The Washington Times

Ralph Nader was the dog that didn’t bark in the 2004 election. He finished with about a third of a percentage point of the popular vote, down from 2.74 percent in 2000. In 2004, he was simply not a factor.

Democrats generally argue that he was a huge factor in 2000. Given that Florida was decided by a few hundred votes and he received some 97,000 statewide, if he had not run, it seems likely that a sufficent number of those who supported Mr. Nader would have turned out for Mr. Gore to tip the result in the state and therefore the election.

This year, by contrast, Mr. Nader received about 32,000 votes in Florida, which Mr. Bush carried over John Kerry by about 380,000. Nor was Mr. Nader the margin of defeat in the two other states that tipped from Democrat in 2000 to Republican in 2004. In Iowa, Mr. Bush’s margin was 13,000 votes; Mr. Nader came in under 6,000. In New Mexico, Mr. Bush won by about 8,000 while Mr. Nader attracted 4,000.

But was Mr. Nader really the cause of Democrats’ misery in 2000? That has always seemed to me to be a questionable proposition. The question is whether Mr. Nader himself was cause or effect. I think that in 2000, he was a symptom of a deeper ailment within the Democratic Party.

In 2000, the country had just been through eight years of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat”-style governance. Mr. Clinton’s political project was to define a new political space for himself, between conservatism GOP-style and his own party’s liberal wing. This worked for him in his White House quests. But – and this is the essential point – his “triangulation” was not without cost. He alienated a sliver of the traditional Democratic base on the leftward fringe of the political spectrum.

This is the constituency to which Mr. Nader appealed in 2000. His essential argument was that the two parties were indistinguishable in their fealty to corporate interests and fat-cat contributors. A genuine populism, in Mr. Nader’s view, was impossible in the Democratic Party as then constituted. And in 2000, a small but signficant slice of left-wing America looked like it might be issuing a declaration of independence from the Democrats.

It is a matter of some contention whether Mr. Gore could have done something different in order to win back a couple of percent from Mr. Nader. Did Mr. Gore fail because he ran too far to the center for the Naderites or too far to the left for the broader electorate? Was the problem Mr. Clinton posed for Mr. Gore a matter of his centrist governance or of his scandals?

In any event, in 2004, a Nader problem was something Mr. Kerry managed not to have. Why not? Well, Democrats were united in their opposition to Mr. Bush as a sitting president, no? This is indeed a different political problem from the one posed to a sitting vice president- who is seeking, as it were, a third term. In opposition, one perhaps need not be scrupulous about reconciling competing and contradictory positions on one’s own side. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Attack, attack, attack. In office, however, as in the case of Mr. Gore, one has a governing record that inevitably has been compiled based on difficult political choices.

In addition, the rhetoric of the Democratic primary season was geared to please what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” an obvious rebuke to New Democrat-centrism. Joe Lieberman, the most explicitly centrist candidate, lost early, and one need look no farther than the vote of Senator Kerry in favor of authorizing the use of force in Iraq in fall 2002 and a year later, against $87 billion in funding for it to see the Dean effect on the Democratic campaign. The left wing of the party did not feel at all neglected by the end of the primary process.

No, Mr. Kerry had a united party. But that’s not the end of the story. Because he finished, in terms of his share of the popular vote, just about exactly where Mr. Gore did. Mr. Kerry won 48.1 percent; Mr. Gore, just under 48.4. In other words, even without the 2.74 percent Mr. Nader won, Mr. Gore finished slightly ahead of Mr. Kerry.

Does it go too far to suggest that Mr. Kerry kept that 2.5 percent or so on his party’s left wing at the expense of some notional 2.5 percent or so in the middle that Mr. Gore managed to attract? Is there a tradeoff here? Is the price of an energized and united Democratic Party a few percentage points in the middle?

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, went from 47.9 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2004 by, so to speak, keeping the 2.5 percent of his hardest right on board while drawing in the 2.5 percent clustered at the center. Democrats have not yet solved the problem of keeping the left in line while hewing to the middle.