Unsafe at any Election
Ralph Nader Takes Another Swing ... at His Own Reputation
National Post, February 29, 2004
LOS ANGELES - It didn't take Ralph Nader long at all to begin dressing up his third consecutive run at the U.S. presidency with brazen, thigh-slapping lies.
"This is a campaign," he told reporters this week, after announcing his latest doomed bid on NBC's Meet the Press, "that strives to displace the present corporate regime of the Bush administration."
That is hogwash, and Nader knows it. As in 1996 and 2000, he is running a progressive-left campaign, designed specifically to punish Democrats for turning "into a corporate paymaster minion," and most of his supporters will continue to come from the Democratic, not Republican, party.
On election night 2000, I watched the famous consumer advocate say -- even while his own campaign staffers were openly agonizing over the prospect of a Nader-spoiled Republican victory -- "I'll tell you who's squirming now! There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party squirming now! If we make 'em squirm enough, and sweat enough, maybe they'll squirm and sweat into becoming a little more honest, a little less corporatist, a little more human-oriented, a little less careerist! And a little more what they used to be decades ago, representing working families, before they became the party of General Motors, of Exxon, of Dupont, of Intel!"
This latest run could very well kill off whatever remaining reputation Nader has for honesty and integrity. Even his own 2000 campaign staffers are horrified. "I am appalled," one formerly enthusiastic Naderite e-mailed me this week. "I think the whole thing smacks of megalomania at this point. It's offensive that he expects us to take up the standard again after he promised that he would lead a revolution that never materialized. He's done nothing for four years. It's insulting."
The morning after he won 2.7% of the vote in 2000, Nader told reporters that his campaign should be considered a success if by 2004 it would have helped build up a strong and viable Green Party, if progressive Democrats' "backs will be strengthened in Congress," and if his wing of the Left will have become a sought-after "swing" bloc.
Four years later, Nader is as sought after in Washington as a bag of anthrax; progressive Democrats have been routed on Capitol Hill, and Nader isn't affiliated with the Green Party any more. A more self-critical man might interpret these utter failures to live up to his own expectations as a good opportunity to rethink his approach; Nader sees it as still more validation that his increasingly lonely (and eternal) electoral crusade is just.
But like many idealistic intellectuals who have dipped their toes into the dirty realm of campaign politics, Nader has become the embodiment of what he once railed against: a paranoid egomaniac, shameless about bending truth and logic to serve his convenience and eager to lash out at ideological fellow-travellers who don't have the decency to support his candidacy.
The left-wing magazine The Nation, where Nader got his start in the 1950s as a polemical journalist, published an open letter urging him not to run this year, so Nader accused his long-time allies of "crossing from opposition to censorship."
In the 2000 campaign, the liberal Democrats Barney Frank, Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson and John Conyers urged voters to back Al Gore; in his 2002 campaign memoir, Crashing the Party, Nader blasted all of them as "identity politics" sellouts.
This year, when not pre-emptively striking against his many former supporters for urging him not to run, Nader is reacting to negative feedback by jamming his hands over his ears and humming very loudly. A few weeks ago, he began e-mailing former supporters, asking for advice on whether he should run. "After initially soliciting opinions from visitors to his Web site," reported Micah Sifry, a Nation contributor, on his own Web site, iraqwarreader.com, "He has shut down that option and is now waiting to see how many of his 2000 volunteers sign up for this time."
Refusing to listen is a good predictor of tone-deafness. In 2000, Nader was able to hear and tap into the frustrations of left-wingers who had grown restless after eight years of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and packed arenas from coast to coast with paying customers who wanted to see his anti-corporate ranting.
In 2004, he's unfazed by the fact that many of the same people who helped draw those big crowds -- political comedian Michael Moore, "Tom Tomorrow" cartoonist Dan Perkins -- have decided it's far more important to unseat George W. Bush, and avoid a situation like Florida in 2000, where Gore lost by 537 votes while Nader drew 97,488. Moore, who like Nader campaigned on the false premise that Gore couldn't possibly lose, is so insistent on dislodging Republicans that he endorsed for the Democratic nomination Wesley Clark, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, a man who conducted a war in Kosovo that Moore considered to be criminal.
The American left's fire-breathing passion was obviously channelled this year not by Nader, or by his anti-war friend Dennis Kucinich, but by Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, a far more centrist candidate who, anti-Bush progressives concluded, had the best shot at unseating Bush. As The Nation put it, "For a variety of reasons -- opposition to the war, Bush's assault on the Constitution, his crony capitalism, frustration with the overcautious and indentured approach of inside-the-Beltway Democrats -- there is a level of passionate volunteerism at the grassroots of the Democratic Party not seen since 1968."
Dean cultivated the grassroots using the Internet. Nader, befitting his advancing age (he turns 70 next week) and advancing tone-deafness, has said he wants to rely less on the Internet, not more. When The New York Times asked him if he was worried about having only 375 people signed up at the Internet organizing site Meetup.com, compared with 188,000 for Dean, Nader replied, "I really don't deal with the Web. There isn't enough time in the day to go into virtual reality."
Dean, like the entire Democratic field, has slammed Nader's bid for the presidency. "Those who truly want America's leaders to stand up to the corporate special interests and build a better country for working people should recognize that, in 2004, a vote for Ralph Nader is, plain and simple, a vote to re-elect George W. Bush," he said this week. "I hope that Ralph Nader will withdraw his candidacy in the best interests of the country we hope to become."
This has as little chance of happening as Nader helping to drive out Bush, or publicly admitting that he tipped the Florida vote away from Al Gore (he continues to argue, using the most tortured of math, that there is no proof of this).
Nader wants to make his principled (or petulant) point, and won't be moved. Besides the election, in which I'd wager he has no chance of attracting even 1% of the vote, he has nothing much left to lose. Except for whatever shreds remain of his once-sterling reputation.