The hysterics among those Democratic liberals and party familiars among the blabbering classes who accuse Ralph Nader of creating a constitutional crisis are spouting nonsense. There is no constitutional crisis, only an election law dispute in one state. It appears that only in two states did Nader receive votes larger than Bush's margin of victory: New Hampshire (which would not have changed the electoral college outcome) and possibly Florida.

Nader did receive nearly 100,000 votes in the Sunshine State, but as he kept repeating

It's not his fault that Al Gore beat himself.

during the campaign, only Al Gore could beat Al Gore. That's what happened in Florida. If Gore loses there, it's because he failed to carry the seniors, who were supposed to be the Democrats' firewall--exit polling shows that he split them evenly with Bush. Gore failed to achieve the substantial margin of victory he needed among seniors to win the state with the largest percentage of over-65ers because of his credibility problems. Too many different Gores--from the Gore of the mythical "lockbox" to the Gore who proclaimed himself the candidate of "smaller government"--showed up during the debates and the campaign for the older voters to take him at his rhetorical word. As one disgruntled Democrat put it: "I believe in everything Al Gore says--until he says it."

It was the triangulators running both the Gore and Bush campaigns who, in trying to steal the other's issues, further blurred the marginal differences between (in Nader's phrase) the "do-little party and the do-nothing party." (After the Los Angeles convention, Gore's handlers told him that, having solidified his base with populist rhetoric, he needed to move to the center; he did so--and sank in the polls.) That's what made this a close election. And if you're still looking for a different culprit, blame the Democrats who control Palm Beach County for adopting the idiotic and deceptive "butterfly ballot," which so confused older voters that some 19,000 ballots (more than enough to give Gore the state even before the recount) were thrown out by a judge because folks voted twice.

National exit poll totals indicate that only 40 percent of the nearly 2.7 million votes Nader received might have gone to Gore had the legendary consumer and workers' rights advocate not been on the ballot--20 percent would have voted for Bush, while more than 40 percent were new voters who otherwise wouldn't have bothered to vote. Turnout nationally appears to have ticked up only one percentage point over 1996--probably attributable to new Nader voters. (In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, Naderites registered 53,000 new voters.)

In some places, the Nader vote--much of it newly registered--probably helped down-ballot Democrats. Nader made a California campaign stop in Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray's district and denounced his environmental record, which may have made the difference in Democrat Susan Davis' eyelash-close victory. In Washington, if Maria Cantwell finally edges out a victory over Sen. Slade Gorton, it will likely be the new Nader voters who put her over the top.

The Greens generally avoided running candidates in swing districts. An exception was New Jersey, where running a full slate enhanced the party's ballot position. While Nader hardly campaigned there, local Green candidates still got more than 5,000 votes in two swing districts, making the difference in centrist Democrat Maryanne Connelly's loss in the 7th District, and forcing freshman Rep. Rush Holt into a recount. That should have the Democratic high command worried, for Nader is gearing up to run Green candidates in dozens of House districts.

Although he failed to achieve the 5 percent national threshold for Federal Election Commission recognition, Nader's great achievement was injecting a radical, systemic critique into the national discourse for the first time since such thinking was ostracized by the Cold War. And in the process, he mobilized and trained tens of thousands of younger, single-issue militants in electoral politics--despite the vicious attacks on him by the well-paid Stepford activists from the Washington-based issue lobbies umbilically tied to the Democrats and the Clinton White House.

Whether Nader's troops can be integrated into the Greens is an open question, for the Green parties vary from state to state. Some, like the Greens in California, Texas, New Mexico and Connecticut, are models of openness and aggressive recruitment who have a well-grounded history of working with local issues activists and labor. But in New York, where the Greens split in two, the sectarian faction that controls the ballot line has put up roadblocks in the form of stringent membership requirements that keep the party membership small and controllable.

Nader recognizes this problem: Although he ceaselessly promoted the Green Party on the campaign trail, he is not a party member himself, and won't become one. While he expects to exert considerable influence on the Greens, he's going to keep a staff of eight or so people and raise money for at least two new projects. One is a watchdog group that, as he told third-party expert Micah Sifry, would "have an investigator in each [congressional] district," publicizing voting records that coddle special interests and encouraging candidate recruitment. The second is a "People's Debate Commission" to counter the corporate-sponsored Commission on Presidential Debates that almost always locks out third-party candidates. Both of these projects could attract support from progressives who won't join the Greens.

A Gallup poll taken a week after the election showed that, when asked who'd make the best president, Americans were still divided at 44 percent for Gore and 44 percent for Bush. A Washington Post poll the next day showed a majority of voters said they "weren't worried" about the election. So don't blame Nader for the fact that the country couldn't make up its mind and has no overriding passion for either Gush or Bore.

What the tawdry maneuverings in Florida mean is that for the foreseeable future all the oxygen will be sucked out of the real debate over power--corrupting big money in politics--as we are endlessly enmeshed in a secondary debate over process. But Nader won't be going away, and he will work to bring our attention back to the structural issues. That's healthy for progressive politics, both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

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