Despite nagging evidence to the contrary, Ralph Nader is basically a smart guy.
Certainly he's aware of the damage he wrought in 2000 by taking enough votes from Al Gore to hand the presidency to George W. Bush. So, you would assume he would never again gamble with the nation's highest office.
But Nader is back, telling anyone with a microphone that he'd like a clutch of Democrats, perhaps a half-dozen, to challenge President Obama for the 2012 nomination. Nader doesn't plan to run himself; in fact, he claims he doesn't want any of his Trojan candidates to actually win the nomination.
All he wants is a good brawl in the form of pre-convention debates.
As evidenced by each of Nader's three failed campaigns for the presidency, there are elements in his progressive agenda that would benefit the country. His frustration over President Obama's inability to push back against the Republican-controlled Congress is shared by many Democrats who helped elect Obama in 2008.
"I just want all these liberal, progressive agendas to be robustly debated," explained Nader. "Otherwise, there will be a de facto blackout of their discussion" during next year's campaign.
Strategically, Nader has much in common with Michele Bachmann. As the darling of the Tea Party, she is ostensibly running for president while beating the drum for the group's ultra-right brand of conservatism.
For the party seeking to regain the White House that makes some sense — as long as GOP activists rally around the eventual candidate.
But among Democrats, an exercise like Nader envisions would be a circus, and a destructive one at that. The goal, after all, is retaining the White House while hoping that Republicans lose at least some of their muscle in the House. It serves no purpose to confront the president with a progressive agenda — much of which he personally subscribes to — that has no chance of succeeding on Capitol Hill.
The only certain result of such a process is that Republicans would have an arsenal of new video clips to use against Obama in the 2012 campaign.
As Nader's own foolhardy efforts in the past have proved, there is no room for third-party candidates in the modern presidential system. They can't be elected; they only siphon votes from their own side and push undecided voters in the wrong direction.
Compounding Nader's mischief is the fact that he is joined by the noted Princeton professor, Cornell West, an influential voice among African Americans, who has called the president, "a black puppet of corporate plutocrats."
Vermont's crusading socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders, also favors a challenge to Obama, as does the Ohio maverick, Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Despair among progressives is understandable, but what's the alternative? President Rick Perry?
What this flap reminds us is that it's one thing to articulate policy in the abstract, and quite another thing to make it work in the real world of partisan politics — especially the form that has overrun Washington like an out-of-control virus.
That's not to say progressives should become mute and stop articulating the grander visions. But it should not be done as a direct challenge to the party's leader, who is also its certain nominee.
Recent polls show that 40 percent of voters identify themselves as "moderate." President Obama needs to woo them, whether progressives like it or not. Republicans, meanwhile, will be hurt by the deepening fissure within their ranks, and the last thing Democrats need is to replicate that condition.
If Ralph Nader is as smart as he thinks he is, he'll start campaigning for Obama and retreat from a plan that represents the nadir of foolishness.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He is also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.