The other guy Democrats love to hate

In an interview with Salon, Ralph Nader rejects the spoiler label and says Democrats "need to stop their whining and go to work."


Sandeep Kaushik
April 13, 2004 2:49AM (UTC)

Though he failed last Monday to draw enough supporters to make the Oregon ballot, Ralph Nader is determined to run a full-bore independent campaign in swing states, whatever the consequences. And if his comments to Salon are any indication, he intends to bash the Democrats along the way.

With his February announcement that he would mount a third bid for the presidency, this time as an independent, consumer advocate Ralph Nader cemented his status as the other guy the Democrats love to hate. But it's not just Democrats that question his motives. With the 2004 presidential election shaping up as an apocalyptic, scorched-earth showdown between two major parties vying for the allegiance of an evenly (and deeply) divided country, Nader's decision elicited an explosion of anger in many of the liberal and progressive circles from which Nader drew his past support.

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It is not that Nader's message has lost its relevance to progressives. His thundering denunciations of creeping corporatism, his characterization of the Iraq invasion as an imperialist war of choice sold to an unsuspecting public on a platform of outright mendacity, and his calls for major reforms of healthcare, labor and trade policies all ring true. It is his proposed solution to those problems, and his contention that there is not much substantive difference between Democrats and Republicans, that has caused so much consternation among "anybody but Bush" liberals. Perversely, he seems angrier at the Democrats than he does at the Republicans. For those who don't share Nader's scorn for the Democratic Party, the very palpable fear after three years of Bush-style "compassionate conservatism" is that this election could turn out to be a reprise of 2000, where in at least two states, Nader, running under the Green Party banner, siphoned off enough votes from Al Gore to throw the election to George Bush.

To all outward appearances, Nader remains unperturbed by the negative reaction. In making his announcement, he called on "the liberal intelligentsia" to "relax and rejoice" over his decision, claiming that he would aid the Democrats by opening a second front against Bush. He has said, counterintuitively, that he intends to draw more votes from disaffected Republicans and Independents than from Democrats. He has claimed he will keep the Democrats honest, pushing them to embrace badly needed reforms they might otherwise ignore.

Still, the conundrum for Nader is that the only way he can avoid irrelevance is by at least threatening to play the spoiler's role, thus forcing Democrats to take him and his message seriously. To this end, he categorically rejects entreaties not to run in swing states. Oregon, for example, where Nader garnered 5 percent of the vote in 2000, was a state Gore carried by less than 6,800 votes. That Nader can actually reprise his 2000 results, however, is unlikely. In his first high-profile campaign swing, a visit to Seattle and a ballot-access nominating convention in Portland last week, Nader suffered a significant setback, falling well short of the 1,000 supporters he needed to attain the Oregon ballot immediately. Only 741 registered voters came out in Portland -- a city where he drew 10,000 to a rally in 2000 -- a telling indication of the diminished enthusiasm for Nader's run.

But despite that tepid turnout, early polling shows that Nader once again holds the potential to undercut John Kerry in key toss-up states that the Democrats must win to have any chance of unseating Bush. He is clearly determined to make the ballot in at least the 43 states he contested in 2000, and ballot access experts believe he is likely to succeed. That this is a real problem for Democrats has not been lost on Republicans -- at least some of the money coming into Nader's coffers are donations from prominent Bush supporters.

Salon sat down with Nader last Monday in Seattle to ask him about his seemingly quixotic campaign. He defended his decision to run and blasted the Democratic Party as a decaying institution unwilling to champion progressive reforms. He called on his critics to "stop whining," flatly rejected the contention that he is a spoiler, and said that liberals are "so freaked out" by Bush that they have failed to ask anything of Democratic nominee John Kerry.

In the wake of the 2000 election, a lot of people blamed you for Al Gore's defeat. Why do you reject that contention, particularly in light of the fact that Florida and New Hampshire, for example, were two states where your presence on the ballot shifted the outcome from Gore to Bush?

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First of all, I think Gore did win Florida. So blundering is the Democratic Party that they didn't catch the shenanigans of Katherine Harris before the election, like falsely designating tens of thousands of Floridians ineligible to vote. Then during the voting itself they lost 250,000 registered [Florida] Democrats to Bush. You'd think they'd be concerned about that. Plus, they were abandoned by the Democratic mayor of Miami who had a tiff with the Democratic Party and sat out the election. And then afterward they didn't ask for a full state recount. It's one thing to blame the Greens, but now they're blaming the Greens for not having retrospective clairvoyance to know that the election was stolen from them by the Republicans.

What about the Democratic claim that you're playing the spoiler again this year?

The Democrats should stop their whining and go to work. Stop whining. If we all have an equal right to run, no one would use the word "spoiler." If we all have the right to run, everyone's a spoiler. Everyone's trying to get more votes than everyone else. So the use of the word "spoiler" to a third-party candidate is a scarcely veiled designation of second-class citizenship to the candidate. Which of course is what the two parties have always legislated. They want third-party and independent candidates out. They have all kinds of barriers state after state. But that doesn't mean the rest of us should adopt that classification. Especially since in our history some of the greatest reforms were led by third parties: abolition of slavery, women's right to vote, the trade union movement.

Say we agree with your critique of the Democratic Party. They're whiners, they misplayed their hand, Al Gore was an execrable candidate but should have won handily. Nevertheless he would still be president if you hadn't been running. Isn't that a valid claim?

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Well, look, I would have got more votes if [Gore] didn't run either, if the Democrats didn't run. So you come back to the equality issue. You constantly come back to the equality issue. If you want to talk substance, neither of the parties is responding to so many of the needs of the American people as they are responding to the greed of big corporations whose executives are funding their election campaigns. Let's step into the area of substance for a moment. When the Democrats say, "Don't you think there's a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans?" And I say, "Well, tell me."

The Democrats are entirely defined by how bad the Republicans are, not by how good the Democrats are. Not that they're breaking new, pioneering areas in representing the public interest and the nation's interest and the consumer and the worker's interest. No! They stay static, just static enough to keep raising money from all these commercial interests. And then the Republicans can always be relied upon to become worse. So they define themselves by how bad the Republicans are instead of how good they should be, in an ever-evolving fashion. So here's what happens: Today the Democratic Party is far worse than it was 40 years ago, far worse than it was 30 years ago. Worse than it was 20 years ago. It's all been decaying ever since.

But when you look at the surprising success of, say, Howard Dean's candidacy -- and admittedly, it flamed out -- doesn't that indicate that the Democratic Party has come to its senses in a way that wasn't apparent in 2000 or even 2002? Do you see that at all? Do you see any kind of substantive change in the Democratic Party in the last three years?

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Rhetorically it was very promising in the primaries among some candidates. But you see that it has now turned into a temporary flurry as the corporate Democrats and the DLC and the Washington Democrats take over the party from the insurgents -- Howard Dean and the smaller candidates, most prominently Dennis Kucinich. They had their little flirtation with progressive rhetoric. Some of it was very good. There were times when I thought Howard Dean was plagiarizing my statements of 2000 about corporate power.

But ultimately you believe that the end result is that the Democrats are back at the same place they were a couple of years ago.

Yes, there doesn't seem to be that much difference.

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There's been talk that you will sit down with John Kerry in the next month. Is that meeting going to happen, and what would you like to see come of that? What would you like to say to John Kerry?

I've already met with Howard Dean. Yes, I'm going to meet with John Kerry. We're going to talk about how we can collaborate to beat George W. Bush while we remain competitors of sorts.

You do hope to push John Kerry in a progressive and leftward direction. What specific things would you like to see him do or say?

Well, I'd like to see him become very specific on national health insurance. I would like to see him adopt a single-payer plan as proposed by the Physicians for National Health Insurance, a group of 10,000 physicians -- it's all in the New England Journal of Medicine. Second, we're going to push him more on energy, to be specific on solar and renewable energy with objective targets that should be maintained. Third, I think he's got to go up on his minimum wage. And fourth, he's got to deal with the globalization issue, which he voted for, NAFTA and the WTO. Those are some of the things.

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When you announced you were running in February, there was a paroxysm of anger, even rage, from progressives who felt you were making the wrong decision. Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, Jim Hightower, the Nation, Jimmy Carter, Howard Dean -- all of them questioned why you were running. How do you respond to their criticisms?

Yeah, well, there's an epidemic of low expectations by Democrats toward the Democratic Party. Except for Noam Chomsky. He has a different reason. His reason is that this is such a fanatic, messianic, militaristic regime that, in his words, it could take us over the cliff globally. So he has a different scale of operating. The problem with the Democratic Party is expressed exactly in the comments that you just referred to from the Nation, from Jim Hightower. I mean if you read Jim Hightower's latest book, you'd run out and run against the Democrats. That's how devastating his critique is. So why is he saying that he doesn't think I should have run? Because his expectation levels are much different than mine. I have a higher estimate of the voters in this country. [That they are] willing to be appealed to, and willing to respond, and willing to demand more of their party. The tip-off on low expectations is that none of these groups that are supporting the Democratic Party are asking anything in return. That's important: They're not asking anything of Kerry in return. They're so freaked out, you see.

Liberal Democrats are fixated this year on one thing: beating Bush. Do you consider that narrow and shortsighted?

Yes. I don't think they can beat Bush by themselves. I think they need a demonstration effect represented in part by this candidacy. We'll show them ways and modes to beat Bush that they can pick up and run with. Just like Michael Moore did in endorsing Wesley Clark when he raised the deserter issue. The two major factors that have been pushing Bush on the defensive have not come from Democrats. It's been Richard Clarke and Michael Moore.

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There was an article in the Dallas Morning News a couple of weeks ago that claimed that a substantial amount of the money coming into your campaign is from Republican donors to President Bush ...

[interrupting] No, you have to read that article very carefully. It's not true at all. As a matter of fact, read the New York Times yesterday. John Tierney, he goes through that [recounting an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows that only about 3 percent of Nader's fundraising is coming from donors with ties to the Republican Party, and that some of those donors have personal ties to Nader].

In 2000, you were on the ballot in 43 states with the backing of the Green Party. Running as an independent, will you be able to get on the ballot in a similar number of states?

Yes, we will get on the ballot in at least 43 states. We just missed last time in several states: Oklahoma, Idaho, South Dakota. We're going to get on the ballot in those states.

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Will this be a volunteer signature-gathering effort?

As much as possible, yeah.

You've said you're not interested in the Green Party's nomination this time around, or that of the Reform Party, which has offered you its nomination, or the Natural Law Party as well. Why have you decided to reject those, and does that mean a blanket rejection, given that these parties could give you ballot access in at least half the states?

First of all, the Green Party is not going to make up its mind till June. So that's their problem, not mine. They're split three ways. A small number don't want a candidate for the presidential election. The second category of magnitude want restrictions on the candidates -- stay out of the close states like Oregon and Washington state. And the third want an all-out run. But you can't wait till June because the ballot deadlines are closed in some states or closing.

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The other point is, this is an independent [campaign]. I'm appealing to independent voters. It's OK to get supported by other parties, but if you take their nomination then you're not [independent]. At least in those states, you're not an independent candidate. One out of every three people in this country call themselves independent.

You reject the position of those in the Green Party who say that you should only run in "safe" states, either Democratic or Republican. You intend to run even in states that are considered swing states. Why?

Because if they're trying to build a party, they've got to go all out in 50 states. It feeds a lot of cynicism to say to people in Wisconsin, "Well, you're a close state so we're not going to campaign all out." That is the first step toward being indentured to the Democratic Party. That's the only reason they would not campaign in close states.


Sandeep Kaushik

Sandeep Kaushik is a staff writer for The Stranger in Seattle, Wash.

MORE FROM Sandeep Kaushik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections 2004 Elections Al Gore Environment John F. Kerry, D-mass.

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