Meanwhile, Waiting in the Wings…

… did anyone else see Ralph Nader on Real Time with Bill Maher last week?

It was an interesting interview. Maher asked Nader point blank if he was going to run for President again this year; it’s a fair question, since he has launched an exploratory committee and is accepting contributions toward a potential candidacy, though he hasn’t made any public statement that he is planning on running (yet).

Nader’s answer to Maher’s question was fascinating in its coyness. He was considering a run, he told Maher, but he wanted to be sure to weigh all the variables before he made any decisions. That, he said, was why he wouldn’t be announcing his decision for another two or three weeks — but when that time was up, he’d let everybody know what he’d decided.

I call this coy because the surface explanation (needing to weigh the variables) is clearly bullshit. Nader has done this before, he knows what’s involved, he knows what he’d be getting into (a lost cause and a world of hate from progressives everywhere). So I don’t buy that he’s going to spend these next few weeks searching his soul.

The more I thought about it, though, the more another possible explanation made sense to me: he’s waiting to see who the Democratic nominee is going to be.

Think about it. In a few weeks we’ll probably have a pretty good idea of who the winner in the delegate sweepstakes is going to be. Even if early primaries like those on Feb. 3 don’t decide things, odds are that Super Tuesday — March 2 — will, and that’s only four weeks away.

So — picture this. Nader’s thinking that he’s going to sit on the sidelines until Super Tuesday and watch how things develop. If the eventual nominee is someone he likes, he comes forward and says that he’s thought it over and decided not to run. If the nominee is someone he doesn’t, he says that he’s thought it over and decided to go ahead. If that’s the case, he makes a big media splash and damages the credibility of that nominee.

Now, I don’t think that this time around a Nader candidacy would pull nearly as many votes as it did in 2000 — the stakes are much higher, and too many left-leaning voters fall into the ABB category (Anyone But Bush) to give up on a remotely plausible Democratic nominee in favor of a Quixotic third-party campaign. But all the indications are that the electorate is still closely divided, so every vote the Democrats lose to a Nader candidacy will hurt.

So, if this is what Nader is thinking, the $64,000 question is: which Democrats would Nader consider “good enough” to convince him to stay out? Nader has had praise in the past for Dean and Kucinich, so those two probably make the list. I’d go out on a limb and say that he could possibly be convinced by Edwards, too; I would think Edwards’ background as a trial lawyer known for fighting corporations would count for something with Nader (though presumably his votes for the war and the PATRIOT Act wouldn’t). A Kerry, Lieberman, or (maybe) Clark nomination could be the trigger for Ralph to throw his hat back into the ring.

So, would this be a Good Thing? Clearly not. The last thing we need is another internecine split as in 2000. I can see Nader’s strategic thinking — this is probably the only way for him to wield influence over the nominating process, now that he’s become The Man Who Elected Dubya President — but I really, really hope that it doesn’t go any further than that.