Ralph Nader's old liberal Democratic pals still blame him for throwing the razor-close 2000 election to Republican George W. Bush. But Nader, the 69-year-old consumer activist, is anything but penitent. Indeed, he's revving up the engines for yet another quixotic quest for the White House.
And even though the former Green Party nominee will probably get just a sliver of the vote, Democrats worry that liberal defections will hurt their chances of defeating a well-heeled incumbent. Nader would compete with Democrats for money, youthful volunteers, and Internet eyeballs. Also, attempts by the Democratic nominee to shore up the Nader-friendly left flank could backfire with centrist voters. That doesn't faze Nader. He has abandoned the fractious Green Party -- which won't decide whether to field a Presidential candidate until its June convention -- in favor of an independent exploratory committee. Nader says he hopes to be listed as an independent on every state ballot, up from the 43 states where he ran in 2000.
Most observers doubt Nader could wield the influence in 2004 that he did four years ago when he captured 2.7% of the national vote and may have tipped the election to Bush in Florida and New Hampshire. "This election will be a major referendum on Bush and his policy people, and it's going to take a particularly alienated person to cast a vote for Nader," says Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
Nader, whose steady attacks weakened Al Gore, says his new campaign would be different. "This time, the opponent is Bush, and I really have very little interest in going after the Democrats," says the founder of America's modern consumer movement. Indeed, Nader even has some kind words for Democrats, particularly ultraliberal Representative Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio). He calls retired General Wesley Clark "pretty open-minded and well-informed." Front-runner Howard Dean is "a macho Democrat...holding his ground like a bulldog, able to take on assaults by his fellow Democrats -- who, by the way, are hurting him far more than any third-party candidacy would."
Nader has strong financial reasons to soften his tone. Some longtime allies refused to talk to him after the 2000 election. And donations to many of the nearly 100 organizations founded by Nader have fallen dramatically as supporters closed their wallets. The Center for Automotive Safety, a Nader spin-off, laid off two of its five employees in the aftermath.
With his legacy and consumer network at risk, why is Nader even thinking about running again? It's all about the failure of the two-party system to even address issues he considers critical: living wage laws, universal health care, control of the public airwaves, protecting pensions, and public financing of elections. "Every four years, the two parties get worse," he says.
Still, Nader concedes that his support may be waning. "We are seeing some of the backers for us in 2000 gravitating to the 'Anyone But Bush' camp," he says. But if he can match his $8 million campaign kitty of 2000 and enlist enough volunteers to mount a 50-state campaign, the populist war horse will saddle up one more time -- whatever the consequences. On Jan. 5, correspondent Paul Magnusson spent two hours talking with Nader. Some excerpts of their conversation:
On the two-party system
The assumption is that this is a two-party country and that everyone else should shut up and get in line. And that's pretty unacceptable to me.
On the Democrats
We don't patent our issues. If we show the way to defeat President Bush on A or B or C or D, the Democrats are perfectly free to pick up on it because let's face it, they aren't the most imaginative people in politics.
On Howard Dean
Dean is a work in progress.... He has the choice of whether he'll go with the old DLC crowd, the corporate Democrats, or shift to a progressive campaign based on the feedback he's getting from the Internet.
You are hearing some static from authentic conservatives about things they don't like about Bush -- deficits and the fact that he's not doing anything about corporate pornography and violence directed to kids.... If I do run, I am going to make a bid for that slice of the conservative, libertarian vote that I have always had good resonance with on issues of corporate power, globalization, and corporate welfare.
On the wave of corporate scandals
Democrats didn't have to beg the media to cover it. It was on the cover of all the magazines and on the nightly news shows. The time was ripe. But Democrats are dialing for the same dollars [as Republicans]. So they put out a little statement. Companies know they aren't serious.