It's not the best week to be flirting with Ralph.
As a candidate for president, Nader has presented himself as an alternative to the ``Republicrats.'' The Green Party has been saying that there isn't a dime's - or maybe a dollar's - worth of difference between the two major parties.
Now here comes Dick Cheney. The compassionate conservative has picked a guy who voted against Head Start? Cheney isn't just against partial-birth abortion, but abortion for rape, incest or anything else. He's not just in favor of guns but cop-killer bullets.
Cheney went from running the Gulf War to running an oil company. The double-derrick ticket is enough to get many a disillusioned progressive back on the Democratic program.
But should it be? The subject today is the lesser of two evils. When do progressives, in particular, stop voting for the perennial Democratic candidate Lesser? Is it time to vote Protest or Green?
So I'm in Nader's headquarters, a vaguely rundown brick townhouse unencumbered by Secret Service, talking to the candidate. The decorative scheme is early dorm. The first floor is replete with computers, jars of East Wind Nut Butter, and bike helmets stacked on the refrigerator.
In this atmosphere, the longtime consumer advocate takes on the aura of a craggy favorite professor who can talk endlessly about ``duopoly'' and ``deep democracy.'' But I want to know what happens when the margin of the marginal differences between Democrats and Republicans keeps narrowing. When the whole debate leans further and further to the right. When do you bolt?
Nader, stooped and proudly non-charismatic, with ``a congenital aversion to pandering,'' leans over a desk and talks of campaigns past. ``Each time the argument has been that the Democrats aren't as bad as the Republicans. Once you accept the argument of voting for the lesser of two evils, the logic of that has no boundaries. You can go on for a century justifying that.'' When you are taken for granted, he likes to say, you get taken.
This is what has the progressive wing of the Democratic Party tilting away. In the Clinton years, the country got welfare repeal, not reform. The Clinton civil liberties record? Nader says sarcastically, ``it's something Republicans can be proud of.'' Today we're debating Reagan's star wars defense. Health care is reduced to a fight about a patient's bill of rights that doesn't include the right to health care.
If the drift continues under a political system run like the firm of Lesser and Lesser, Nader says, ``I can see by 2012, the Democrats will be worse than today's Republicans.''
Still, when you ask around, the last defining issue for many is the Supreme Court. Nader is a bit too sanguine when he says that abortion rights would not be overruled by Republican-picked justices. But when women groups tell him that's the one issue keeping them with Gore, he shakes his head, ``People's expectation levels have been conditioned to be so low.
``There are other issues,'' he insists, and counts off ``the arms race, environment, non-livable wages, children's poverty.'' Neither Bush nor Gore talk much about the downside of the booming economy. Gore can't because the economy is his trump card. Bush can't because he's the corporate conservative.
But in between lengthy paragraphs about the ``need to organize civil institutions,'' Nader has worked up a composite riff on a day in the life of the average American that resonates with a lot of folks. He includes everything from traffic jams to the lack of insurance, from having the boss read your e-mail to the commercialization of childhood, from corporate welfare to sprawl. ``Who designed this economy anyway?'' he ends.
The polls put the candidate at around 5 percent - just about the margin of error. The word ``spoiler'' follows him like a bad odor. But it isn't Nader's obligation to leave the field for the Lesser. It's Gore's job to offer more.
On the trail lately, Gore has taken to promising, ``I will not let you down.'' Is that what passes for raising our expectations? Or are they counting on a Bush-Cheney fright wig?
Nader became famous as a consumer advocate with a book named ``Unsafe at Any Speed.'' Today, he protests, ``Sometimes the safe thing to do is to take a chance.''
It's enough to turn a gal's head. Maybe.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.
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