Some years ago, Richard Nixon nominated a man to the Supreme Court who was widely viewed as a mediocre choice at best. One of his Senate supporters defended the appointment on the grounds that the mediocre deserved representation on the Court, too.
I have somewhat the same view about loonies in politics. Call them extremists, crazy, batty, demented, birdbrained, ridiculous or just plain silly. Every political party has its share. They were on display in Philadelphia two weeks ago at the Republican convention -- the television cameras made a special point of highlighting them -- and they are out in force in Los Angeles at the Democratic convention this week. But to paraphrase the senator, they deserve representation, too.
The real crazies, however, cannot be found in the Republican or Democratic parties this year. They now have their own parties and their own candidates. Pat Buchanan effectively has peeled off the nuttiest elements on the right side of the political spectrum, while Ralph Nader has a solid hold on their left-wing counterparts. While at first glance, it might appear that Buchanan and Nader cancel each other out, in fact, this is not the case. On balance, having both Nader and Buchanan in the presidential race is a big plus for Republican nominee George W. Bush.
When Pat Buchanan abandoned his lifelong membership in the Republican Party for the Reform Party a few months ago, it was an enormous blessing for Bush. Although Buchanan had no hope whatsoever of capturing the Republican nomination, had he remained a Republican we would have seen a far different convention in Philadelphia. Instead of sweetness and light, we would have seen controversy and strife. It would have made better television, but definitely would not have advanced the Republican Party's goal of retaking the White House.
Pat is a born troublemaker -- a role he relishes. Moreover, he is a highly skilled communicator and polemicist. How Bush would have handled Buchanan we will never know. Certainly, his father did a poor job of it in 1992, which contributed to his defeat. Fortunately for him, George W. Bush was spared the problem by Buchanan's unilateral departure from the Republican Party. So now, instead of being a thorn in Bush's side, he is busy tearing down the Reform Party, effectively neutering the single most important factor in both of Bill Clinton's presidential victories.
In contrast to Ross Perot's 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996 on the Reform Party ticket, which mostly came at the expense of the Republican candidate, Buchanan is unlikely to do better than 1 percent this year, according to recent polls. This means that Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party will not be factors in this year's presidential campaign.
By contrast, Ralph Nader is a serious threat to Al Gore. Just as many conservatives were disenchanted with President Bush in 1992, and with Bob Dole in 1996, defecting to Perot in protest, so, too, many liberals will be drawn to Nader this year. National polls put Nader at about 4 percent, but he is doing twice as well in the key state of California. This is a state Gore should have locked up, but where Bush is very competitive, in large part due to Nader.
Ironically, Nader is also stealing much of Pat Buchanan's thunder. According to a recent Zogby poll, nearly 4 in 10 union members would consider voting for him, largely because of Nader's anti-free trade views. (Both Gore and Bush oppose protectionism.) Buchanan, who shares Nader's views on trade, if on nothing else, had hoped to make inroads among union workers disgusted with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and other free trade initiatives. Now it appears that Nader, rather than Buchanan, will be the principal beneficiary of these disaffected workers.
Mainstream liberals recognize Nader's threat to Gore and are trying to contain it, accusing Nader supporters of wasting their votes and electing a conservative. But just as alienated conservatives were not won over by such talk from Republican Party leaders in 1992 and 1996, casting their votes for Perot anyway, many liberals unquestionably will support Nader over Gore this year. By contrast, the conservative movement is absolutely unified around Bush-Cheney.
What both Buchanan and Nader prove once again, is that the only thing a third party candidate can do in our system of government is be a spoiler. But it is important that those dissatisfied by the candidates of the major parties have the opportunity to field their own candidates and take their chances with the electorate, no matter how futile the effort may be. It is a way of peacefully channeling the energy of those who cannot be accommodated within the mainstream of American politics.
In other systems, such people often make it impossible for major parties to govern effectively, or they resort to violence to advance their causes. In our system, third parties contain the pressure, venting it like steam from an overheated boiler, thus allowing the major parties to govern from the middle of the political spectrum. It is but another testament to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.