Raymond Chandler once said that the best way to get a stalled plot moving was to have a guy come through the door with a gun. As the primaries move towards week eight, with the possibility that a reasonable performance by Hillary would kick them into another month – to Pennsylvania in April, the last big state – and then to a state-by-state competition for every last delegate, at which point both candidates and observers will pass out from a mixture of boredom, exhaustion and enervation.

Though the powers-that-be are hitting the campaign with everything they have to keep it rolling – an artfully constructed near non-story on a possible McCain s-x scandal, a meeting Obama once attended that was also attended by former members of 60s urban guerrilla group The Weathermen – nothing’s really been firing.

Comes the hour, comes the man, with Ralph Nader announcing his candidacy on Sunday’s Meet The Press, one of the few programmes that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being shouted at in a lift by a 55-year-old divorced man with a urinary tract infection on his way to a tax audit. Nader is running as an independent for the second time – in 2000 he ran on the Green ticket, in 2004 as an independent with endorsement of the Reform party (whose previous candidate was the hard-right Pat Buchanan). Now he seems to have Green backing without official endorsement.

The Republicans have greeted the candidacy with glee, Democrats with dismay. The latter still believe that Nader’s 2000 candidacy cost Al Gore the election, with the close Florida result. Nader’s point has always been that Gore’s campaign was so centrist, lacklustre and presumptuous that he couldn’t take a brace of states which Clinton had held in ’96 – and also that without an organised candidate to the left of them, the Democrats would take that vote utterly for granted. If, as Nader has remarked this time round, the Democrats can’t win against a perpetual war candidate who promises more of the same, then they should “wrap it up and re-emerge in a different form”.

Whether the GOP are on the money seems highly dubious. Nader’s 2000 candidacy took 3% of the vote – the standard percentage that leftist third parties take whenever they emerge. From 1900 to the 1920s, the Socialist Party took 3% of the presidential vote – sometimes with their candidate campaigning from prison – and though the class composition of that vote was very different from the kaleidoscope coalition Nader grooves on, the political intent is the same. It’s the vote of those who simply won’t accept that the Democrats as the lesser of two evils, when so many of their policies are tilted directly against the interests of the people they purport to represent. A century ago in Australia and the UK those people jumped ship from liberalism and formed Labour parties. The fact that this never took off in the US is the reason why, in America, you can hold down a full-time job and still, easily, be perpetually homeless, without health insurance or pension plans.

Nader’s perpetual campaigns are, in that sense, atavistic: an endless restaging of the failure of American radicalism to establish its own political agency. By now, the working class that would form the base of such a party is so fractured – a car worker (those that remain) can pull in $US100,000+, the waitress who serves him coffee lives on a base $3-$4/ph + tips (and the tips are taxed) – and so overridden with ideology about self-reliance etc etc that forming and holding even the most moderate alliance is close to impossible.

Whether this has a wider political purpose is debatable – what can be said is that it is utterly pointless, electorally. After the 2000 result, and faced with a lacklustre establishment candidate like John Kerry, left candidates, including Nader, could muster less than 1% of the vote. Nader argues that there is a new desire for truly independent candidates, saying things hitherto unsaid, hence his candidacy. Yet he has to deal with the fact that, for many people, Obama is that independent candidate, someone outside the system, speaking a different language. Nader is right to point out that it is bollocks of course – policy-wise, Obama is a centrist candidate, with the image and rhetoric of a revolutionary. But my suspicion is that most of those smart enough to see through his act are also smart enough to see the continuing futility of splitting the progressive vote. Nader will do better than ’04, but he won’t break 1%.

Nevertheless that may still be enough to sink Obama if the race comes close. Polls at the moment indicate that he’s running around 50-44 against McCain, but that will come way in. Many Democrat supporters are getting more terrified everyday, as Obama’s apparent lack of argumentative and debating skills becomes apparent. Everything this man says off the cuff, in response, in debate – everything that is not, as Nader has noted, in the “liberal evangelist” mode – is so lacklustre, p-ssweak, unfocused and above all diffident, that at times it amounts to car-crash television, the sort of thing you watch through parted fingers.

In last week’s Texas CNN debate Hillary once again had him on the ropes in terms of argument, command of detail and sheer mental toughness – but all to no avail. She is being slated by the commentariat for sticking with the plagiarism non-issue – her gag about Obama offering “change you can Xerox” falling achingly flat – but what else could she do? She’s campaigning like Howard at this stage, aware that a tsunami is running against her, looking for any possible way to stem the tide. But if Obama’s poor debate, soundbite etc performance can’t do it then nothing can. She’s just vamping, hoping desperately he shot two crack dealers in the head, circa 1996, and that this will hit the wires March 3.

Thing is, even in the general election, it may not matter much of Obama gets pasted again and again by McCain – his very diffidence may be taken as a mark that he’s outside the system, as tentative and unburdened with assumptions as the atomised and disconnected masses he’s drawing back into politics. Quite possibly his very inarticulateness is a sort of political judo, to make everyone else look slick. He needs no favours from Nader or anyone else.

Mind you, if Nader has bestowed any gifts on anyone, it’s McCain – who is now no longer the oldest dog in the race. President Nader would be 74 a few weeks after taking office in ’09.

So why does he sound younger than anyone else in the game? And is he the hero or the villain?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey