Are third-party candidates--and fourth- and fifth-party candidates--inherently irrelevant, or are they rendered irrelevant by the news media? It's an old question but a timely one, given that The Sun and other mainstream newspapers around the country seem inordinately eager to minimize and discredit the upstart presidential candidacy of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Even lefty rags like In These Times and The Nation have gotten in on the act.Nader was nominated by the tiny, environment-oriented Green Party on June 25--a fact duly reported by the Associated Press, whose dispatch was carried on page 3A of the next day's Sun. Five weeks later, Nader scored 10 percent in a nationwide presidential-preference poll sponsored by NBC (in which, incidentally, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan got 1 percent). The Democrats, from whom Nader draws his base of disaffected liberals and union members, are legitimately worried, but officially they pooh-pooh the Green threat, as do their allies in the media.
At the time of Nader's nomination, The Sun, which editorially leans Democratic, declined to dignify his candidacy with with an editorial. The only comment came from cartoonist Kal, who caricatured Nader boasting of being "on the map" whilst pointing to a spot on the map labeled "Fat Chance," "Nowhere," etc. Over the next four weeks, references to Nader in The Sun were generally buried in pieces about Al Gore and George W. Bush.
On July 28, Nader formally launched his Maryland campaign, announcing that Green Party activists had collected the 16,000 signatures needed to place him on the state presidential ballot. The Sun couldn't very well ignore the story--but it could run it on page 6 of the next day's Maryland section. (To be fair, there was a photo of Nader at the bottom of the section's front page.) The same day, on the much more visible op-ed page, the paper wheeled out retired editorial writer Theo Lippman Jr. to pile scorn upon both Nader and Buchanan, outfitting his column with a large illustration and a 60-point headline.
Lippman, whose hobby is forecasting elections on the basis of past electoral phenomena, reeled off the sorry history of third-party candidacies dating back to 1860, then worked himself into a desperate and inaccurate screed. (And a poorly edited one. I quote: "Based on the historical record alone, the [Commission on Presidential Debates] would be justified in barring third-party candidates just on the historical record.") Lippman argued that Nader and Buchanan aren't "candidates in the traditional sense. They aren't office holders or public-spirited private citizens with experience in leading or managing large entities, honestly seeking to become America's chief executive. They're extremist pamphleteers, 'running' for personal aggrandizement only."
Oh, come on. This might apply to Buchanan, but Nader, an "extremist pamphleteer"? This guy is the definitive "public-spirited private citizen." He has led (if not managed) a very large, decentralized network of reform organizations for roughly 30 years. (Perhaps Lippman is nostalgic for the pre-Nader era of unsafe cars, flammable pajamas, and rampant water pollution.) Finally, for Lippman to say that the world's worst-dressed millionaire is running for personal aggrandizement is absurd. Nader has always been about issues--mention of which was curiously absent from Lippman's rant.
This sort of overkill could win the Greens some sympathy votes. In fact, a week after the Lippman piece ran, The Sun published four letters from readers rebutting it. The responses weren't explicitly pro-Nader. (One concluded, "[A]s for Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Nader, go guys, go.") Rather, they focused on Lippman's tortured argument that opening the presidential debates to more than two candidates would be bad for democracy--and succeeded in making The Sun's de facto spokesman look like a reactionary.
This said, Nader is himself guilty of gross rhetorical distortions, notably his stock declaration that there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats. Sure, I have days when I feel that way, but anyone concerned about abortion, the environment, gun control, gay rights, tax cuts, the Supreme Court, or the U.S. Constitution knows better.