AUSTIN, Texas -- As Gen. George Patton said of war, "God help me, but I love it so." I realize that the only people in America having a good time right now are political reporters, but we haven't had this much fun since Grandpa fell in the fish pond. What could be more exciting than David Broder and Tom Oliphant trading thoughts on whether a heavy black voter turnout in north Florida will make all the difference?

OK, Nader voters. Let's talk.

I'm voting for Ralph. I'm voting for Nader because I believe in him, admire him and would like to see his issues and policies triumph in our political life. I'm also voting for him because I live in Texas -- where all 32 electoral votes will go to George W. Bush even if I stand on my head, turn blue and vote for Gus Hall, the late communist.

I know that many of my fellow Nader voters are young people and probably don't want to hear from a geriatric progressive. (We had to walk three miles through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways.) But I have learned some things just from hanging around this long, and with your permission, I will pass them on.

When I was your age, I was, I suspect, far angrier than most of you. Some people I loved died in Vietnam -- it was an ugly, bad, nasty time. We'll not go into it again, but in 1968, I could not bring myself to vote for Hubert Humphrey. So I helped elect Richard Nixon president by writing in Gene McCarthy; and if you ask me, 30 years on, it's hard to think of a worse turn I could have done my country.

Nixon was a sorry, sick human being, with a gift for exploiting lower-middle-class resentment, envy and bigotry for his own political purposes. This country remains a nastier place today because of Nixon.

None of that has any particular relevance to the election in 2000. Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy, and George W. Bush is no Richard Nixon. What's more relevant here is my 40 years' experience in Texas electoral politics.

Not to Texas-brag, but we are No. 1 in the art of Lesser Evilism. I have voted for candidates so putrid that it makes your teeth hurt to think about 'em. Why? Because they were better than the other guy.

So here you are, trying to spot that fine hairsbreadth of difference between the sanctimonious Gore and the clueless Bush, ready to damn both of them in favor of a straight shooter like Nader. Here's the problem: Government matters most to people on the margins. If I may be blunt about this, we live in a society where the effluent flows downhill. And the people on the bottom are drowning in it.

And it is precisely those citizens -- whose lives sometimes literally depend on the difference between a politician who really does have a plan to help with the cost of prescription drugs and one who is only pretending that he does -- whose lives can be harmed by your idealism.

The size of a tax cut doesn't matter to people in the richest 1 percent. They're in Fat City now; they don't need more money. But the size of a tax cut makes a real difference to Bush's oft-cited example of the single mom with two kids making $22,000 a year.

When you are barely making it in this society, hanging on by your fingernails, with every unexpected expense a crisis, it matters which is the lesser of two evils.

I know it's hard for young people to envision age or illness, or the sick feeling of frantic despair when your old wreck of a car finally dies (it always does this in traffic) and will not start again. People who work two and even three jobs to support their kids get so tired -- you can't imagine how tired -- and guilt and depression and anxiety all pile on, too. The difference between Gore and Bush matters to those folks.

This is an old argument between radicals and liberals; sometimes I'm on one side, and sometimes I'm on the other. In the primaries, I vote to change the world; in November, I vote for a sliver more for programs that help the needy.

I do not believe that things have to get worse before they can get better. I think you will find that most mothers object to the idea that you would deliberately do something to make a child's life worse in order to bring about some presumed greater good in the long run. I believe that the best can be the enemy of the better. I believe in taking half a loaf, or even a slice.

And how do we ever change the whole rotten system at that speed? Brick by brick, child by child, slowly, toward liberty and justice for all. The urgent, crucial need right now is to fix the money in politics. It can be done, it will be done, it is being done, and we will get better politics.

In Texas, we'll vote for Nader and a perfect world. You swing-state progressives need to make the hard choice -- but you're not making it just for yourselves. Good luck to you all.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.