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Tune In, Turn On Voters, Don't Drop Out

Candidates betray the people's trust if they fold before the race is finished.

October 01, 2003|Ralph Nader | Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and is author of "Crashing the Party" (St. Martin's, 2003).

They say it again and again, but they don't mean it.

Despite suggesting they were in it for the long haul, Bill Simon, Peter Ueberroth, Darrell Issa and now Arianna Huffington have dropped out. Their common reason: The polls made me do it.

But what does that mean, really? Did they drop out because their opponents shared their views? Or because their opponents had bested them in debates? Did they drop out because they secured a firm commitment on a key issue from any remaining candidates? No.

That's what makes their decisions to drop out all the more disturbing. Think of it from the viewpoint of the hard-working volunteers who trusted their assurances. Or worse, think of the thousands of people who already have voted absentee for candidates who are no longer in the race -- and whose votes are now wasted. Or think of the rest of the public, whose trust in the words of political aspirants has been frayed still further.

In our nation's history, giving an opportunity to third-party candidates, independents and primary challengers has infused new ideas into the system, moved agendas, drawn more voters to the polls and laid the groundwork for breakthroughs or victories in subsequent elections. One need only scan the history of abolitionists, suffragettes, trade union backers and farmer-progressive reformers in the 19th century to make this case. Even by losing, they were winning. The blasphemy they articulated one day became the commonplace the next.

The two-party duopoly spent the 20th century passing legislation to squelch small starters and third parties and bar them from even getting on the ballot. It fought to keep us out of the debates. To the winner-take-all structure of American elections was added the notion that there would be only two well-funded candidates, at best.

One now can see the frantic drive to reduce the number of candidates in Tuesday's vote. The ease of getting on this exceptional ballot has been followed by the realpolitik of trimming the choices down.

With Huffington out, the pressure from the duopolist crowd is now bearing down on Republican Tom McClintock, at a respectable 18 percentage points in some polls, and Peter Camejo, at about 5% in some surveys. McClintock's campaign manager, John Feliz, told me that his candidate would stay in the race, but added: "You don't know the state and national pressures we are under."

Why did the GOP from the outset abandon a veteran state legislator, who embodies the authentic tradition of conservative Republicanism, in favor of an actor of uncertain stands who is famous simply for being famous? Because he has more money and was ahead in the recognition polls. No other reason.

It is not because Schwarzenegger is vanquishing McClintock on the merits. The muscular front-runner is running away from debates, unscripted questions and inquiring reporters. He is playing an image strategy with smiles and handshakes in the midst of crowds whose daily assemblages are about as spontaneous as Potemkin villages. The marauding Terminator in the movies runs down his adversaries, while in real life he is running away from mild Gray Davis' challenge to debate. None of this is helping the voters. Isn't it more likely that the deficiencies of celebrity candidates or incumbents will be pointed out more clearly when there are more debating candidates in the ring than when there are fewer?

A sports analogy comes to mind. Players are in the game to finish. If they drop out, they are humiliated.

As the candidate most often called upon to drop out of a race, I believe that doing so betrays the faith and effort of supporters and that it eases the pressures on the pollsters' front-runners to be their best.

Whether dropouts nourish atrophy or anomie, the public and future generations are the losers. The time to drop out is before they drop in.

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