03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ralph Nader's Nadir

I endorsed Ralph Nader in 2000. And while I didn't support his candidacy four years later, I defended his right to run. Nobody's vote "belongs" to any candidate except the one who wins it. The Democrats didn't lose in 2000 because Nader won a smattering of votes in Florida. They lost because Al Gore was a lousy candidate who couldn't carry his own state nor motivate tens of millions of potential Democratic voters to get off the couch. If had an 'enth of the capacity to inspire and engage the crowds of new voters that Barack Obama had demonstrated, we would have never heard of Dubya again.

But now that Nader has announced he will make a third run and while I would oppose any effort to keep him off the ballot, I am disappointed, even chagrined by his incipient candidacy.

Nader's anti-corporate message should not be shrugged off nor should his commitment to raise all of the issues that make most politicians of both parties squirm. "You take that framework of people feeling locked out, shut out, marginalized, disrespected," he said in announcing his candidacy on Sunday. "You go from Iraq, to Palestine/Israel, from Enron to Wall Street, from Katrina to the bungling of the Bush administration, to the complicity of the Democrats in not stopping him on the war, stopping him on the tax cuts."

Great message, Ralph. But absolutely no strategy. Politics is all about perception, and the perception of Nader's first run, fairly or not, was that of a tragedy. His redux in 2004 was more of a farce. His run this time will be doomed to be pathetic. It will accomplish absolutely nothing except to diminish Nader's own towering record as a citizens' advocate and to marginalize the crucial issues he raises.

In 2000, running as a Green candidate, Nader scored less than 3% of the vote. He left behind no infrastructure, no organization, no network of any significance. All that marked his legacy was a mountain of bitterness and recrimination. Four years later, in the middle of the Bush catastrophe and with the Democrats fielding a candidate equally lame to Gore, Nader was able to attract a flyspeck .3% of the vote - a tenth of what he garnered in 2000.

What does Nader expect this time around? He has no funding, no party structure behind him, and no rational way of explaining of what he could possibly accomplish. More disturbing, he has no visible constituency. The overwhelming bulk of what might be called the Nader Vote has been swept into the vortex of the Obama campaign. Nader can make the argument, if he wishes, that Obama is just one more corporate sell-out but it is unlikely that the millions who have flocked to Obama are all of a sudden going to be jolted into an about face that because Nader will appear on the ballot.

Nader is far too smart a man to know that he has any chance of winning anything. What he, and whatever few supporters who will join him, will argue is that by running he will somehow force Obama - or Hillary if she wins the nomination--to move to the left.
This is, of course, nonsense. All of the factors that contributed to Nader's dismal finish in 2004 are many times more potent this cycle. His candidacy will force nothing, except the voters to view Nader as some sort of bizarre spectacle. The competing candidates will see him as little more than a nuisance.

It doesn't have to be this way. Ralph Nader could play an essential and productive role between now and November without sacrificing neither his independence nor his principles. One could imagine a rolling, coast-to-coast chataqua over this coming summer during which Nader, precisely, would keep alive any and all of the issues neglected by the mainstream debate. It could be a role of great import and great dignity. Why Nader, instead, has chosen to further marginalize himself and his agenda is way beyond me.