004 as huge, a watershed election, and it's so vital to defeat President Bush that nothing can be left to chance. We simply cannot afford any additional competition, seems to be the argument. Note to Mr. Nader: Please make yourself scarce.
But Mr. Nader has every right to run. Here's a candidate with massive experience, accrued both inside and outside Washington, and someone with a strong record on a variety of issues extending back several decades in some cases.
As for the argument that Mr. Nader's decision to run is motivated by a bloated and unchecked ego, that seems a red herring. For politicians, egomania is a standard rM-isumM-i qualification: A long and noble line of egotists extends backward from George W. to George Washington. So the relevant question becomes: Does this particular politician, while regrettably egomaniacal, have ideas that could benefit the electorate?
When Mr. Nader announced his candidacy Sunday on Meet the Press, he was full of ideas, as usual -- some fresh, some shopworn. He came out unequivocally in support of gay marriage. He favors battling unemployment through Depression-style public works projects. He said he would immediately pull U.S. troops out of what he termed "the quagmire in Iraq." The economy, Iraq, gay marriage -- all are issues on which voters will demand strong, compelling positions from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry or whoever the Democratic nominee happens to be.
The Democrats like the idea of Mr. Nader the nuisance simply going away so they can focus laser-like on Mr. Bush. But political reality is messy. In truth, the Democrats will have to take on all kinds of challengers besides Mr. Bush. For example, they will have to win votes from other third parties, such as the Libertarian Party, Constitutional Party and Natural Law Party. Each of these parties also stole from Mr. Gore at least the 538 votes he needed to win Florida in 2000.
Bottom line: The Democrats don't get to handpick their competition. If they hope to retake the White House, they must vanquish all comers, same as any other winning party in U.S. history.
There are solid, pragmatic reasons why Americans love competition. If the Democrats win in November, wouldn't the people be served better by a president with the ideas, strength and conviction to defeat not only Mr. Bush but also Mr. Nader?
Justin Martin is author of Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon (Perseus, 2002). He lives in New York.