The media love to obsess over Ralph Nader. His campaign's often laughable attempts to gather signatures and get on the ballot in various states inspires plenty of amusing little articles here and there about what Republicans are helping him out and what Democrats are doing to stop him.
Truth is, Nader's not going to be much of a factor in this election, at least not to the extent that he was in 2000. Sure, more narrow margins of victory such as those in Florida, New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Iowa will show up in this election. But the closer we get to Election Day, the more apparent the differences between candidates will be, and the less influential Nader will become. (And accepting the nomination from the party that previously nominated ultraconservative Pat Buchanan further dents his credibility.)
But that's not a reason to make this a two-candidate struggle. Truth is, there's a third candidate - Libertarian Michael Badnarik - who, if he plays his cards right, can have a huge effect on the outcome of this election.
As most of the readers of this blog will know, Libertarians are a traditionally Republican constituency. They had been willing to put their differences on social issues on the back burner in favor of a unified front for smaller government and free-market values. It's always been a somewhat tenuous alliance, but the Republicans tended to be good enough at keeping government small to mollify Libertarians.
The importance of keeping Libertarians happy has completely escaped George W. Bush and the Republican leadership of the past four years. Since Bush took office, he has presided over an actual expansion of government. The tax cuts may have pleased Libertarians, but the new Medicare entitlement certainly didn't. Add to that the huge increase in defense spending, the immense deficit, and the civil liberties disasters of the past four years, and you have a lot of Libertarians who are annoyed at the Bush administration.
Enter Badnarik, who could learn a lot from Nader's 2000 run. In 2000, Nader recognized that the Democratic Party was giving very short shrift to the concerns of progressives. Recognizing that the 2000 election was going to be a close one, he set out to send a message to the Democrats by influencing the election - and succeeded. The Democratic Party of 2004 spent a lot more time mollifying progressives than it had in recent memory, and Kerry - though he's no progressive - has positioned himself well to the left of Gore and Clinton.
Badnarik could have that sort of effect on Republicans, who have become as complacent about Libertarian votes as the Democrats were about progressive votes in 2000. By running a campaign aimed at small-government conservatives and Libertarians in states like New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona, and Ohio, he could cost Bush the election. This will force Republicans to give Libertarians a more prominent voice in their party, and restore small-government ideas to the national debate. More importantly, it will give the Libertarian Party a national spotlight and some much-needed respect.
Badnarik could also go the other way if he wants. By emphasizing his peace credentials, he could probably siphon off enough progressive votes to swing the election to Bush. This probably wouldn't get Libertarian ideas into the Democratic Party mainstream, but it would still give the party its national spotlight.
The choice, then, is Badnarik's. A well-run Libertarian campaign could very well decide the presidential election - either way. The Libertarian Party, which has long dwelled on the margins of American politics, has an opportunity to make its voice heard louder than ever before. (They have an added advantage in that their candidate is finally not Harry Browne - Badnarik appears a hundred times more accessible.) And if not now for the Libertarians, when? Small-government ideas seem to be rapidly vanishing from the national debate - by 2008, the Libertarians will be even more marginalized if they don't take this chance.
Good luck, Mike.