I Love You, Ralph (Nader), But ...

NaderLife.jpg... I hope you will quash this latest rumor about seeking the presidency. (Update: And if not running yourself then recruiting and energizing challengers to Obama in the Democratic primaries.)

Background: I am proud to have worked for you in my teens and early 20s, and to have been a friend over most of these years. (And that the 19-year-old version of me is in this great full-page Life magazine photo of Nader's Raiders at right, from the summer of 1969.) But my heart sinks on reading this, in today's news, with emphasis added:

>>Ralph Nader warns that without an intraparty challenge the liberal agenda "will be muted and ignored," the one-man primary will kill voter enthusiasm and voters won't get a chance to reflect on the real differences that divide the Democratic and Republican parties.

"What we are looking at now is the dullest presidential campaign since Walter Mondale -- and that's saying something, believe me," Mr. Nader told The Washington Times....

Mr. Nader said the intent is not to defeat Mr. Obama but to make him focus on issues that might get lost in a purely Obama-versus-GOP discussion.

Defeating an incumbent in a primary is a tall order, but opponents can expose weaknesses, as Patrick J. Buchanan did in 1992 to the first President Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy did in 1980 to President Carter.<<

Here's where we differ:
     - Like your other friends and admirers, I know you will never concede that the 97,000+ Green votes you got in Florida in 2000 helped give George W. Bush his 500+ vote margin over Al Gore in the Florida recount. And thus, with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court, the presidency. Again, I know that you will not concede it; but I note that virtually everyone else thinks it is so.

    - I know how deeply you believe that the corruption of today's two major parties requires fundamental shake-up and challenge. It's a genuine dilemma. The parties are both corrupt, beholden to donors, run by careerists. But it's intellectually unworthy and politically/socially irresponsible to act as if there's "not a dime's worth of difference"* between them. I won't get into the positions on tax, regulation, consumer protection, foreign policy. You know them by heart. So how do you advance the longer term argument for fundamental reform without handing the keys, in the here and now, to the party that is even more fervently against causes you care about? As most people think happened in 2000? I don't know, but my experience is that third parties and intra-party challenges don't have the effect you hope. Which brings us to:

   - As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election. You can't draw an exact cause-effect connection. Maybe a primary challenge to Obama would not weaken him (unlike the situation with Carter and the first Bush) and would in fact push him in the direction you suggest and energize the party as a whole. It's true that Tea Party pressure has moved the entire Republican party to the right. But it's not obvious that it would work the same way with the Democrats. And even though the "intent" might not be to defeat Mr. Obama, that is likely to be one effect.

So, why not use every bit of this effort against the people who oppose any revenue increase, who oppose any regulation or consumer protection, who try to block all appointments, who want to fill the courts with the likes of Thomas and Roberts? I know that I'm arguing here-and-now incrementalism rather than root-and-branch fundamental change. But that is what experience since 1969 has taught me.  
* This is a phrase popularized by George C. Wallace in 1968, not by Ralph Nader. But it was an implied message of his 2000 campaign.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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