Needed: A New Nader

I used to think that it would be useful if someone would challenge Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries; that it would force him off his rightward course. But that was before Obama and the Democratic leadership went from awful to worse; before they got it into their heads that they got "shellacked" because they weren't "bipartisan" (abjectly spineless) enough and because the policies they were promoting were, believe it or not, too progressive. In other words, before they gave away even more of the store to Israel in exchange for a (probably worthless) promise not to provoke a complete breakdown of talks with the Palestinian Authority for another three months, before they let their prurient cops loose at airport security checkpoints, before they decided that the way to cut deficits is to freeze the wages of federal workers while ratcheting up the treasure going to America's perpetual war regime. They haven't yet given up entirely on imposing a fair tax schedule on the ill-gotten gains of the filthy rich, but that's coming. So too, most likely, will be a war on "entitlements" and prosecution of the heroes of WikiLeaks. And who knows what new endless wars they have up their sleeves.

It was also before it became evident to all but the most willfully blind just how abject liberals hell bent on cutting Obama slack can be; how determined they are to excuse his every lurch rightward and his every capitulation. If "Don't Ask Don't Tell" remains in place, if tax cuts for the rich aren't rescinded, if the Employee Free Choice Act remains on the back burner, it's not just Obama and Pelosi et. al. who are to blame. It's also the apologists who let them get away with it.

This is why I no longer think a primary challenge to Obama is enough. It seemed like a good idea for nudging him back towards the politics he seemed to start out from. But it is becoming increasingly clear that, whatever Obama wants, he needs a lot more than a nudge to go after it. And can you imagine the kumbaya moment at the Democratic convention when the "dissidents" get in line behind the Commander-in-Chief to go out and do battle with the evil Republicans! The prospect sickens. With a lesser evil like that, there is only one thing to do: present them with options they can't coopt or defuse. This is what Ralph Nader tried to do - four times.

Except for 2004, when "anything but Bush," even John Kerry, looked good, I voted for Nader in every election I could. I voted for him in 1996 as a protest vote and because I was confident that Clinton would beat Dole. I did it in 2008 because I was confident that Obama would get Maryland's electoral votes and because with his Clintonite politics already in evidence, it seemed best not to pile on his votes.

Indeed, I am proud to say that I have never voted for Obama; proud that I can say "don't blame me." But I would have voted for him in the Democratic primary if Hillary Clinton had had a chance. I voted for Mike Gravel instead, partly to thank him for his role in making the Pentagon Papers part of the public record. [For much the same reason, if the election were held today, I'd write in Julian Assange, and I'd vote early and often.] Mainly, though, I voted for Gravel because he was the only candidate who would tell the leading lights of the Democratic Party to their face what was obviously true: that they were full of "fecal material." In choosing between sure losers, that beat out Kucinich's politics.]

In 2000, I voted for Nader in part to punish the Clinton Democratic Party (in the infinitesimally inconsequential way permitted to "we, the people") and because I couldn't imagine that Al Gore would throw the election. But my main reason was to build the Green Party into something more than a receptacle for protest votes. That might have happened too had Nader pursued a strategy of going after votes only in states that were clearly "red" or "blue." Then he might have gotten 5% of the popular vote, making the Greens eligible for public funding. Instead, he went after votes in states where the outcome was uncertain. At the time, I was living in one of them, Wisconsin. Nader compelled Gore to take a more "populist" line, at least when speaking in Madison (which he did several times). He also brought out all that is loathsome in liberals. They piled on against his candidacy. I hadn't hated liberal cant and obtuseness so much since the days of "the best and the brightest." Now, of course, even erstwhile Cold War liberals would concede that Vietnam was a bad idea. But the anti-Nader animosity of their political descendants remains unabated.

That's the main reason why I think Nader shouldn't run again in 2012; it would only get liberals riled up, impeding the more important task of making the Obama presidency less dreadful. Also, Nader has been there and done that; he's fought the good fight and he deserves a hero's rest. But his 2000 strategy, unwise then, is timely now. Obama can't be nudged and Democrats, left to their own devices, are useless. But they along with Obama probably can be dragged kicking and screaming. That can only happen, however, if they are challenged electorally in a way they can't ignore; a way that will hurt. The time is past for a safe states strategy.

I will continue to vote Green when I can, and even to give them a little money now and then, but it's clear now, as it wasn't a decade ago, that the Green Party is a lost cause. And there's no other barely acceptable "third party" on the horizon. Thus an independent candidacy is all there can be. This is what Nader did in practice, if not in theory, every time he ran, even in 2000. I think he was wrong not to put party building first back then. But that's not an issue now.

If not Nader, then who? Alexander Cockburn argued in The Nation (November 29) -- a venue open to some of the most rabid Nader-baiters, Eric Alterman, for example -- that Russ Feingold should run. Having followed Feingold from a perch in the state he represented, I have my doubts. He is hardly a man of the Left. But I could be persuaded, especially if, as 2011 unfolds, it looks like a commonsense "maverick" approach on campaign finance and banking regulation and the like is more viable among former Obama voters than reliably progressive stances.

Wouldn't an independent candidacy throw the election to Sarah Palin or someone like her, someone even more odious than George Bush? That's a danger. After all, the Democrats still are the lesser evil, though at the rate they're going, if the Republicans would just stand still, they might not be any longer by 2012. But however that may be, at this point, Palin or someone like her is a greater threat to the GOP than to the Democrats. For all their obvious faults, Tea Partiers at least have spunk enough to make mainstream Republicans tremble. If it turns out that, by 2012, the monied interests for whom the Republican Party exists can't stomach its useful idiots any longer, perhaps the Tea Party will get the message and launch an independent campaign of its own.

Feingold got his Senate nomination in the first place by running in the Wisconsin primary against two, better known, Democrats - a former governor and a plutocrat. In three (or more) way races anything can happen. Ironically, that may just be the only way we can get "change we can believe in." Certainly, the Democratic Party can't or won't deliver it. And it keeps getting clearer day by day that going the safest route by lining up behind the lesser evil is what got us into this 'revolting development' in the first place. With or without Obama in the White House, what we need now, more even than in 2008, is what Obama once called "the audacity of hope." Getting behind a viable independent candidate, outside the Democratic ambit, might just be the most feasible way to get it.