Why Ralph Is Running Again

Nader explains: Dems say, 'We have to beat George Bush.' I'm sorry. We played that game for 20 years. We're not playing it

He's back. Consumer activist Ralph Nader is running for President again -- giving Democrats fits and angering even some of of his own former Nader Raiders. Progressives can't forgive him for costing Al Gore at least two states in 2000 election, most notably Florida, and the Presidency. Yet, while he attracted nearly 3% of the popular vote in the 2000 election nationally, polls are showing him doing even better this time, with 5% to 7% backing. He could cost Presidential candidate John Kerry at least seven states where the election is close, according to polls.

Is Nader reconsidering? Not a chance. Even though he's supposed to meet with Kerry later this month, the longtime scourge of Corporate America says he has no intention of pulling out -- and he predicts Kerry won't even ask him to do so. He recently sat down with reporters and editors in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau to discuss the race. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

On why he's running for President again:

If someone told me 15 to 20 years ago I was going to do this, I'd say I'm a full-time citizen. I want to get legislation, lawsuits filed. The problem now is that most people who do citizen work in [Washington] can't look at themselves in the mirror in the morning and come to the conclusion that they have been stripped of their power. They're defining victories now as defensive victories, less and less significant defensive victories.

Why am I such a lone voice among the progressives? I like to be charitable. They don't have the sense of urgency because they have gotten too comfortable, and their expectation levels have been repressed. They're working harder and harder for less and less.

What do we do as red-blooded Americans who want clean politics and progressive, responsive policies [do]? We sit around engaging in the "least worst?" [He imitates a voter, holding his nose.] "I'll go vote for Gore." Or do we get out there, like Thomas Jefferson counseled, try to change the paradigm, enrich the dialogue, get more candidates, local, state, national.

All the things that you could do in the '60s and '70s, you can't do now. If we started auto safety now, we wouldn't get a hearing, never mind a bill signed in six months. Shut down like this, you got a choice. You either go to Monterey and watch the dwindling number of whales, or you go into the electoral arena.

On meeting with Democrat John Kerry:

We've got a call in. He's on the road, I'm on the road. We'll get it this month, I think.

If Kerry asks Nader to drop out:

He's not going to. It's going to be a very agenda-oriented meeting. I've got 10 ways that Kerry can beat Bush -- a living wage being the principle [issue]. There are 45 million American workers who make under $10 an hour -- $5, $6, $7, $8 an hour. We need a living wage.

I'm going to say [to Kerry], look, you're not doing that well in the last month. Here's a chickenhawk [what liberals like to call Bush for his stint in the national guard instead of going to Vietnam] making you explain your first Purple Heart, and why you did this and that. You've had Dick Clarke [the former head of anti-terrorism policy at the White House] and [liberal activist and film director] Michael Moore and [Washington Post journalist and author of a new book on the President and the war in Iraq] Bob Woodward putting Bush on the defensive, and you're getting blurred.

The problem is these consultants who have got their hooks into the Kerry campaign. I mean, $27 million for a Madison Avenue image builder? He's not his own person. If there's one thing the mass of voters can see through, that's someone who is not his own person, someone who has more antenna than brains. They really see through that.

On the real John Kerry:

You saw him temporarily in Iowa. He dropped his Senate-ese, which is a rare language. The problem is, if you sit around every day listening to consultants say "do this, don't do that, this is a good idea," you lose your own judgment without knowing it. Bush does this, too, but Bush has this exterior image that he's decisive. Ignorant people can be very decisive. People who have no principles can appear to be very decisive. People who are expedient can appear to be very decisive. Like [imitates a Bush supporter], "He never regrets any decision, doesn't lose any sleep."

Kerry is more nuance. This business of "I voted for the $87 billion [to fund the war and occupation in Iraq], then I voted against it." Anybody who knows anything about how the Senate operates, there's nothing disturbing about that. He voted against it because of the way it was financed. Soundbite journalism is very intolerant on that.

I'd like to have a debate with Kerry, focusing on Bush.

On President Bush and the war in Iraq:

I mean, this is serious stuff. You can take the greatest country in the world into a war quagmire, based on fabrications, deceptions, and lies.... The one thing you don't want to do when you're fighting terrorism is to produce more of it, and he's doing exactly that. He's now turned Iraq into a magnet for stateless terrorists, and we're stuck, because now collective ego is involved.

"We're not going to cut and run. We got to support the troops." To which I say, I want to to protect the troops, to get them out of there.

On poll data showing that five out of six Nader voters would vote for Kerry if Nader weren't in the race:

It's wrong. The Wall Street Journal reported several weeks ago there wasn't any tilt either way. It depends on how deep the poll is. In New Hampshire, there was a poll that went deeper, and 4% of Democrats supported me, 8% Republicans supported me, 11% of independents supported me. The liberals have abandoned this candidacy. They're coming back into the fold [and supporting Kerry]. There are plenty of voters for the Democrats to scramble for than to whine about the Greens or an independent candidacy [like Nader's].

I don't think the Democrats can win without the vulnerabilities of the Bush Administration being portrayed in front of them, for them to pick up. Where is the confidence that the Democrats know how to beat the worst of the Republicans? Let's start in 1994. They've been losing at the local, state, and national levels constantly.

And they have no different game plan. There's no sports coach analogy that they're going to open up new agenda areas differently, whatsoever. Then they say, "support us, we have to beat George Bush." I'm sorry. We played that game for 20 years. We're not playing it. On what his agenda offers conservatives:

They are furious with Bush.... No. 1, [I oppose] the Patriot Act [like many conservatives]. No. 2, they hate corporate welfare, because they know they pay for it, and it's contradictory to the principles of capitalism. No. 3, they want shareholders to control companies, not just own them. No. 4, the [rising] deficit. They're up the wall on the deficit. No. 5, shrinking our sovereignty with [trade agreements like] WTO and NAFTA. No. 6, they're having qualms on the war in Iraq. No. 7, they think the corporate crooks are getting away with it. There's that law-and-order streak. No. 8, corporate pornography and violence beamed to children.

All of these we've been longtime laborers in the vineyard on. That's the appeal. It's not switching positions, pandering, or anything.

What I'm trying to convey...remember when there were only department stores? Then came discount stores, and all that, and they revolutionized retailing. Presidential campaigning is unbelievably noninnovative. I think the last major innovation, apart from the use of the Internet, in Presidential politics was television makeup. Kennedy used it, and Nixon didn't in the '60 debates.

On politics and the Internet:

The Internet is great for telling people what's going on -- information, meetups. Somehow it doesn't quite translate into the equivalent of face-to-face. Maybe it will get there. But it didn't get there for Howard Dean. For Dean, it was like a mirage.

We were up at Dean headquarters in Manchester, N.H. It was unbelievable activity. I said to myself, this guy couldn't lose in 100 years. They say television is a cold medium. Well, the Internet is probably colder in some ways politically. I don't know why he lost.

On why Nader is now doing better in polls than many expected:

A third of the people call themselves independent. [An independent candidacy] catches their attention.

On whether Kerry is a better candidate than Gore:

It's hard to get behind the screen. I always like to think Kerry is better, because of the way he started out. He's more accessible than Gore. With Gore, eight years of being Vice-President can shred anybody. The Senate really does something to people, boy. It just chews them up.

On Kerry's choices for a running mate:

I think [North Carolina Senator John] Edwards would give him the least vetting problem. He's known. His primary liability is that he could outshine Kerry on the stump. The one who wouldn't do that and is a real known quantity would be [former House Democratic Leader Richard A.] Gephardt. And the other one would be for Florida purposes, [Sunshine State Senator Bob] Graham. They all want it.

On Kerry reaching across the aisle and choosing a Republican as a running mate, such as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel or John McCain of Arizona:

I don't think they would do that [join up]. I think they think he [Kerry] is a loser [in November]. And there's something about a deal like that that starts out, boy, this going to be good, and then [he trails off].... When was the last time a Vice-Presidential choice helped anybody?

On Nader's goal for getting on the ballot:

[I was on the ballot in] 43 states last time, plus the District of Columbia. We'll do better this time.

On possibly costing Kerry the election, as many think he did with Gore:

I wish I had your certitude. How many conservatives need to be persuaded to stay home or vote for me to make a much bigger difference than the twiddly number of Democrats that will stray to our column? Because the members of the party out of power come back to the fold. It's the members of the party in power that start becoming very questioning about "You promised this? Or you blew the budget."

Here's the Democrats' Achilles' heel. [Party leaders] are such prisoners of their ideology that they write off what they call the rednecks, who are defrauded like everyone else, who go to Iraq and die like everyone else, who are ripped off, who are laid off, who have had their pensions bled. [The Democrats] have gotten themselves into an incredible cul de sac.

They have 100 million voters to try to tap into. There's a huge number of voters up for grabs. That's what they should be focusing on.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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