Milbank: Is Jill Stein the Ralph Nader of 2016?

Dana Milbank
On Twitter @Milbank
Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee, favors alternative energy — and she leads by example. On Tuesday, she burned one of her own supporters.

Stein, making an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, took her campaign on an unexpected detour when she accused the famed leftist Noam Chomsky of being cowardly. The 87-year-old icon of the left, though a backer of Stein's, has said that the only "rational choice" for swing-state voters is to support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

"How do you get past that hurdle?" Sam Husseini from VotePact, a group that supports third parties, asked Stein from the audience.

The candidate, in reply, accused Chomsky of embracing "this politics of fear that tells you (you) have to vote against what you're afraid of rather than for what you truly believe. So, Noam Chomsky has supported me in my home state, you know, when he felt safe to do so. I think it's fair to say my agenda is far closer to his than Hillary Clinton. But he subscribes to the politics of fear."

If opposing Trump is subscribing to the politics of fear, then put me down for a lifetime subscription.

In ordinary times, a voice such as Stein's contributes to the national debate. But these are not ordinary times. Trump's narrow path to the presidency requires Stein to do well in November, and polls indicate Trump does better with her in the race. But, 16 years after Ralph Nader helped swing the presidency to George W. Bush from Al Gore, liberals (including Bernie Sanders supporters) who otherwise agree with Stein are more inclined to recognize that she makes more likely the singular threat of a President Trump.

That's why, even in this year of change, she's polling about 3 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. And that, in turn, is why only about half of the 20 seats were full when I arrived in the Press Club's Bloomberg Room (even the Green Party nominee can't escape those billionaires) a few minutes before her news conference.

There is much to like about Stein, 66. She arrived by cab and took all questions — in marked contrast to Clinton, who has gone more than 260 days without a news conference. Stein spoke with a passion for policy, remarking unbidden on the plight of the "Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota" and speaking with a physician's authority about "air pollution and its various sequelae."

"We have a climate emergency," said Stein, "an absolutely devastating sea-level rise that would essentially wipe out coastal population centers, including the likes of Manhattan, and Florida" in 50 years. She called this "a Hail Mary moment," and one in which "we're really looking our mortality in the face."

Stein offered a refreshing break from the 2016 debate, which ricochets from Clinton's emails to Trump's outrages and staff shake-ups but rarely settles on substance. "Our future is imperiled," she said. "There are more important things for us to be talking about."

But a moment later, there Stein was saying Clinton "put at risk" national security and the names of CIA agents. Stein said Clinton's character is "not compatible with someone that you want to trust as the leader of the country." She continued to talk this way about Clinton with reporters in the hallway after the session, which naturally led to headlines not about climate change but along the lines of this from David Weigel's article in The Washington Post: "Jill Stein: Clinton emails reveal security risks, 'special deals' for donors."

Stein complained about the 15 percent polling threshold keeping her and Libertarian Gary Johnson out of the presidential debates. But can she expect more than her 3 percent when she talks of boycotting Israel, spreads unwarranted fears about vaccines and WiFi, and has a running mate — Ajamu Baraka — who called President Obama an Uncle Tom?

Most disturbing is the Green Party nominee's creation of a phony equivalence between Clinton, a flawed and unloved but conventional candidate, and Trump, who is running a campaign of bigotry, xenophobia and intimations of violence.

"Donald Trump says terrifying things. Hillary Clinton actually has an extremely troubling record," Stein said Tuesday, calling the Democrats the "party of fracking," the "party of expanding wars" and the "party of immigrant deportations."

This is the sort of stuff I heard driving between campaign stops with Nader in 2000. It wasn't entirely true then. Now, with Trump on the ballot, any attempt to draw parallels between the two parties is preposterous.

Noam Chomsky knows that. It appears voters do, too.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.