Nader on His Campaign
April 26, 2000
As of this writing, Ralph Nader is on the ballot as a candidate for President in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, and Oregon. Organizers connected with "Third Parties '96" and the Greens say they are circulating petitions in at least thirty other states. We asked Nader to explain why he is running, and then called on an array of activists and commentators for their views.-The Editors The two party duopoly -- essentially one corporate party with two heads called Republican and Democratic, each wearing different makeup -- presents the citizenry every four years with a choice between the Bad and the Worse. And every four years, both the Bad and the Worse get worse because there is no counterpull to the corporate, right-wing pull. And so the Bill Clintons, the Chris Dodds and the Al Froms (head of the so-called Democratic Leadership Council) are further corporatizing the Democratic Party while signaling to the progressives that they have nowhere else to go.A little over a year ago, at a television studio, Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, told me that N.A.M. liked Clinton because he fought for their issues (such as NAFTA and GATT) and did not push for organized labor's issues (such as labor-law reform).What an understatement! Clinton's political philosophy is "protective intimidation." He is determined to reduce to a minimum the ability of Dole/Gingrich to turn his right flank. This frustrates Republicans because they know that after Clinton recovered governship of Arkansas in 1982, he behaved as if he would never again lose an election because of principles.On the big issues of fiscal policy (including public works), corporate crime, corporate welfare and corporate abuse of consumers and workers, Clinton is a RepDem hybrid. He has no consumer policy, his environmental policy is largely rhetoric and accommodation (note his obeisance to the nuclear power and timber industries, and to the auto industry on fuel economy). The federal regulatory agencies' behavior under Clinton (e.g., banking, the Federal Aviation Administration, auto safety, railroad and job safety) is either indistinguishable from their performance under his Republican predecessors or worse. About the only bright spot is the Food and Drug Administration's anti-tobacco campaign. (The agency is still weak on food safety, however.) Its commissioner, David Kessler, was appointed by George Bush.Clinton's business-indentured motif went into high gear with his surrender to the Republican-fashioned telecommunications bill that so delighted the oligopolists and autocrats. To make sure that the Federal Communications Commission doesn't reverse its anti-consumer positions, Clinton undermined his own chairman, Reed Hundt, by appointing two other commissioners with pro-industry leanings, thus depriving the frustrated Hundt of a working majority. Other major Clinton nominations -- to the Supreme Court, the Treasury Department, and the omnipotent Federal Reserve -- are all Wall Street-approved.On foreign affairs, military budgets and policy, record tax-subsidized arms exports and serious global health issues, the President is an unwavering transition from George Bush. Like Bush, Clinton cannot make himself speak out against fast-growing brutalized child labor abroad, which GATT protects. Nor will he confront on human rights grounds global corporations that coddle dictatorships, thus encouraging the contagious corporate criminality that arises from those alliances.The defiantly deteriorating national Democratic Party, stripped of any grass-roots engagement, obligated to corporate moneys and personnel, and chaired by the Senator from Aetna (Dodd) refuses to recognize the need for a comprehensive pro-labor agenda, leaving a supportive A.F.L.-C.I.O. as supplicant with nowhere to go.The Democratic Party, as Nation readers will no doubt point out, is clinging to a dwindling difference from the Republicans. But the differences in practice are much smaller than the differences in rhetoric. And the choices for voters are exceedingly narrow and getting narrower, on the fundamental power issue of corporate government taking over the political government, the two parties are in a mutual kowtow. The differences are largely lodged in the distribution of social services. But look who is defining the agenda here and who is on the defensive to the degree that he cannot even stand tall for children and other defenseless Americans. Didn't Clinton just endorse Governor Tommy Thompson's welfare plan in Wisconsin, which child-defender and former Clinton ally Marian Wright Edelman finds so cruel to youngsters?In no area is Clinton's protective intimidation strategy more transparently expedient, given his background as constitutional law teacher, than in his erosions of civil liberties protections. Columnists Anthony Lewis and Nat Hentoff have strongly Criticized the President for eagerly supporting and signing Republican bills that weaken the "great writ" of habeas corpus and seriously endanger other civil liberties of Americans and legal residents.When it comes to strengthening our democracy by providing organizing tools for labor, consumers, and shareholders, by expanding access to justice, by protecting the health and safety rights of consumers in the marketplace and by applying regular law and order to the rich and powerful Clinton has taken a pass. He has never been serious about campaign finance reform, while sending very serious letters to the affluent, offering them a seat at his dinner table for a $100,000 contribution. He did veto, after maddening indecision, a "tort deform" bill and a securities fraud bill that would have restricted the judicial rights of injured and defrauded people. The latter, which consumer groups called the "crooks and swindlers protection act," was vetoed in such a timid context that Clinton enabled his own part chairman, Senator Dodd, to lead the override of his veto.This aversion to challenging abuses of concentrated power, coupled with the mentality of protective intimidation, made Clinton and his party very good at electing very bad Republicans in 1994. About seventy of the cruelest rouges who ever crawled up Capitol Hill took over the House of Representatives for Gingrich because the well-funded Democratic Party had no identity and progressive agenda to defeat even this extreme wing of the opposition party. It is one thing for progressive Democrats to be shunted aside on issue after issue by the Dodd-Clintonites; it is more deeply disturbing to realize that these corporate Democrats have lost control of Congress and their chief hope in getting it back rests on how extremist their opponents become.Raising expectation levels to get political parties moving away from a competition between the Bad versus the Worse toward the Good versus the Better requires a civic dynamic that is incompatible with accepting the status quo. External competition is necessary to break up the two-party duopoly, either to produce really different political parties or lead to political realignments toward multiparty evolutions.Last fall, several leading California environmentalists asked if I would agree to their placing my name on the Green Party ballot for President. Reflecting on how corporatized government is rapidly shutting out civic participation, I agreed, but said I would not accept any campaign contributions or run in a traditional manner. I've been criticized by some for choosing to go about matters in this way, but my goal is to encourage a campaign dependent on self-reliant citizen muscle at the grass roots, not some guy on a horse. This is one test, certainly for people in the Green Party and other progressives, of whether they are going to step up their mobilization. In some states, the Greens are already forming parties as a result, and they are taking a long-range view of their initiatives.In the near term there is a need for a modest-sized party that is rooted in progressive communities, agendas and energies, and that (1) focuses on new and stronger tools for democracy for voters, workers, consumers and taxpayers; (2) breaks through the DemRep taboos against debating the supremacy of global corporations over our political, economic, educational, media and cultural institutions; and (3) brings into progressive politics a young generation of Americans.There is no patent on these agendas; they are available to all candidates for their campaigns. Instead of telling progressives they have nowhere to go, Clinton could reduce the numbers who stay home on Election Day and open up a corporate critique of Dole. This he is unlikely to do. It is up to him. Nobody but Clinton can beat Clinton. He is too unprincipled to lose to Dole, who anyway cannot reinvent himself.Many Americans who call themselves liberals have so lowered their expectations about what politics can mean to this nation's future that they are settling for diminishing returns. Politics has been corrupted not just by money but by being trivialized out of addressing the great, enduring values of who controls, who decides, who owns, who pays, who has a voice and access, and why solutions available on the shelf are not applied to the existing and looming crisis of our society, both local and global.One thing politicians do understand is rejection. When voters are deciding how to use their vote, they should ask themselves how best to send a clear message. The Greens and other progressives are in the early building stages of a people-first, democratic political movement for future years. They deserve our attention because they are centering on the basic issues of representative government, one of whose purposes is to strengthen the usable tools of democracy; the other, in Thomas Jefferson's prophetic words, is "to curb the excesses of the monied interests."SIDEBAR: What it MeansWill Ralph Nader's presidential campaign be viewed as a quixotic crusade or an ego trip into quicksand? We asked some national activists and commentators whose politics are simpatico with Nader's to assess his candidacy.KEVIN PHILLIPSKevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and author of Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics (Little, Brown).Ralph Nader seems clear on message -- 1996 needs a new progressive party as an alternative to the "DemReps" -- but vague on muscle. To wit: Are his current political plans to campaign in as many states as possible or mostly California and a half-dozen other states? Or will his decision be based on September-October whimsy?The broader electoral opportunity is real. More than 60 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want a third party. The Supreme Court has just announced that in its autumn term, it'll consider a Wisconsin case with major implications for third-party opportunities. It's not hard to see the existing two-party arrangement turning into a kind of two-and-a-half-party system in which a half-dozen small- and mid-size parties play havoc with the current Republican-Democratic duopoly.Lambasting special interests in general and corporations in particular is now more the rule than the exception -- even the Natural Rights Party assails them! -- so Nader's message is not unique. What is unique about Nader is the attention he can command (including probable participation in the debates) if he decides to launch a full-fledged, wherever-he-can-run campaign. Even a 4, 5 or 6 percent national showing by Nader would help speed the emergence of that two-and-a-half-party system.Nader's desire to rely on grass-roots activists to make everything happen may be too idealistic. Sometimes you don't get grass without fertilizer and hands-on lawn care.GLORIA STEINEM Gloria Steinem, a writer and feminist organizer, is a founder of Ms. magazine, the National Women's Political Caucus, the National Coalition of Labor Union Women and Voters for Choice.I share Ralph Nader's outrage at the increasing corporate and multinational stranglehold on everything from health care to foreign policy. I welcome his campaign for populist consciousness-raising-which no one does better. But if he attracts even one vote, it heightens the danger of a Congress and a White House controlled by, in his phrase, "the cruelest rogues who ever crawled up Capitol Hill" -- and that would be a tragedy.Having talked with him, I know he believes that Clinton will win anyway. But that's a gamble I'm not prepared to take. For one thing, the conservative-to-extremist right wing has always represented about 30 percent in public opinion polls. What has changed is their increased voting in the midst of a decreased turnout by everyone else. Our goose could be incinerated if there is anything less than a 60 percent turnout, and that's a large order. This is also the first time that such a low turnout has converged with the takeover of one of the two major parties by right-wing extremists. Now, even centrist and liberal Republicans have nowhere to go.Yes, I wish there were a greater difference between candidates, especially on issues like welfare, but we in the social and economic justice movements haven't done our jobs either. To be self-critical, for instance, the women's movement has yet to create a broad coalition between women on welfare and women with two jobs -- though both suffer from the invisibility of work in the home that is an enormous percentage of this country's productive labor -- so welfare mothers stay unprotected, double-shift women stay exhausted and there is only enough feminist muscle to assure Clinton's veto of the worst policy, not to hear him say the truth: "People who raise children are working."But there is still a life-threatening gulf on everything from environmental protection to affirmative action, from assault weapons to nationalizing women's bodies by declaring the fertilized egg to be a person. We're not only talking corporate power here, we're talking Kinder, Kuche, Kirche. So if I were in Nader's shoes, my campaign slogan would be: "Listen to me -- but don't vote for me."DAN HAMBURGDan Hamburg represented the northern coast of California in the 103rd Congress as a Democrat. he is now a registered member of the California Greens."Let's hear it for the dolphins! Let's hear it for the trees! Ain't runnin' outta nothin' in my deep freeze. ("My Parties," Dire Straits)* In the war zones of the United States, a black male is twice as likely to die violently than a World War II soldier.* The top one percent of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.* Fifty-six people were put to death by the state in 1995.* The united States ranks eighteenth among the world's twenty-two industrialized nations in infant mortality.* Scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed by both shrunken gonads and low sperm counts in animals, including mammals.* 2,556 babies are born into poverty every day in the United States.* The United States is responsible for nearly half of the world's arm exports.It's time to connect the dots. The problem is not all the individual problems. The problem is that there's one big problem. it's the system (Sorry Mr. Carville.). Systemic problems cannot be dealt with incrementally, nicely. As Frederick Douglass pointed out: No struggle, no progress.The only man with a national constituency who comprehends these things is Ralph Nader. It's time for progressives to leave the shore. Hopefully, adrift, we will chart a course toward a more just and harmonious society. rough plans are already being drawn up, and there's plenty of room for imput.One final caveat: Remember the Prudential slogan "own a piece of the rock?" Their new one is "Be your own rock." I'd rather die.RAMONA RIPSTONRamona Ripston is executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Southern California. This article represents her personal views alone and not those of the organization.Nine months ago I signed a letter asking Ralph Nader to run for President. I believed that with more choices, more people would vote, and I was profoundly disillusioned with President Clinton. Clinton has proved all too willing to sacrifice our rights and liberties, from his unconstitutional "anti-terrorist" law, with its drastic cutbacks on habeas corpus, to the Communications Decency Act. He endorsed a welfare plan that would hurt millions of children and an immigration bill that would strip immigrants of essential protections. He broke his promises to gays and lesbians and refused to support his nominees when they became controversial.All that said, I will vote for Bill Clinton. In 1968, when there seemed hope that we could build a people's movement, many of us, distressed by the Vietnam War and the conduct of the Democratic Party establishment, voted for a third-party candidate. Those votes did not lead to a liberal nation. Instead, they brought us Nixon and a strong right-wing movement that still haunts us.Today the stakes are too high to start a new people's movement six months before an election and once again turn the nation over to the right wing. There are critical differences between the two major presidential candidates regarding abortion, social programs, economic and tax policies, and in how they view poor and working people. Perhaps most important is the federal judiciary. The Supreme Court often holds our rights and liberties in its hands. We simply cannot afford more appointees like Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas, who would return us to an era of states' rights. With one or two more Justices of that ilk, the survival of our federal system as we know it, with its commitment to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty, would be in the gravest jeopardy. Just look at the 5-4 decision decimating the Voting Rights Act.JOHN RENSENBRINKJohn Rensenbrink, a founder of the Maine Green Party, is running for the U.S. Senate. He is a former professor of political science at Bowdoin College and author of The Greens and the Politics of Transformation (R. and E. Miles).Nader's inspiring presidential initiative is timely and may be historic. Two points. First: Seven states have him on the November ballot, including Maine, the first to do so. It looks now as if twenty-five to thirty-five more could follow. but for him to get five percent in Maine to keep our party's ballot status, and more important, for him to do well enough to build the political alternative here and nationally, he needs to be perceived as not a marginal candidate. he has to have a shot at being in the debates. He must get on the ballot in enough states (thirty-five? Forty?). Thus far his strategy has been to see if the grass-roots energy and effectiveness is there. it's a great strategy and it has worked. The grass roots are alive and thriving! But the situation changes: Now we need much more perceived energy and direct engagement from him, including better communication with the people who are trying to make it happen. I implore your, Ralph: Do it! And make sure your people do it.Second: I respectfully ask progressive and left activists who are holding back to drop your caution, re-evaluate your concerns and wholeheartedly get into the action. We've got to surpass the short-term realism that has shackled us to the status quo for decades. it's disastrous to go on saying, "We'll do it next time." The timing will never be better for independent action. We have something important to tell the American people. We have the responsibility to ask for their help and guidance and together push for power, in this campaign, and in the next and in the next.STEVE COBBLESteve cobble is a political consultant from New Mexico currently serving as political director of the National Rainbow Coalition. His opinion is his own, and is not intended to reflect that of the organization.Dear Ralph:If you're not going to do it seriously, don't do it.DANIEL CANTORDaniel Cantor is national organizer for the New Party, whose chapter-based Interim Executive Council voted in April not to support the Nader candidacy.On the issues, Ralph Nader is right, more or less all the time. He is our First Citizen. But while his analysis of the two-party "duopoly" is correct, his strategy is wrong. Nader's run does little to expand the choices beyond the Bad and the Worse; it merely adds a marginal category of votes -- the Wasted -- which will prove either trivial or destructive. His campaign is inattentive to (and unsupported by) organized labor and the black community, the two central constituencies needed to build a strong progressive movement. And if it does produce a Dole presidency, the space for independent politics now opening in the labor movement would disappear, as all union resources would be devoted to fighting the Republicans. A Clinton victory, however uninspiring, will leave that space open for political experimentation.President Clinton has failed not because he's a sellout but because there is no nationally organized permanent progressive presence in American life. Nader has spent his life trying to build that presence (see Public Citizen, the PIRGs, citizen utility boards, Audience Network, etc.). For him, the situation has deteriorated to the point that a new political party, rooted in communities and dedicated to strengthening democracy, is necessary. He's right, but a quixotic run for the top job won't add much to the mix. It is easy, relatively speaking, to get a line on the ballot. What's hard is to build a party of the type he describes. We invite Nader to join in the unglamorous but essential task of building gone.RONNIE DUGGERRonnie Dugger is a founding editor of The Texas Observer and is a writer and journalist.Pinned down by the moral logic of the two-party trap that if you don't voter the Democrat you help elect the Republican, I have supported the Democratic nominee for president every year since 1952. But the logic of this trap goes on forever. It requires you to die betrayed. The long-term damage to the welfare of poor, working and middle-class people has come to exceed by far, in ethical weight, the additional short-run damage to them that we risk if, by not voting for Clinton, we help elect Dole. Beyond even that, we have lost our democracy; we no longer govern ourselves. I believe it is time to spring the trap and free ourselves to build a new country in this one.Voting for Nader, I break my lifelong addiction to accepting being sold out by the Democratic Party Inc. I can be proud of my vote again. Nader would make a great president. He has the integrity of Thoreau and the conscience of St. Francis. Those of us who support Nader may help to break up the corporate oligarchy' s two-party system at this moment of its maximum disarray, strengthening our capacity to establish proportional representation in the United States. If enough of us do this, there is some chance, since politicians tack to the winds, that populist/progressive forces in Congress would be stronger even under Dole and the corporations than under Clinton and the corporations. In a five-candidate field (including Perot and Buchanan), there is also some chance, depending on unforeseeable events, that Nader would win this time. In any case, there is the chance that he will attain standing to win in 2000. But the chief reason I'm voting for Nader is that his candidacy is helping to build nationwide, populist/progressive people's movement that, in four or eight years , will replace the Democratic Party (assuming that it's still selling out) with a new major U.S. party.