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Jewish World Review August 14, 2000 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5760

George Will

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Consumer Reports

The National Scold on the Stump -- AL GORE numbers the automobile among mankind's afflictions--he said so in his 1992 book, which he says still convinces him. Now he is afflicted by Ralph Nader, whose ascent to his iconic status as conscience of the consumer culture--Cotton Mather comes to the supermarket--began when, in 1959, his essay for the Nation magazine launched him as scourge of the automobile industry's indifference to safety.

Nader regards Gore as unsafe for the liberal creed--as embodiment of the Democratic Party's moral bankruptcy. George W. Bush's disdain for Gore arises from filial piety and dynastic rivalry: There were similar hard feelings between the houses of York and Lancaster, between Montagues and Capulets, and Guelphs and Ghibellines. Nader's disdain is more dangerous because it's more ideological.

With Cassius's lean and hungry look and the rhetorical equivalent of Brutus's dagger, Nader, nominee of the Green Party, calls Gore a "consummate political coward" speaking "with forked tongue." Gore, says Nader, incarnates the Democrats' embrace of the tactic economists call "protective imitation." The Democrats' moral decline began, Nader says, in the 1980s when Tony Coelho (then a California congressman; until recently, Gore's campaign manager) "convinced Democrats they could get as much business money as the Republicans." Nader says Gore's idea of using the surplus to pay down the national debt illustrates the Democratic establishment's determination "to define the party exclusively by the other party."

Gore's embrace of Joseph Lieberman makes Nader as close to ebullient as he can come in his role of national scold. Lieberman is, as Gov. Bill Clinton was, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, devoted to tilting the party toward the right. The selection of Lieberman, says Nader, means Gore is "not going to compete for the progressive vote."

Nader notes that Lieberman is a free-trader who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and supports the World Trade Organization, which is "subversive of democratic processes." A John Zogby poll in July found that four in 10 union members would consider voting for Nader if Gore picked a running mate who supported global trade agreements like NAFTA. (But the day Lieberman was chosen, the United Auto Workers at last--was the suspense wearing on you?--endorsed Gore.)

Lieberman, says Nader, is wrong on tort reform: In tune with Connecticut's insurance industry, Lieberman favors what Nader calls "federal preemption of states' common law of torts," meaning federal regulation of state judges and juries on liability and damages. The Gore-Lieberman ticket, says Nader, is more conservative than the 1992 Clinton-Gore ticket, which embraced progressive causes such as universal health care.

Polls show Nader, who says he has qualified to appear on 34 states' ballots and will get on those of 45, currently is at about 6 percent, far from the 15 percent that probably will be the threshold for admittance to the autumn debates. But potential Nader voters are ideologically incandescent and do not need debates to motivate them.

Nader thinks his candidacy will help Democrats recapture the House of Representatives. There are Green candidates in only five of the 22 most competitive districts. But he will bring to the polls disaffected liberals who, absent his candidacy, would stay home, and who, once at the polls, will vote for Democrats down the ballot.

However, he could sink Gore, who cannot win without California's 54 electoral votes. In 1996, without breaking a sweat, Nader got 237,016 votes in California (out of just 685,128 nationally). A recent poll shows him at 8 percent in California.

Nader is untroubled by the prospect of helping bring on the dark night of a Bush presidency. The notion that "worse is better"--worsened conditions in the near term will be a catalyst for better in the long run--is a hardy perennial in politics. "Nach Hitler kommen wir" (after Hitler, we come) was the slogan of German Communists, who, thinking dialectically, reasoned that Hitlerism would provoke a socialist revolution. Nader believes that if Gore loses, especially after casting his lot with the Lieberman tendency, Democrats will repent their centrism and recur to real liberalism.

When thinking especially spaciously, Nader sees the Green Party supplanting the Democratic Party, as the Republican Party did the Whigs in the 1850s. At a minimum, by giving millions of liberals an alternative to the Democratic Party, the Green Party will force the Democratic Party leftward. The specter of Nader may partly explain Lieberman's sudden epiphany: He just discovered that he no longer favors (as Bush does) some privatization of Social Security. But if Lieberman scuttles crabwise leftward, he will seem as synthetic as Gore, and Nader will see running room.

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