Is Ralph Nader losing it?

His remarks about Obama's "talking white" were appalling. But he's right that progressives need to keep the pressure on the Democratic nominee.

Published June 25, 2008 10:55PM (EDT)

There are right ways to talk about Barack Obama's relationship with his progressive base, and there are wrong ways, and Ralph Nader chose one of the worst ways in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News this week.

Nader accused Obama of "talking white" by paying insufficient attention to the problems of urban poverty and the inner city. He went on: "There's only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He's half African-American. Whether that will make any difference, I don't know. I haven't heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What's keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn't want to appear like Jesse Jackson? We'll see all that play out in the next few months and if he gets elected afterwards," Nader said.

And there's more: "He wants to appeal to white guilt. You appeal to white guilt not by coming on as black is beautiful, black is powerful. Basically, he's coming on as someone who is not going to threaten the white power structure, whether it's corporate or whether it's simply oligarchic. And they love it. Whites just eat it up."

There's so much wrong with what Nader said, starting with the idea that Obama is "talking white." I also, despite mixed feelings, ultimately reject the notion that an African-American has some special duty to deal with the poverty and alienation that is the legacy of slavery and racism. I know why Nader feels that way; I know many people do, some of them black; but I feel like it's all of our responsibility, including John McCain, not the special burden of black people, including Barack Obama.

When I first heard, rather than read, Nader's comments, on "Hardball" today with Chris Matthews and Bob Herbert of the New York Times, I felt a little sorry for Nader, because he sounded almost doddering the way he was rambling about race. In a follow-up interview with CNN, Nader made his point much more cogently and with less emphasis on race. Basically he's insisting liberals and progressives are settling for too little from Obama. (I can't find a link; I just heard it on television; I'll look for a transcript later.)

I don't want to affiliate myself with Nader, but that is a decent point. I know many of us are thinking about and debating how to respond to Obama's backtracking on the FISA compromise, a version of which he promised to filibuster earlier this year, yet now he says he'll support the latest bill (while trying to pull out telecom immunity, which is not going to happen).

In the letter threads of Glenn Greenwald's posts on this topic, some angry folks have raised Nader as an alternative to Obama. I can't support that; Nader is a dead end for progressives. He can't win the presidency; he can't win seats in Congress; he can only cost a Democrat the presidency, as he did in 2000. However, it's frustrating to think about how to pressure Obama –- who also came out today opposing the Supreme Court's finding that the death penalty isn't a just punishment for child rape. I will probably never again see a Democratic presidential candidate in my lifetime who opposes the death penalty, but I'm not sure why Obama had to rap the GOP-dominated Supreme Court on one of their increasingly rare correct decisions. But that's just me.

So I don't have the answer about the most constructive way to pressure Obama -- and I welcome yours. I was struck by watching Sen. Russ Feingold on CNN this afternoon criticizing Obama on FISA and saying he'll nonetheless campaign for him in Wisconsin. I admire Feingold, and that is probably the right course. But watching some in the netroots bend over to try to defend Obama bothers me. I couldn't believe the way Markos Moulitsas chided Sam Stein for his critical piece on Obama and FISA over at the otherwise Obama-worshipping Huffington Post, sniffing "We'll see what he does this week. If he's part of the capitulation or refuses to lead, then it's salient for your story. As of now, I think it's still too early to write this piece." Markos, it's never too early to examine the Democratic nominee's stand on civil liberties, and to criticize him (or her, someday) when that stand is wrong. And Obama's is. Glenn Greenwald has this issue exactly, perfectly, totally right, in tone and substance.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections