Harold Stassen was a distinguished governor of Minnesota, war hero and diplomat who contended seriously for the presidency in 1948 and 1952 and served in President Eisenhower's Cabinet. But he kept on running, running, and running for so long that his name became a synonym for futility and the butt of countless jokes. A "Stop Stassen" button was a popular gag item at the 1976 Republican convention.
Now there is an even sadder spectacle, the self-destruction of Ralph Nader. Whether he belongs on the Florida ballot, as the Supreme Court said Friday _ or the ballot of any other state _ raises the question of why he wants to be. Doesn't he know that he can't win? That if anything, he'll run worse than four years ago?
There is only one explanation consistent with sanity: Nader doesn't expect to defeat George Bush. It's John Kerry he wants to beat.
Knowingly or not, Nader personifies the classic masochism of the left: the dog-in-the-manger, bomb-throwing attitude that it's better to elect a reactionary than someone who is insufficiently progressive; that the only way to make things better is to first make them worse.
That's what so sad about it. Bush and the oligarchy behind him oppose everything that Nader has accomplished in consumer rights, environmental protection and public health, and have already dismantled much of it. What they cannot destroy directly will be subverted by underfunding, bureaucratic hostility and an increasingly unsympathetic judiciary.
According to an article in the current Judicature magazine, a second Bush term would mean that by 2009 at least a third of all federal judges would be his appointees. It does make a difference who's in line to appoint Sandra Day O'Connor's successor, or William Rehnquist's.
Stassen's persistent candidacies, which never survived the primaries, hurt no one but himself and damaged nothing but his reputation. Nader's candidacy had serious consequences in 2000 by tipping Florida to Bush and could do the same thing this year in any state where the vote is close.
Nader and his supporters are understandably frustrated with a Democratic Party that wants to be seen as centrist, not left. But they need to understand that this is where most of the voters see themselves. This is not a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation, where fringe parties can leverage influence by winning only a few seats. We are a majoritarian republic, where all politics is relative. To vote against a candidate because he is not liberal enough is to vote in effect for one who is not liberal at all.
But this is, after all, a country where any fool can run for office and usually does. The 2000 election wasn't the first time in Florida where a fringe candidacy had fateful consequences. In 1968, two nonentities who were running on nothing but ego got 36,825 votes out of the 860,563 cast in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, but those were enough to deny a majority to former Gov. LeRoy Collins and force him into a bitter, expensive runoff that set him up for defeat in the general election.
A constructive accommodation to minor parties and minor candidates, as has often been pointed out, would be to provide by law for instant runoffs in all races where there are more than two candidates on the ballot.
Instant runoff, or second-choice voting as some call it, would eliminate the spoiler potential and would probably enhance the standing of minor parties. If, for example, Nader is really the candidate you like most (or dislike least) your first choice could safely be cast for him, with your second choice vote awarded to the lesser of the other evils, to be counted only if neither of them has a majority of first-choice votes.
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Though Florida needs more slot machines like we need another hurricane, they're sneaking up on us. The Nov. 2 ballot includes an initiative, Amendment 4, that would authorize slot machines at race tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Part of the propaganda for this is a slogan, "Shouldn't you have the right to decide?" In Michigan, as it happens, a campaign with a similar slogan, "Let Voters Decide," is trying to pass an amendment to put the brakes on additional gambling by requiring referendums.
So if voting is good for Florida, shouldn't it also be good for Michigan? Not where the Hollywood Greyhound Track and its corporate parent, Hartman & Tyner Inc., are concerned. Having put up some $2.4-million of the $11-million reported by the Florida campaign, they are also in the thick of the campaign against giving Michigan voters the right to decide. Hartman & Tyner, you see, owns the Hazel Park Harness Racing Track where they hope to have slot machines too. That rival casinos seem to be involved in the referendum campaign doesn't moot the inconsistency of Hollywood's owners.