07/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sharpton Gets After Nader for Getting After Obama

Reverend Al Sharpton recently took the rare step of writing an open letter to independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He raked Nader over the coals for blasting Obama for speaking differently to blacks and whites; presumably that means Obama uses different cadences, word usage, and rhetoric when he speaks to each group. Whether Ralph really said or believes that Obama is a racial panderer is subject to debate especially since Obama from day one of his campaign has said and done everything possible to run a race neutral, all inclusive campaign, and to pose himself as the candidate who addresses the problems and needs of the broad spectrum of Americans. It could be no other way. Even the slightest hint from Obama that he played race and his candidacy would have sunk faster than an ocean liner's anchor.

While Sharpton's Nader indictment is harsh there is much more that Sharpton could have gotten after Nader about in his Obama bash than a tangential racial reference. Nader recently sent out an email touting novelist Russell Banks' slam of Obama. Banks branded Obama a centrist Democrat who feeds the dream that he can magically make change on the Iraq War, the economy, the racial divide and the class divide. Nader's main gripe about Obama is that he's a Beltway politician who talks a good game but as other Washington insiders shills for corporations and panders on foreign policy matters. Nader's list of Obama's alleged political sins includes backing the Patriot Act, watering down tough environmental legislation, failing to back the censure of Bush on illegal wiretapping, reauthorization of Iraq war funds, and surrounding himself with Cold War Warriors such as Zbigniew Brezhenski as foreign policy advisors and a legion of corporate flaks as key economic advisors. Nader was especially incensed that Obama pandered to AIPAC when he made a hardnosed, all out defense of Israel that ignored bipartisan peace proposals that insured Palestinian rights.

But these are mostly straw man arguments. None but the most rabid, blind eye Obama backers truly believe that he is the second coming of, well Ralph Nader when it comes to challenging corporate power and the political establishment. Obama is, as Nader charged, a consummate Democratic Party and Senate insider. If he wasn't he wouldn't have gotten as far as he has in the presidential derby. That's in sharp contrast to Nader who is the consummate party outsider who since his splash in 2000 has been tossed further to the political margins. To hold Obama to the standard of a fringe political maverick is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. Obama has to be judged by the political standards of a mainstream Democrat.

The type of change he advocates can only be made within the tight and narrow constraints of Washington politics. By necessity, this entails compromise, negotiation, stoking party and Capital Hill loyalties and staying in tune with the centrist voter mood. A Washington insider such as Obama can't be called a sell-out to principles when the principles that drive him and other Washington insiders are pragmatic, consensus politics. That's the only way that Obama or any other mainstream Democrat or Republican can win a major election. As the great foe of corporations and Beltway politicians, Nader has spent decades and three presidential campaigns railing against political cronyism, two party dominance, corporate greed and malfeasance, war mongering and profiteering.

That's why the prospect of an Obama victory scares him even more than that of a McCain victory. McCain makes no pretense of being the change agent who will buck the Washington establishment. Obama does make that superficial claim and therefore in Nader's eyes he will feed the dreams of millions who desperately yearn for a reversal of the economic devastation and political malaise of the Bush years. Nader is convinced that Obama will lull the millions who want a real shake up in Washington politics and look to him to be a real people's champion on the war and the economy into dangerous political drowsiness. They will stop fighting for genuine economic democracy and citizen participation. This was the rationale that propelled Nader to campaign as hard if not harder against Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore than against Bush in 2000. Many still bitterly charge that as spoiler Nader helped tip the White House to Bush.

Sharpton is deathly afraid that Nader will do the same again, thus his open letter. But the prospect of Nader as spoiler for Obama is unlikely to happen. Nader is a shell of what he was in 2000. But even if he wasn't and represented the same threat to Obama he represented to Gore in 2000; Nader didn't listen to advice then to temper his remarks about Obama. There's no reason to think that anything Sharpton can say to him will make him listen now.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

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