- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

Win or lose, Al Gore got nearly 49 million votes Tuesday, coming close to a majority of the American people. Ralph Nader got 2.6 million, which means that only one out of every 38 Americans preferred him. And guess what? Nader, who made it clear that Gore was the real target of his campaign, portrayed his own showing as a victory for a “long-term, progressive reform movement.”

Green Party disciples may say it's unfair to compare his total with that of a major party nominee, and they're right. According to Nader, the Democratic and Republican parties really aren't separate and distinct rivals, but partners in an evil political monopoly. “The two parties have morphed into a corporate party representing the same business interests at the same dinners, at the same hotels, day after day,” he insists.

So the real comparison should not be Nader vs. Gore, but Nader vs. Gore-Bush. On Tuesday, the Republocrats got 97 million votes, or 36 times more than the Greens.

Nader thinks there is broad disenchantment with the choices offered by the major parties. But turnout this year was up by about 5 million over 1996. It may come as news to him that all those people who got themselves to the polls to vote for Gore or Bush didn't do so because they found no meaningful differences between the two.

It's a mystery why Nader imagines he has founded a powerful political movement that will force the major parties to alter their strategy. Even by the standards of third parties, his was not an impressive performance.

Ross Perot, who lacked Nader's saintly aura and well-defined outlook, got 8 million votes in 1996 — and that was a dispiriting drop from the nearly 20 million he received four years earlier. An obscure Illinois congressman named John Anderson — does anyone remember him? — persuaded 5.7 million Americans to cast ballots for him in 1980. George Wallace polled close to 10 million votes in 1968. Nader's achievement may be to show just how marginal the hard-core left has become.

None of those more popular candidates, incidentally, was able to do what Nader has in mind: make the transition from passing fancy to permanent force. Despite $12 million in federal campaign funds and a big-name nominee, Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party found itself selected by just 442,000 voters this time around — less than the Libertarian Party got in 1996. The American Independent Party hung around after Wallace, but never amounted to much again. It's not easy to make a souffle rise twice.

Even if the Greens stick around to appeal to a tiny slice of the electorate, what effect are they likely to have? Perot did manage to push the two major parties toward dealing with the budget deficit, reflecting a real public concern. Wallace encouraged the Republican Party to appeal to Southern whites, even at the cost of alienating blacks.

But Nader's chief plank is his opposition to free trade. And the electorate has consistently rejected major-party candidates who support protectionism — including Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, Richard Gephardt in 1988 and Walter Mondale in 1984.

Perot represented the high-water mark of anti-trade forces, and even his strong showing as a presidential candidate failed to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement or the China trade deal. The liberalization of trade has continued in both Democratic and Republican administrations because Americans have figured out that it promotes prosperity, both here and abroad.

Nader depicts free trade as a corporate plot against American workers. But plenty of American corporations have opposed the removal of import barriers — and many, including steel companies, independent oil producers, textile firms and agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, still do. The greatest benefits of international commerce are broadly dispersed, in the form of more choices and higher living standards.

The closeness of the election may not be good for the long-term prospects of the Greens. If Bush ekes out the narrowest of victories, says Chicago Democratic political consultant and Gore adviser Peter Giangreco, “they'll face nothing but recriminations from the left for four years.” After eight years of Clinton, a Bush presidency may convince a lot of Nader supporters that there really are some important differences between the two parties. If Gore somehow captures the White House, his hair-thin margin will not encourage him to veer leftward.

Nader got his sliver of the vote partly because there are some Americans who detest much of what the United States represents and relish opportunities to distinguish themselves from their unenlightened fellow citizens. Equally important was that, in the best marketing tradition, he offered an exotic niche product calculated to appeal to people jaded by the familiar.

That doesn't mean he will have much impact on national policy. Health food stores may always carry soft drinks made with sarsaparilla. But don't expect to see it showing up in Coke or Pepsi.

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