Word that Ralph Nader will formally announce his plan to run for president this weekend as an independent stirred harsh words and emotions not just among Democrats, but even among the leftists and independents who supported Nader four years ago. Facing an election that they regard as the most crucial in decades, they're stunned and angry that Nader has decided to reprise his third-party candidacy from 2000, which played such a crucial role in siphoning votes away from then Vice President Al Gore and handing the election to George W. Bush.
"It's hypocrisy of the highest level. It's egotism of the highest level. It's dishonesty of the highest level to say 'I'm running as an independent,' when all he's doing is helping elect Bush, and he knows it," says Elizabeth Holtzman, former New York City congresswoman and U.S. district attorney. "He's nothing but a shill for George Bush. A shill, period."
Another Nader candidacy "would be bad for him, and it would be bad for the country," says Danny Goldberg, founder of Artemis Records and longtime political activist. "My wife and I hosted a fundraiser for him in 2000. I was proud to do it. I think he's one of the great people of the last century. But I certainly wouldn't support him this time. His candidacy will tarnish his image and help the president. In my view that's unhealthy."
Even some of Nader's closest progressive allies have their doubts. "I love and appreciate him, but I definitely want to get Bush out of office, so I won't vote for him, which would be a first for me," says Medea Benjamin, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate from California in 2000. She says it's good that Nader is not running as a Green Party candidate, because it will allow someone else within the organization to gain national attention as a presidential candidate.
The drumbeat from the left urging Nader not to run had been growing louder and louder in recent weeks. Mark Green, Nader's longtime New York City political ally and recent candidate for mayor, talked to Nader several times during the last month trying to dissuade him from running again. (Green is currently chairman of the Kerry for President campaign in New York State.)
In its Feb. 16 issue, the leftist Nation magazine ran an open latter to the trailblazing consumer advocate, urging him, "For the good of the country, the many causes you've championed and for your own good name -- don't run for president this year. The context for an independent presidential bid is completely altered from 2000, when there was a real base for a protest candidate."
Most of the left's anger against Nader stems from the historically close 2000 election. There were, as defensive Nader supporters like to point out, a number of reasons that Gore lost to Bush, including his own flawed campaign, the Florida voting debacle and the intervention of five Supreme Court justices, but it is incontestable that if Nader had not run, Al Gore would be president today. Insisting there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between Bush and Gore and campaigning in crucial swing states, Nader cost Democrats the White House. In Florida, for instance, where the vote recount was halted by the Supreme Court, Bush edged Gore by just 537 votes. Nader, running as the Green Party candidate, garnered nearly 100,000 votes in the Sunshine State.
Notes one New York City Democratic pollster: "The view of people on the left, people who are actively involved in unions and environmental groups, is they don't know how he sleeps at night."
Characteristically, Nader rejects blame for playing a spoiler role in 2000, and dismisses his critics. "They should stop their chronic whining and look inside [at] why they lost the election to a bumbling governor from Texas with a terrible record," he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last month.
In recent weeks Nader's been sounding like a likely candidate. This month he spoke to students at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y., telling them, "I think the American people want more voices, more choices. I think they want more ideas, more solutions, a more exciting presidential debate, and if I do run, I promise to give them that."
Still, grass-roots activist organizations started up by Nader have been badly hurt by the 2000 backlash, and may have to brace for more public outrage when Nader announces his run on NBC's "Meet the Press" this Sunday. Public Citizen, perhaps the best-known organization founded by Nader, may remove Nader's name from the organization's letterhead if he runs again, according to the Journal. The group lost 20 percent of its members after the 2000 election, while its contributions fell by nearly $1 million.
Asked about the implications of Nader's 2004 run, Public Citizen sent Salon this statement: "Public Citizen had no role whatsoever in Mr. Nader's political campaign in 2000. Ralph Nader has not been formally associated with Public Citizen for over 20 years. Ralph Nader founded Public Citizen in 1971, but he has not held an official position in the organization since 1980 and does not serve on the Board."
The question now is what to do about Nader's candidacy. Benjamin says it would be wrong to try to shut it down. "Those of us in progressive politics have always been against silencing alternative views, so it would be hypocritical to try to silence Ralph Nader."
"He's trying to do something courageous," adds Ross Mirkarimi, who was director of Nader's California campaign in 2000. "He's trying to transcend electoral barriers that exist for third party candidates."
Benjamin says Nader will not run the same campaign he did in 2000, when he stressed the similarities between Democrats and Republicans, a move that still rankles many on the left. "He'll talk about how bad the Bush administration is and he'll add to the anti-Bush sentiment," she says. "It could be a win-win. Ralph gets his message out, he makes the Democrat look like the moderate, he beats up on Bush, and he's strategic about where he campaigns by staying away from the swing states."
For many progressives, though, the damage Nader did in 2000, and their burning focus on removing Bush, all but rules out any future support for him. "I understand why he's frustrated with the Democratic Party and wants to raise issues in the election. But we need to make responsible, intelligent decisions," says Goldberg. "I realize only a small fraction of people who supported him last time would do so again. And he'd be much less of a problem. But it's aggravating. And he's going to screw up his reputation by doing something like this. I'd rather have him as a fierce advocate on important issues, instead of someone whose credibility is tarnished."