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Nader's speech tarnishes hopes of progressives

Here's what Ralph Nader '55 is concerned about these days: Bottled water. Hard-to-read phone bills. SAT scores. These were just some of the topics he touched on in a rambling, often professorial, rarely rousing speech here on Tuesday.

Most troublesome of all, according to Nader, is the "corporatization" of America, which has apparently taken over our childhoods, our schools and our religious institutions.


"The corporations got into our minds," he actually said at one point in his McCosh 50 speech, "and controlled the way we looked at cars."

Nader was talking about auto safety, but he just as well could have been talking about alien abduction. This guy sounded more like a paranoid crank than a presidential candidate.

Which is too bad, because Nader is a presidential candidate. After garnering less than one percent of the vote in 1996 with a halfhearted, shoestring campaign, Nader says he's serious this time. His goal: To get five percent of the nationwide vote, thereby qualifying his party, the Greens, for presidential campaign matching funds.

On paper, Nader and the Green Party sound great. You gotta love Nader: Who else can claim to have made cars safer and nuclear power plants nearly extinct while publishing a magazine that tests everything from shampoo to Subarus? And for their part, the Greens seem to get everything right.

A brochure distributed Tuesday said the Green Party supports workers' rights, school finance equalization, public funding of political campaigns and ending discrimination. Oh yeah: It also "insists on the highest standards for organic food labeling."

Credentials like these impressed Princeton's left-wing Graduate Students for Local Activism (GSLA) and other campus groups, who deserve kudos for organizing Nader's appearance here. Nader's professed values are indeed a breath of fresh air for progressives who have lived through the eight-year disappointment of the Clinton administration. We cringed when Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill and the Defense of Marriage Act. Our stomachs are turned by Al Gore's cheerful embrace of the death penalty and his refusal to call for meaningful campaign finance reform.


But while progressives' hearts may be bleeding, our brains remain fully functioning. We know that a vote for Nader — or any progressive third-party candidate — is surely a wasted vote that could result in George W. Bush being elected president. Progressives are rarely satisfied with candidates put forward by the Democratic Party and are often disappointed by Democratic officeholders. But we are also keenly aware that they're a whole lot better than Republicans. Because the fact is, there are real differences between the two parties: Access to abortion. The Earned Income Tax Credit. Affirmative action. Medicaid and food stamps. Lesbian and gay rights. The environment. We will undoubtedly suffer setbacks on all of these fronts should Bush become president.

So if we're going to vote Green, it by golly better be for a candidate who inspires us. About 50 minutes into his speech on Tuesday, Nader finally got around to telling us "what this political campaign is all about." He talked briefly about the emptiness of the two-party system and the lack of real choices. But minutes later — I kid you not — he had spun off onto a tangent about the nightmares of human genetic engineering.

"This is not a 'feel-good' speech," a friend whispered to me.

A presidential candidate can't just tell us what's wrong with the system; he or she must also impart to us the belief that we can fix it. Great progressive politicians like Jesse Jackson or Paul Wellstone or Mario Cuomo lift us up with a message that communicates hope. In short, they have vision.

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Right now, Ralph Nader unfortunately doesn't have a vision. At best, he's got a laundry list. Pat Egan is a graduate student in the Master of Public Affairs Program at the Woodrow Wilson School from Philadelphia. He can be reached at