Why not Ralph?

The political climate seems perfect for a Nader candidacy, but the nation's scold hasn't been able to give voters a compelling reason to say yes.


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Kerry Lauerman
October 6, 2000 3:10AM (UTC)

Ralph Nader is in and out of the fundraiser in under 20 minutes flat. Some dawdlers miss him entirely. No matter: They paid $100 a head to stand in this unadorned corporate suite in the Minneapolis Target Center, but the moon-eyed, largely 40-something crowd of about 100 or so doesn't seem at all put off by his glancing appearance.

Nader's good like this, breezing through a crowd. He sympathetically chats with a young man in a wheelchair who has come to talk about Gulf War Syndrome, and then jokes with a 30-year-old Republican stockbroker who came at the prodding of his lefty 22-year-old brother.

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"So why should I vote for you?" Andrew Kiernan, the bespectacled Paine Webber vice president, asks gamely.

"Well, because a vote for me is a vote for Bush," Nader says without a beat. Kiernan smiles appreciatively. It's a clever use of the Democratic machine's chief spin on the Nader candidacy. Joking aside, the specter of what a Nader vote will mean follows him around these days like a big, white Republican elephant.

Just ask Carla Kjellberg, an attorney who is active, she says, in the local "progressive community" and first in line to shake hands with the legendary agitator this evening, introducing him to her 8-year-old daughter, Jean. Fifteen minutes later, Kjellberg still glows. Standing by a modest food tray (lacking the maple-covered hemp seeds of a similar Nader fundraiser two days before), she talks warmly of how Nader's public advocacy helped shape her own career and activism.

"Nader has my politics. He has my politics," she says, repeating it much louder the second time, giggling as though she can't quite believe it.

So, she's planning to vote for Nader in November? Her voice suddenly stiffens. "I still don't know who I'm going to vote for," she says, speaking softly. Nader stands about 15 feet away, and she seems afraid he'll hear her.

"There's not much of a difference between Bush and Gore, I know. But Bush is evil," she says. "I mean, we could lose the Earth." And with that, and without warning, her eyes well up and she begins to cry.

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The Carol Kjellbergs of the world torment Ralph Nader these days.

Gathering below this antiseptic office suite, in the Target Center's main concourse, is an audience of 12,000 who have shown up to hear Nader and a lineup that includes recent campaign fixtures Phil Donahue and Michael Moore in what will be the election's largest paid political rally for any candidate -- a feat matched a week later at a Nader rally in Boston.

The huge crowds have yet to translate into poll numbers. He's improved some in the past week -- moving up to 4 percent from the dismal 1 percent showing among likely voters he had following Gore's fleeting post-convention bounce. It's still short of the heady 6 or 7 percent he had in July, though it's close to the 5 percent of the vote needed on Election Day for the Green Party to be eligible for federal funding in 2004 and, judged practically, for his third-party race to seem a success.

It'll be especially tough for Nader to gain much momentum now that he's been excluded from the presidential debates -- though getting tossed out of Tuesday night's matchup, even though he had a ticket to attend, might give him a mini sympathy bounce in the polls. But considering the current political climate -- unparalleled protests over globalization in the last year, Republican and Democratic nominees who have more in common than most siblings, even a consumer safety scandal (the Firestone/Ford debacle) in the headlines -- shouldn't consumer crusader and national conscience Ralph Nader be bringing in numbers closer to, say, Ross Perot's 19 percent in 1992? Why hasn't he caught on with a larger share of the liberal left?

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Afterward, sitting in the bowels of the Target Center, exhausted, his eyelids at half-mast and a crusty layer of spittle coating the edges of his mouth after his hour-plus speech, Nader says he must now urge people to vote their conscience, to "vote for what we really believe in instead of what we fear."

Liberals do seem terrified of Bush. But Nader also seems to miss a crucial reason why people vote: out of hope, not protest, wanting to vote for something. He hasn't quite figured out how to run for president, rather than national scold. So there are probably a lot of people out there like Kjellberg. Nader has made them plenty guilty about their ambivalence, but hasn't convinced them he deserves their vote -- yet.

The Nader event in Minneapolis is an excuse for every area bleeding heart to set up a booth at the Target Center: Women Against Military Madness, Minnesota School of the Americas Watch, Stop the War on the Poor, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Citizens Organized Acting Together, to name a few. Anybody who got all the way to the Compassionate Action for Animals booth, which played a video called "Meet Your Meat," showing graphic cow slaughters, could be forgiven for wanting to go rough up a puppy.

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If you believe Nader, his potential monster constituency includes the John McCain-Jesse Ventura axis of voters who are tired of politics as usual. But it's impossible to see Republican McCain backers enduring this scene -- or, for that matter, many of Nader's orthodox liberal social stands. (He's pro-gay "civil unions" for instance, and anti-death penalty.)

But lately, he's been put on the defensive by liberal groups that have closed ranks around Gore. The National Organization for Women and its president, Patricia Ireland, have claimed Nader doesn't make women's issues central enough to his campaign. Officially, while NOW lauds Nader for speaking about "issues other candidates are afraid to touch," it also wonders, "Is it possible for a candidate to be concerned with the widening void between rich and poor, but not gender inequality?"

One suspects NOW would answer that question "No." Among NOW's main gripes: that Nader failed to cite any "explicitly feminist issues, such as violence against women or reproductive freedom," when he formally announced his candidacy in February. (The number of times NOW's candidate, Al Gore, mentioned "explicitly feminist issues, such as violence against women or reproductive freedom," when he formally announced his candidacy June 16, 1999? Zilch.)

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NOW even takes swipes at Nader for his private wealth (which has what to do with women's issues?), stating: "Although Nader positions himself as the ally of everyday working class folks, when he recently disclosed his personal finances, it was revealed that he is worth $3.8 million." Meanwhile, it makes no mention of how Naders concerns over the abuses of the global economy, say, disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women. Or that Nader endorses NOW's platform.

NOW and Human Rights Campaign, the gay advocacy group, have both focused on Nader's statement in 1996 that he was "not interested in gonadal politics." The answer came after New York Times columnist William Safire asked whether he'd adopt the Green Party platform, since its support for same-sex marriage could help him in Northern California.

His comment is essential Nader -- ornery and iconoclastic, resisting the easy pander. He didn't say he opposed gay marriage, simply that he was not interested in signing on to a platform purely to appeal to one audience. Shouldn't that seem refreshing?

Nader is the only candidate who supports gay civil unions -- surely one of the top gay political issues today. And HRC is sticking with Gore, even taking the occasional jabs at Nader. HRC spokesman David Smith says Nader should be commended for his stand, but it's "not enough to waste your vote. Bush would be devastating." Smith even has qualms about Nader's support for civil unions, describing it as appearing "tentative" at times, and saying Nader offers "no ringing endorsement, nor moral argument," on behalf of gay issues. Then he repeats, as if on cue: "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

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Nader acts nonchalant about the potshots. "They're basically part of the Democratic Party apparatus, and they're frightened of George Bush, and they have lots of friends who are in politics," he says, before dropping into a little condescension. "They socialize with them and they are part of the Democratic Party. If that is the case, they are going to go after anyone who can take votes away from their hero, Al Gore."

He's right, of course. And that message has already trickled down to the worker bees. Mari Bonthuis, a political organizer for Minnesota NARAL, seems almost reluctant to be running the NARAL booth at the Target Center event. "I'm not dumb, I had a lot of Al Gore stuff that I left at home," she says. "I'm just here to sell buttons."

Nader, she says, "just doesn't say much about abortion." Besides, she says, Nader's reaction to criticism -- "I have been fighting for women's rights before Patricia Ireland knew the term" -- was "pretty demeaning" of Ireland. She, Bonthuis says, will be voting for Gore. A vote for Nader, she says, is a vote for Bush.

Traveling around the Midwest with Phil Donahue is like hitting Manhattan nightclubs with Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs: lots of smiles, doors always open, everyone wants to be your friend.

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Following the Nader campaign on a morning flight from Detroit to Minneapolis, I run into the Detroit airport needing to purchase a ticket that's already reserved, a switch from an earlier flight. There's an enormous line. The flight leaves in about 25 minutes. I ask Northwest Airlines' concierge, a heavyset man in a red uniform who does nothing more than stand around looking imperious, if there's anything I can do to expedite my ticket.

He doesn't even look me in the eye. "Everyone has to stand in line," he says, staring down the concourse at an imaginary priority.

A minute later, Donahue, who has been traveling with Nader for the last two days, joins me in the long line looking exasperated. He, too, had been booked on the wrong flight. It looks like we'll both be missing the trip with the Nader campaign, whose staffers by now have already breezed through the metal detectors and disappeared out of sight. Within seconds, the pudgy Northwest guy comes back to us grinning, saying "Follow me, gentlemen." I get my ticket in about three minutes, and the concierge tells me, warmly, not to even worry about paying the $400 upgrade.

It's been four years since Donahue left daytime television to live, for the most part, fairly quietly with his wife, "That Girl" and fellow celebrity liberal Marlo Thomas (though he's repeatedly stopped by fans asking if they're still together). In promoting Nader, Donahue seems to have been given the explicit purpose of shoring up Nader's liberal supporters. Certain issues -- women's rights, gay rights, surely -- received their first, and repeated, public airings on his show, and he hits those points hard. "He wants to get rid of 'don't ask, don't tell' and he wants to allow civil unions," Donahue stumps to a cheering crowd. "Ralph Nader on gay issues is perfect."

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Donahue talks about the importance of preserving a woman's right to choose, but doesn't dwell on it. Clad throughout the tour in a fuzzy sweater and khakis, Donahue is still the prototypical '80s sensitive guy. During each of his speeches, middle-aged women cry out for him during the high points -- calls for public financing of elections, less extreme drug enforcement policies and his opposition to a death penalty used to kill "retarded teenagers." He doesn't need to pander.

It's awkward to see this former talk-show host stump, even though he's always been an out-of-the-closet liberal. My extremely Catholic mother once said, after watching Donahue give a sympathetic interview with an atheist, I think maybe Madalyn Murray O'Hair, "He's just playing devil's advocate. " It was surely the willful disbelief of housewives everywhere.

But he seems a natural at boosting Nader, who had the distinction of appearing more times on "Donahue" (33) than any other guest. When he tells audiences that Nader is a "great American," he says it with the conviction only a trusted TV personality can. On the other hand, he's also able to poke fun at Nader and his rumpled image, savvy enough to know that it's part of his anti-chic chic.

"I mean, do we wish he would buy a light gray suit? Sure," he says. "And those shoes look like they're Russian army issue."

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If Donahue gives Nader an affable authority figure to accompany him on the trail, Moore provides the juvenile highjinks; and it's effective. In four speeches over two days the lineup is the same: Donahue, Moore and Nader. And during the swing through Michigan, the crowd goes wildest for Moore, whose message is more heartfelt and important than Donahue's. It's twofold: A) Vote your conscience; B) you can afford to, because Bush can't win.

In Michigan, Moore is an icon, and outside a packed auditorium in Ann Arbor, one coed brags about getting Moore's autograph before his buddy one-ups him: He's from Flint, Moore's hometown.

It takes Moore a few tries to get his speech down, but when he does, there are lovely, heartfelt moments. He taps into the optimistic spirit of the youths better than anyone else on this tour, hammering home that they need to vote their conscience and not sell out. "If you start now, as young adults," he says, "you are going to have miserable lives."

You'll settle for lousy jobs, he says, "you'll have shitty relationships. You'll be miserable and then your life will be over." The crowd goes crazy.

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Nader's strategy all week had been to try to assure his public that a vote for him would really not be a vote for Bush, going so far as to tell the New York Times that Gore's "going to do to Bush what Clinton did to Dole in 1996." It was a startling move -- actually conceding the race, in order to assuage his supporters' fears. Moore takes it further in his speeches -- much further -- telling the audience that Bush simply could not become president.

"I will grant you that a good 50 to 60 million of your fellow Americans are stupider than shit," he tells a packed crowd at Michigan State University, "and they're smart enough to see through" Bush.

"The man is a stone-cold idiot," Moore continued, to a mad chorus of cheers. "This podium I'm leaning against is smarter than George W. Bush."

Moore has the crowd frenzied when he's through, and after Nader takes over, the bedlam immediately dies. Sometimes, this works in his favor. Speaking quietly and slowly, Nader demands that his audience pay attention. He's not going to perform for them, but he'll tell them things he thinks they should know.

He usually brings a file folder or a scrap of paper up to the lectern with him that he glances down at occasionally, but they're mostly just props. He doesn't seem to give a speech as much as channel his outrage, and the results can be riveting.

This is especially true when contrasted against Bush and Gore. They squabble over which campaign finance loopholes should be closed; he wants elections to be publicly financed. They bicker over Medicare reform and prescription drug benefits; he demands universal healthcare. They posture over which can better continue to "grow" the economy; he thinks we should immediately pull out of NAFTA and the WTO.

He's opposed to much of what they're both for: the death penalty; even limited nuclear weapons use; bolstering the military. (Contrasted with their chest-thumpings, his call for a "lean military" sounds like heresy.) He opposes commercial logging on public lands, and doesn't like the current minimum wage; he prefers a "living" wage that grows along with the economy. He's unabashed and specific on his issues.

But in East Lansing, he proves trying on the audience. The campaign was 45 minutes late, Donahue and Moore are windy windup acts themselves and Nader has spoken for well over an hour. The audience sits rapt, and when it's over, they stand and applaud stoically. But there's no real excitement. He's given them plenty to be upset about, but little to look forward to.

As the public continues to see a close-up comparison of Bush and Gore, maybe Nader won't have to worry about the vision thing. He is truly a great American, single-handedly causing safety reform in the auto industry, helping blow the whistle on hundreds of cases of corporate and governmental corruption, and launching Public Citizen, 150,000-strong, the mother of all nonprofit watchdogs. Gore and Bush should fear having him in the debates: The comparison would be painful to both.

Perhaps he'll grab the coattails of voter discontent well past the magical 5 percent, even earning the "spoiler" label he's been so studiously avoiding. By the time the campaign rolled into Minneapolis, Nader was rethinking his strategy, no longer assuring anybody that Gore would win. Notably, Moore drops the "stone-cold idiot" bit about Bush from his stand-up.

Instead, he brings a spindly tree onstage with him. With it, he introduces Ficus, the write-in candidate behind Ficus 2000. It's a political campaign Moore is urging for congressional seats nationwide that boasts the platform: "The Ficus campaign has recaptured voters' imagination in a way no other candidate can, by offering a real choice: politician or potted plant."

Why vote for Ficus? "Ficus is a true outsider and a true reform candidate," its platform reads. "Ficus represents not only a new breed of politician but a new branch of government." Ba-dum-dum.

It's lively theater, and the crowd laughs uproariously as Moore smiles and takes in his latest, outrageous prank. But considering the stakes this night -- at an event meant to convince a supportive if skeptical audience that Ralph Nader is a viable alternative who deserves their vote -- it's an unfortunate choice.

The message: a protest vote, any protest vote, is better than what we've got. It's hilarious. It's also nihilistic, and ultimately empty. And on this night, it sends an inescapable message: A vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for a potted plant.


Kerry Lauerman

Kerry Lauerman is Salon's Editor in Chief. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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