In Defense of Spoilers and Quixotes

Don't you know there's an election on?


John Kerry's best chance to win the presidency is to stay out of public and legally change his name to Not Bush. The Democratic grassroots may have accepted Kerry as the "realistic" nominee, but it's the opportunity to vote for Not Bush that's excited them; and it's Not Bush who's been picking up swing voters in the polls. So strong is this sentiment, in fact, that the liberals' worst antipathy seems reserved for those who might dilute the Not Bush vote.

That would be you, Mr. Nader. The hard-core Democrats see this election the way the hard-core Republicans see the war, and they're no more amused by your candidacy than Ed Gillespie (no relation to Reason's Nick Gillespie!) is tickled by the 9/11 Commission. Any day now I expect them to start punctuating their communiqués with the slogan, "Don't you know there's an election on?"

Their attitude is apparently contagious. Campaign frivolity of any sort now meets with disapproval. Louis Menand, writing recently in The New Yorker, mocks the various presidential runs of Eugene McCarthy—not so much the famous effort of 1968, but the really quixotic ones that followed, in 1972 and 1976 and 1988 and 1992. After '68, Menand complains, McCarthy's views "grew so eccentric that they seemed self-conscious, as though he had made politics into a kind of performance art, in an age when people had lost their taste for performance. He ran on issues like the elimination of the Vice-Presidency and the direct popular election of the President, reforms whose relevance was decidedly obscure. His later campaigns suggested the same unpleasant combination of piety and frivolity as John and Yoko's bed-ins for peace." Piety and frivolity, of course, is the same combination that upsets Nader's critics: Nader is pious because he's not willing to endorse a candidate whose platform he opposes, and he's frivolous because he's willing to run even if it hurts that candidate he won't endorse. Put another way, he's damned for taking ideas too seriously and he's damned for not taking power politics seriously enough. This is, Democrats remind us, no way to win an election.

Republicans, on the other hand, are generally delighted to see Nader in the race, for the exact same realpolitik reasons. Since I'm defending Nader here, I suppose some of you will suspect me of secretly hoping he'll throw the presidency to Bush. In fact, between Bush and Kerry I have a mild preference for Kerry, awful though he is, partly on the grounds that divided government is better than one-party government and partly on the grounds that, if this contest is a referendum on Bush's presidency, that's an election I'd like to see Not Bush win. Not that I'd actually vote for Kerry—or for Nader, for that matter, though I can understand the appeal of casting (as a Perotista friend put it to me in 1992) "the authentic spoiler vote." Actually, it doesn't matter much who I vote for, since I live in a solidly Democratic state. I could write in my dead golden retriever for all the good it would do.

The difference is that if Bush narrowly wins reelection in November, liberal talk-radio hosts won't call up my departed dog and refuse to let him get a bark in edgewise while they berate him for costing Kerry the presidency. Nader gets to be the official Hate Object of the 2000 and 2004 elections. The rest of us frivolous folk just get his seconds.