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Ralph Nader, Who Asked You?

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Back in Feburary, Ralph Nader suddenly announced his candidacy for the presidency. He went on Meet The Press, did the cable rounds. Then he slunk back into obscurity, because no one had really missed him and he didn't really add to the proceedings.

Now, months later, he's back, and has a beef with Barack Obama. Apparently he thinks Obama is trying to "talk white" and is playing to "white guilt" and trying not to "threaten the white power structure." Nader, who as MSNBC's First Read points out received less than 0.5% of the vote in 2004, has been widely resented by Democrats since the 2000 election, when he pulled enough votes from Al Gore to have arguably tipped the electoral balance.

The self-styled 'anti-corporate' third-party candidate is also apparently an expert on what a black American presidential candidate should be. This can be gleaned from his statement asserting that "[T]he number one thing that a black American politician aspiring to the presidency should be is to candidly describe the plight of the poor, especially in the inner cities and the rural areas." I'm not exactly sure how this could have been achieved by "coming on as black is beautiful, black is powerful" — something else he accuses Obama of not doing — but he doesn't elaborate there.

Leave aside for a moment how appalling it is for him to accuse a bi-racial American, famously the son of one white and one black parent, but also famously regarded as African American, as in the first-ever African American nominee for the presidency, as trying to "talk white"; leaving aside how he could have possibly thought his attack would not be perceived as a racial one; leaving aside how random and uncalled for those comments were, here's the thing: Who cares what Nader thinks?

It's what I wondered back in February: Who wanted him to run? Where was the demand? Who had been clamoring for Ralph Nader? As someone who is pretty engaged in watching the process, I didn't see it. Months, umpteen primaries and millions of votes later, I still don't.

That was for running for president — an office to which Nader has long aspired, with increasingly less support, but still, he did have some. But in this context it's hard to take his remarks seriously — it would be fair to critique Obama's platforms and policies on the merits without bringing race into it. But he did bring race into it, and his remarks are nothing short of smear. Never mind that his credibility is significantly affected by his own aspirations, and his seeming lack of interest in truly contributing positively to this process.

I'm sorry, where was the Ralph Nader photo op stuffing sandbags in Iowa? More generally, where has Ralph Nader been really on anything? Again, perhaps I've missed it — and it's possible — but I haven't seen him really doing much to actively try to effect change himself over the course of this election, other than wave his arms on the sidelines a bit. As an anti-poverty advocate, he could have done more for John Edwards other than start an exploratory committee the day after he dropped out, but even so, there are plenty of ways to draw attention to your issue if you are committed and passionate. There was a long period while watchers were waiting for Edwards to endorse Obama, and he could have used that time to highlight the policy differences between the two on poverty.

Yes, there's much that Nader could have done to draw attention to poverty issues — like be right. As it happens, Obama does have poverty positions — see here, subdivided for urban and rural areas. But that's actually not even the point. The point is, he lost any and all credibility the instant he dragged race into it, impugning not only Obama's worth as a black candidate but his "blackness" — an old and tired argument that I'd hoped we'd done away with a year ago. I mean, sheesh.

The sad thing is that Nader has an amazing record, 2000 and these comments aside, and is responsible for a whole lot of positive change thanks to his efforts as a consumer advocate. It's something that even Obama was gracious enough to acknowledge, saying "it's a shame, because if you look at his legacy... it's an extraordinary one." But though his stated goal of attacking poverty and helping disenfranchised black Americans may be noble, his methods of getting there are anything but.

Nader is as entitled as anyone else to speak out about this election and to flag the issues that he thinks are being overlooked — even if no one has actually asked him. But let's face it: This isn't helping. And it adds to a now well-established legacy of not helping. That's Nader's other legacy — and you know what? No one's asking for that, either.