Eight years ago in the Bush-Gore race, there were two election arguments that I heard often that now have resurfaced in the Obama-McCain contest as reasons to vote for third-party candidates.

One argument held that in states expected to be carried by, say, Al Gore, a voter should feel comfortable voting for, say, Ralph Nader. The second argument was that since the popular vote doesn’t matter in deciding U.S. elections, a vote could be cast for a third party in “safe” states with no harm done.

During this year’s campaign, I’ve heard similar arguments put forth mostly from voters on the Left though the logic would apply equally to voters on the Right.

The Left’s version of the argument goes this way:

It’s true that John McCain would be a disaster for the United States and the world, not only would he continue and likely expand George W. Bush’s wars in the Islamic world but he would appoint more Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts and Samuel Alito – and this right-wing court would gut the U.S. Constitution.

But, this Left argument continues, Barack Obama is far from perfect, more a Bill Clinton centrist than a Eugene Debs socialist (contrary to the speeches of John McCain and Sarah Palin). Plus, since Obama is expected to carry my state (or has no chance to win my state), I’m free to vote my conscience, say, Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney.

A Right version of this argument posits the grave danger of an Obama presidency (that he is a modern-day Eugene Debs, as McCain and Palin suggest), expresses misgivings about McCain as well, and ends up voting for the candidate of the Libertarians or some other right-wing third party.

The ethical problem with this voting argument is that it foists off on other voters the responsibility of stopping the candidate regarded as a disaster.

It assumes that other voters – who also may have qualms about the lesser-evil major-party candidate – will do the dirty work, voting for that imperfect candidate to stop the truly dangerous one.

So, the voter who casts a ballot for his favorite -- even if that vote may contribute to the election of the dangerous candidate -- may feel the satisfaction of fulfilling his/her political principles. But the vote also could be viewed as an exercise in elitism, of valuing one’s own purity over the duty, which is left to other folks, to stop the dangerous candidate.

Bush v Gore

While some Americans (especially on the Left) dismiss this moral argument as unfair – because it presses them into lesser-evil choices and discourages the emergence of third-party options – Election 2000 revealed the harm that can be done by voters putting purity over practicality.

To this day, many Nader supporters insist they bear no responsibility for the “election” of George W. Bush, that others are at fault: Gore because he couldn’t even win his home state of Tennessee; Bush operatives who suppressed the vote in Florida; the five Republican justices on the Supreme Court who handed the White House to Bush.

But the truth is that Nader hobbled Gore in two ways: first, by misleading voters with the claim that there was “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Bush and Gore, and second, by siphoning off Gore votes in Florida and elsewhere.

Simply put, if Nader voters had held their proverbial noses and voted for Gore, a Gore victory would have been much more likely, since Bush’s “victory” margin in the key state of Florida was only 537 votes and Nader recorded some 97,000 votes there.

And when one looks out over the grim wasteland of the past eight years – viewing Bush’s economic, environmental and geopolitical disasters – it’s hard not to conclude that Nader’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” slogan may have been one of the most deceptive claims in the history of American politics.

One can even envision a parallel reality – like Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” – if Gore had become President in 2001.

Regarding the Iraq War alone, some 4,100 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis might be alive today, and countless thousands might not be struggling through life with missing limbs or scarred bodies. Gore was one of the few national leaders who spoke out forcefully against Bush’s invasion.

On the environment, Gore – with his long commitment to issues like global warming – might have put the United States in the lead toward reducing greenhouse emissions and building a “green” economy. Instead, Bush’s eight years represent, at best, a lost opportunity to save the planet – and possibly the missed last opportunity.

Dissing the Popular Vote

Another election argument that I still hear is that the popular vote doesn’t matter, so there’s no harm in casting a ballot for a third-party candidate in states that are decisively red or blue, whether Republican Wyoming or Democratic California.

While this argument is technically true, in that the United States selects its President by electoral votes apportioned on a winner-take-all basis state by state, it nevertheless misses the moral and practical value of the popular vote.

A candidate who loses the popular vote yet manages to sneak into the White House through the back door of the anachronistic Electoral College, is – or should be – tainted since a democracy relies on the consent of the governed.

Ironically, in the final days of Campaign 2000, Republicans and their influential media allies, like Rush Limbaugh, planned to challenge Al Gore’s legitimacy if he had lost the popular vote – because of the Nader factor – but won the Electoral College. [For details, see Neck Deep.]

Of course, when the shoe ended up on the other foot – when Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 but Bush edged him out in the Electoral College – the Republicans reversed their moral outrage, accusing Gore of being a “Sore Loserman” and demanding that Democrats “get over it.”

But the Republicans succeeded in arguing Bush’s legitimacy because Gore’s half-million-vote plurality was not viewed as significant in the context of more than 100 million votes cast. Many mainstream news outlets treated the vote total as a virtual tie.

The narrowness of Gore’s plurality reduced the political pressure on the five Supreme Court Republicans – Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and William Rehnquist – who voted to stop the Florida recount and award the White House to George W. Bush.

That decision would have been a lot harder to justify – and would have risked a national uprising – if Gore had been the clear popular-vote winner by, say, two million votes.

In that case, O’Connor and Kennedy might have split from the three hard-line right-wing justices and sided with the four more moderate justices in allowing Florida to complete its recount. Based on a later news media review, Gore would have won Florida narrowly if all legally cast votes were counted. [Again, see Neck Deep for details.]

So, Election 2000 is a cautionary tale for those embracing similar voting arguments heading into Election 2008.

While some voters may view their ballot as a moment to exercise political purity, there is the countervailing concern about contributing to a real-life catastrophe.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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