For many Democrats the memory of Ralph Nader's role in the 2000 presidential election still causes the mild case of angina. And with the consumer advocate giving the White House run another go around, the fear still exists, within some dark corners of Democratic politics, that Nader diehards could throw a crucial state away from Barack Obama grasp.
And so it is always telling to see how Obama and his aides handle Nader's candidacy. Will they cater to the longtime progressive legislative interests, offering policy enticements to woo his voters and support? Or will they dismiss him as a good-natured relic of the past, someone who should be commended for his work but ignored as a candidate?
On Wednesday, Nader thrust the question into the political spotlight by spouting off a bout of political analysis that contained little racial sensitivity - including saying that Obama "wants to talk white," and "show that he's not at politically threatening African-American politician."
Hours later, the Obama folks struck back, and they didn't hold their punches.
"It reminds me of that old saying," said communications director Robert Gibbs, "which I'll paraphrase: 'Better to be thought not-so-smart than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,' which is apparently what Ralph Nader did in Denver yesterday or the day before. Obviously Ralph Nader hasn't spent a lot of time looking at the entire career of Barack Obama, somebody who turned down high-paying Wall Street jobs and Supreme Court clerkships to come back and organize on the south side of Chicago, in fact, taking on asbestos in public housing projects. He's worked tirelessly in the United States Senate to make sure that our kids don't chew on toys that are imported from China that are filled with lead and that we begin to pass reasonable, but strong rules ensuring that there isn't any more lead paint in homes that children can chew on. We've talked throughout this campaign about making sure that our middle-class is protected. So, I think Ralph Nader is -- besides those comments being reprehensible and basically delusional, I don't think he's spent a lot of time looking at the record of Barack Obama."
As MSNBC moderator Andrea Mitchell properly pointed out, had Nader's words come from the lips of a GOP operative (or perhaps even former President Clinton), cries of racism would have bounced off the walls. To which Gibbs replied:
Well, I don't know what we'd be calling it. It's downright delusional, whether it's being said by Karl Rove, Charlie Black, Ralph Nader, or by me. I think those comments -- as I said a minute ago -- are reprehensible. I can't begin to think what the thought process is that goes through some person's mind before they open their mouth and suddenly that comes out... I think this war of words -- whether it's Karl Rove or Ralph Nader -- that's exactly the type of stuff that needs to stop. Because you know what, words and rhetoric, none of that's making college cheaper. None of that's helping people to get the gas this need to go to their job or look for another job, which is what Barack Obama is focused on in this campaign. Obviously, I think those remarks are reprehensible and delusional. But I don't know that I'd dignify them a whole lot more by talking about who said them and why.
Nader, to be sure, is not the same electoral threat he was in 2000, when popular perception was that the difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush weren't believed to be too great. But he still has his adherents, however few. And it will be interesting to see how much praise Obama receives for fighting back against his remarks. Certainly, Gibbs's MSNBC appearance drives home the notion (if it was ever in doubt) that this is Obama's party and he won't take criticism lightly, event from fellow progressives.