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Ralph Nader: Fellow paddler or canoe stabber?

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Ruminations had it last week that "much is up for grabs" this election year. Now Ralph Nader has stepped up to grab his piece of it.

The tenacious Nader, who announced his candidacy as an independent, and who has been a beacon of struggle against unfair advantage by corporate giants for over three decades, is eviscerating his own legacy with this move. Nobody of any consequence likes it. Too much is at stake in this upcoming election for too many serious and active people - the kind of people with clear ideas and long memory. The quixotic Nader would sink all ships in his own flotilla to prove his obscure points. The Democrats are livid that they stand to lose another crucial election to the windmill-charging campaigner. Many bemoan the intellectual dishonesty in Nader's position that there is little difference between Bush and them. Democrats large and small implored Nader not to run or in any way split the Democratic vote.

Nader is all tin ears for that. For him, as he put it to Tim Russert on "Meet The Press" the day of his announcement, the quest to establish room for a third party or more in American politics, is reason enough to launch a candidacy - and if that mucks up the works for the only possibility that progressives and liberals have of getting the country back, well, such is the wonder of American politics.

The very nature in Nader's character that made him effective in his muckraking career - the ability to focus intensely - now shapes the crusader's approach to national politics. He rails about upholding the "right" of Americans to cast a vote for his minimalist candidacy, yet appears oblivious to how this same whimsical, message-driven candidacy could actually cancel the votes of millions of Americans still engaged in a primary season that has generated the most profound emotions in Democratic politics in many years. That his candidacy at this late date and with clearly no possibility of a win, is not serious or even considerable except as a way to take away from the Democratic candidate and assist, once again, the victory of his own loathed enemy, George W. Bush and the Republican right wing, is not a considerable factor to Nader. His unwillingness to address his clear potential - despite the Democrats' own wishful dismissal of his likely impact - to deal an unfair and decapitating blow to the Democrat's candidate, is appalling.

Republican strategists are understandably encouraged by Nader's announcement. While Nader is an excellent critic of corporate excess and Republican mendacities, they too know he can only help their man by skimming votes from the Democrats while helping to shore up the Republican base.

Last time Nader got something of a pass. Al Gore ran a lackluster campaign in 2000, with a country distracted by Oval Office sex scandals, while it was not as clear yet for Democrats just how radical the neo-con movement that engulfed the Bush presidency really could get.

Most progressives still appreciate Nader's acerbic wit and command of the issues. Many have been inspired by his energetic and dogged organizational talent that generated dozens of excellent public watchdog networks that have fought for grass-roots community bases over two generations. But this time, perhaps his last time out into such a campaign, Nader can only be a spoiler to that vast half of America intent on putting their candidate over the top and winning back the White House.

The election of 2004 promises to be bitterly fought, contested by state and by county. Watching President George W. Bush's first real volley at the Democrats, (Feb. 23, "Speech to the Republican governors"), was to see why the party faithful on the left are calling for unity with such single-minded intensity. Bush looked and sounded good at his first stump - purposeful, vigorous and making his strongest claim: "I took the war to them." He will be very hard to beat, unless ?

There is talk of a potential Nader-style spoiler on the right. Alabama Judge Roy Moore of Ten Commandment monument fame is being courted by the right-wing Constitution Party to make a run for president. This fundamentalist party got on the ballot in 41 states in 2000. It enjoys a wide network of activist supporters across the country. Given the turmoil this season by the fundamentalist Christian right over immigration, the huge deficits and gay rights issues, a run on Bush's right flank might surface. Spoiler versus spoiler might then cancel each other out.

Swing voting blocks are of the essence in 2004. Small movements and one-man grandstands will have influence beyond real numbers. Once again, so will the Indian vote ? so will the Indian vote.