The New Democrats may have outsmarted themselves.

A couple of months ago, the current Democratic Party leadership seemed to be firmly in control. The succession was orderly. The party's new ticket of "moderates" -- Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman -- gained momentum. If all went according to plan, President Lieberman would be wrapping up his second term in 2016.

The longstanding game plan kept boosting people who fervently embraced "the center." Why defend low-income mothers when you can brag about dumping them off the welfare rolls? Why make trouble for Wall Street when you can curry favor and rake in larger contributions? Why put a brake on the drug war when you can keep building prisons and filling them with more dark-skinned poor people?

Applauded by countless reporters and pundits, the New Democrats grabbed hold of the national party apparatus in 1992 and never let go. Journalists concluded that all the major policy issues within the Democratic Party had been settled. The mood was similar among most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill as they kowtowed to the party's hierarchy.

But in early November, there was outrage in elite circles. Leading Democrats and their fans in the media were appalled. In private, top party officials cursed the day Ralph Nader was born. In public, they dished out lots of honey and vinegar to recalcitrant voters on the left. The point, as usual, was to consolidate power.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The pundits who insisted that the Democratic Party must shed vestiges of the New Deal are accustomed to being contemptuous of progressive constituencies: Take them for granted! They have nowhere else to go! Throw them a bone once in a while, but don't hesitate to treat them like dogs! On Election Day, they'll come running.

The conventional media wisdom has been that Americans strongly opposed to inordinate corporate power were irrelevant. Now, they're incorrigible. And, in the prevailing media view, Nader is the most incorrigible of all.

"Nader Intends to Play Spoiler Role to the Hilt," a USA Today headline explained on the first day of November. The news article began by informing readers that Nader is "relishing his role as the potential spoiler in the presidential race."

Well, that's one way to depict Nader. But it would be at least as accurate to report that the Republican and Democratic candidates are "spoilers." They've never been willing or able to step outside a rotten big-money system that precludes basic reforms.

Back when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, no journalist had more reason to feel satisfaction than E.J. Dionne Jr., the Washington Post reporter whose book Why Americans Hate Politics had appeared the previous year -- with laudatory endorsements on the cover from media heavies Mark Shields, Cokie Roberts, William Schneider and Lesley Stahl.

Early in the decade, Clinton was fond of quoting the Dionne book in speeches and interviews. The president-to-be praised him as a "very gifted political writer." Most importantly, Clinton saw eye-to-eye with Dionne's centrist prescription, which called for politicians to develop "a new politics of the middle class, an approach that represents the ideals and interests of the great mass of Americans in the political and economic center."

Dionne maintained that "voters increasingly look for ways to protest the status quo without risking too much change." In effect, it was a call to better choreograph an elaborate shell game that would do little to rearrange the nation's distribution of economic and political power. When Clinton echoed Dionne, much of the national press corps seemed delighted.

Like many of his colleagues at major media outlets, this fall Dionne sounded mournful about the failure of Nader supporters to fall in line behind Gore. In a recent syndicated column, Dionne lamented "the agony for Gore in the closing week of this campaign" -- as a result of "tensions in the Democratic coalition that most Democrats thought they'd resolved."

But key issues of economic inequity and social justice -- including the further centralization of power in huge conglomerates -- were never really settled. They were just suppressed by New Democrats in command of the party. Now, their finely woven schemes may be unraveling.

A week before the election, Gore denounced Bush for supporting "class warfare on behalf of billionaires." It was an apt description of the Texas governor, who is a complete shill for corporate interests. But Gore is the loyal vice president in an administration that has presided over escalating economic inequality. During the 1990s, Americans with financial assets gained wealth. Those who merely worked for a living slipped farther behind.

Rhetoric, of course, is much less important than policy. In practice, Bush's class warfare from the top down is more extreme than Gore's -- but both men have been eager tools of the rich and powerful. Perhaps the nation's media establishment can cope with the shock of seeing millions of Americans vote for Nader because they want a fundamentally different kind of society.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.