Sixteen years have passed since Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy diverted enough left-wing votes to make George W. Bush president. That is enough time for Nader to confess his role in enabling one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history, or at least to come up with a better explanation for his decision. Instead, Nader has repeated his same litany of evasions, most recently in an interview with Jeremy Hobson on WBUR, where he dismissed all criticisms of his 2000 campaign as “fact deprived.”
The facts of Nader’s impact are fairly clear. His candidacy helped Bush in three ways. First, by insisting Bush and Al Gore were ideological twins, “Tweedledee and Tweedledum,” he aided Bush, who was trying to mute the ideological dimensions of the election, cast himself as a successor to Clinton’s agenda, and win on personal character. Second, he forced Gore to devote resources to defending otherwise solid Democratic states. And, third, he won enough votes in Florida to put the state into recount territory, allowing Bush to prevail.
Nader could defend this decision — by, say, making the case that keeping the Democrats from moving too close to the center requires throwing the occasional election to the Republicans. Instead, he persists in simply deflecting the issue away from his own behavior. Blaming his candidacy is a “politically bigoted comment,” he tells Hobson, because “They are assigning a second-class citizenship to the third party.” (Actually, they are merely recognizing the fact that third parties do not have a chance to win the election, but can impact which of the two major-party candidates does win.) Nader likewise ticks through his well-worn list of non-Nader factors that helped Bush win:
What about 250,000 Democratic voters voting for Bush in Florida in 2000? What about all the shenanigans that distorted honest vote counting in Florida? What about Mr. Gore not getting his home state of Tennessee? What about the political decision, 5-4 of the Supreme Court, which should never have made that decision, to block the Florida Supreme Court’s ongoing recount in Florida?
It is true that lots of factors made a difference in the outcome. Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, which is a common occurrence when the nominee comes from a state loyal to the opposing party. But his list of factors is merely a banal description of a reality in which Democrats and Republicans did everything within their power to win the election. This has no bearing on Nader’s decision to use his own power in a way that in fact swung the election to Bush.
Nader himself once cited a poll showing that only 38 percent of his supporters would have voted for Gore, against 25 percent for Bush, and the remainder staying home. Nader presented this as evidence in his own defense. But if we apply it to the results in Florida, it clinches the opposite conclusion. Ninety-seven thousand Floridians voted for Nader. By his own figures, he swung a net of more than 12,000 votes from Gore, many times larger than Bush’s margin of victory.
In his interview, Nader goes on to defend his idiosyncratic belief that people are under no obligation to consider real-world impacts in their voting behavior. Vote for a third-party candidate, write in a candidate, follow your own conscience: “I think voters in a democracy should vote for anybody they want, including write in or even themselves. I don’t believe in any kind of reprimand of voters who stray from the two-party tyranny.” Why should people vote for candidates at all? Since, by definition, the person we most closely agree with is ourselves, why not just write your own name in every time?