Spoiler!

This “spoiler” shirt comes from Ralph Nader’s campaign for the presidency in the year 2000 — the race that Al Gore almost won. Nader gloried in being a spoiler. Getting his message out was the point, not winning. Nor making sure that the Democrats did.

That’s what a classic “spoiler” candidate does in politics: siphons votes from one of the front-runners without any hope — or sometimes any intention — of winning.

Sometimes a minor-party or independent candidate does intend to win. Ross Perot certainly did. The billionaire computer services mogul ran for president as an independent in 1992. Perot was the candidate who would “get things done” that career politicians promised but never got around to.

Perot had involved himself in public affairs for decades, but had never before run for office. He advocated a balanced budget, an end to outsourcing of jobs overseas, a strong war on drugs, and the enactment of electronic direct democracy.

Ross Perot 1992 presidential campaign tee

A June 1992 Gallup poll showed Perot leading a three-way race against incumbent President George H.W. Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

But in the end, Democrat Clinton took the presidency from Republican Bush. Perot ran third, with a respectable but inadequate 18 percent of the vote. Republicans screamed “SPOILER!”

Analysts later concluded that Bush’s loss owed more to his broken promise of “No New Taxes” than to any “spoiling” by Perot.

Perot would run again in 1996, but even less successfully. That was the end for him. But ’96 was the beginning for Ralph Nader, who first appeared on the presidential ballot that year; he would return for three more runs.

Nader was and is a famous consumer advocate and political reformer. He founded influential public interest activist groups that still operate. But he wasn’t getting heard in ‘90s Washington, not even under the Clinton administration. That’s why he ran for president in ’96.

And why he ran again in 2000 as the candidate of the new Green party: to be heard. He said at one point that he actually hoped for a Bush victory over Gore, thinking that it would be a “cold shower” that would help the Democratic party to wake up.

Backside of Nader’s 2000 presidential race t-shirt

Nader said at the ime that it didn’t really matter who was in the White House. And outgoing presiden Clinton might have agreed. He entered the White House with some liberal ideas that he hoped to implement, including a national health plan.

None of that happened. In a notable address to his staff, Clinton would rant that he and all of them were there to be “Eisenhower Republicans:” in favor of low deficits, free trade, and the bond market. Because that was all that the party’s major contributors and his own political allies would allow.

Even Obama, ten years later, would perform as a classic 1970s moderate Republican. His signature accomplishment, Obamacare, had its roots in the early ‘70s. Nixon originally proposed it to Teddy Kennedy in place of a true national health system. Nixon, of all people!

Did Nader spoil Al Gore’s run for the presidency? Many say yes, strongly. Nader’s t-shirt makes it clear that at the very least he gloried in any distress that his campaign caused Democrats.

I have to ask: would things have gone differently if Gore was president? Or was Nader right, and it didn’t matter (short of a Trump-like loose cannon) who sat in the White House?

This post-911 tee demonstrates the public anger that Gore would have faced

The Twin Towers, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the devolution of personal privacy: would Gore as president have made matters play out differently, or would events have simply rolled him along a train track acceptable to the military/industrial/congressional complex? The same track that George W. Bush, his father’s son, would take as president?

It may be that whenever time comes to pick a leader who works in the people’s best interests, the real “spoiler” is the political system itself.

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