As Ralph Nader continues his fifth campaign for the presidency, he joins an elite club of independent mainstays—Gus Hall for the U.S. Communist Party (4 runs), Howard Phillips for the Constitution Party (3 runs), Norman Thomas for the Socialist Party (6 runs). Nader’s message, like his rumpled suits, has changed little over the years—mostly, he says, because neither major party has taken him up on his invitations to merge aspects of his platform with theirs. Now 74, he laps youngsters like Barack Obama, 47, and John McCain, 71, but has no intentions of slowing down. No word yet on whether this will be Nader’s last run for the White House or whether he’s already printing up Nader ’12 and Nader ’16 stickers.
Here, Nader discusses his contempt for the policies of the two major party candidates, itemizes why Obama is nothing new for the Democrats, and, as always, defends his candidacy.
Westword (Joe Horton): If, as you described in 2000, Al Gore and George Bush were “Tweedledee and Tweedledum,” what are McCain and Obama this year?
Ralph Nader: Look, they’re all corporate candidates. By that I mean that they all want the expansion of the military industrial complex and a bloated, wasteful military budget. They don’t crack down with sufficient enforcement resources on corporate crime, fraud and abuse. They keep expanding the taxpayer subsidies to corporate welfare, handouts, giveaways and bailouts, the most recent being the both parties supporting a bail out of the crooks in Wall Street and the gamblers with other people’s money in Wall Street. They don’t stand tall for rebuilding the labor movement; there’s still enormous obstructions to union organizing from the statues like Taft-Hartley [the federal law broadly restricting the power of labor unions, passed over Harry Truman’s veto in 1947] to the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], which favors employers instead of employees. They still both foster a tax system that permits corporations and the super rich to escape their fair share compared to the middle class, and they both support NAFTA and WTO which are corporate globalization mechanisms to pull down our standards of living by using collaborative fascist and communist dictatorships abroad to keep the workers in their place while they receive U.S. industry exports…exports of entire U.S. industry…can you hold on a minute?
WW: There were reports that you met with John Kerry in 2004 and asked him to pick any three issues critical to you and your supporters, and if you did, you would refrain from entering the race.
RN: No, no, I didn’t say that. I met with him May 2004 and said let’s go forward together and draw a bright line with Bush on three issues that you shouldn’t have any trouble with. One is the labor law reform, two is corporate subsidies and third is cracking down on corporate crime, fraud and abuse.
WW: Would those be the same this year? If you had three conditions for, say, Barack Obama, what would they be?
RN: Well, we could start with those. Also getting out of Iraq, cutting…but I just wanted to put three on Kerry’s table because he…his record shows that he was a former prosecutor and he was supporting the card check [a change in the law that would allow employees to bypass secret-ballot elections and note their decision to unionize by signing cards] and he didn’t like a lot of subsidies and so on. So I made it easy for him. But it wasn’t that I would refrain, no. We would go outside his office, there’s press waiting, we’d say here are three we’re supporting in unison and Bush isn’t. But [Kerry] declined.
WW: You told the Rocky Mountain News that one of the only things that’s different about Barack Obama as a Democratic candidate is that he’s half African-American. Does he bring anything new to this election for Democrats?
RN: I’m waiting to see. He brings better public speaking. But I’m waiting to see. I mean, look, he’s still for corn ethanol, which is wrecking food prices in the supermarkets, he’s not associated with any comprehensive program to deal with the exploitation of the bottom 100 million Americans on the income scale. He wants to increase the military budget. He sided with the credit card companies and the medical malpractice insurance companies. He is refusing to even consider impeachment of Bush-Cheney; he’s radically opposed to it. He’s opposed to single-payer, full Medicare for all. The National Association of Mayors in June passed a unanimous resolution supporting single-payer, and a majority of the American people and a majority of physicians in a recent poll support single-payer. And he still can’t do it. His idea of withdrawing from Iraq is 50,000 soldiers remaining with military bases, according to his military advisor recently. He wants to expand the war in Afghanistan, which is a Vietnam-type quagmire, and he’s siding with the Israeli militarists against a Palestinian people who are being oppressed, brutalized and colonized in what’s left of Palestine. Not exactly a pioneer here. He doesn’t have any program to crack down on corporate crime, fraud and abuse. And his idea of a living wage, get this, $9.50 by 2011. That would be far less than it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation.
WW: You have said repeatedly, and it seems like it’s a staple of your campaign and philosophy, that there is “too much power and wealth in too few hands…”
WW: And I think that many voters would agree with you. But can’t it be argued that your campaigns do not change that situation but merely alter—outside, perhaps of your preference—whose hands ultimately seize control?
RN: Have you looked at our platform?
RN: It’s full of shifting power from the few to the many.
WW: But my question is, if that does not get instituted as a platform for a different party or, say, you win the presidency for yourself, does that merely change who gets into power?
RN: You mean affects the outcome?
RN: No. Not at all. I mean, there’s nothing that keeps either candidate from picking up these issues. What are we supposed to do, exonerate them for refusing to pick up these popular issues like single-payer and a living wage? I mean, how far down do you want to go on our knees? I put the whole damn platform with the supporting materials on Kerry’s plate. Both these parties have flunked. They’re both racing to see who is the least-worst. I mean, what kind of dynamic is that? We ought to be looking for the best and pulling all the parties in the progressive direction. You can’t do that unless you’re inside the electoral arena. You can at least try to do it inside the electoral arena.
WW: But along those same lines, how would you advise voters who would like to vote ideally—for a third party candidate or somebody who best exemplifies their values—and contrasting that with the more realistic or defensive action after what has been seen by many as eight of the most conservative years in recent history?
RN: Well you can thank the Democrats for that. They should have landslided the Republicans as Harry Truman and Franklin Delano Roosevelt would. But they tried too much to be like them, they tried to blur the differences. And that’s a losing strategy for Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry, Gore—even though Gore won—and Clinton, and Clinton was saved by Perot. This idea of going to the right and going to the corporate after the primaries are over has been a losing strategy. They should stand up for the people. All they have to do is poll our proposals and see how [a] majority of the American people support them. But they’re dialing for corporate dollars; that’s more important to them. They want to defend corporate power, you know, that gives them a lot of their consultants and a lot of their insiders.
The liberals, the progressive writers, are making a serious mistake by not supporting our campaign. Because all their proposals are being carried over into the election arena this year by Nader/Gonzalez. All their major supporters. And what do they do? They try to undermine us, ignore us and support Obama. I wrote an open letter to three of these writers—Bill Greider, Jim Hightower, and Bob Kuttner—it’s on our website, you’ll see. I’m saying, how do you explain this, how do you expect your proposals to ever get any traction if you undermine or oppose or ignore the only candidacy that’s pushing them forward inside the electoral arena that shows up at 6 percent, which is 10 million voters. So, check it out. It’s on our website.
WW: Along similar lines, you have used very strong language when describing the campaigns of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, as well as your own, in terms of being “squelched,” being “pounced on” by Washington Democrats, being “sabotaged” at the ballot boxes. This terminology to me implies a consistent and pervasive victimhood. How do third party candidates, or candidates that operates outside of what you term that “two-party electoral dictatorship,” move from victims to a more proactive advocacy?
RN: Oh, well it’s called resistance. When you’re resisting you’ve got to describe the situation. And that’s what we’re describing. It doesn’t mean we’ve crawled into a corner and pout as victims. We’re fighting back.
WW: But do you see your stance as a defensive one inherently?
RN: Offensive. Yeah, I mean the campaign inherently is offensive. Our litigation when we file it against the ballot access crooks is offensive. Our critique is carried on an offensive platform—which you can see—what’s on our table and off the table of McCain/Obama on that one sheet on our website. Have you seen that?
WW: Yes I have. [http://www.votenader.org/issues/]
RN: It’s very offensive. I don’t believe in defense. I always liked to be a plaintiff rather than a defendant.
WW: With the understanding that Democrats and Republicans, as you have said, accept major donations from wealthy donors and corporate interests and that your campaigns past and present have repeatedly said that anyone could donate based on this “freedom of conscience,” what do you say to people when you have GOP donors like [Massachusetts billionaire, major Bush fundraiser and Bush-appointed ambassador to Ireland] Richard Egan donating to you as well? How do you combat critics who say well, he’s donating to Republicans and to your campaign as well?
RN: Well, you know, I didn’t know Richard Egan from the Sphinx. As long as it’s a legal contribution, I’m not going to go into their intent and motives. I mean, are you going to look through the resumes of all these people that come in? As long as they’re not PACs [political action committees] and they’re not commercial interests…if they’re individuals, we accept.
WW: But what would you think that they would find in your campaign that would interest them in donating to you?
RN: I don’t care. Because there’s never a quid pro quo. There’s not even a conversation, other than to send them a thank-you note. That’s what’s nice about it. We don’t go into these dens in Park Avenue, Beverly Hills and Washington, D.C. and say OK, you’re the auto dealer PAC and we’re really supportive of status quo, no fuel efficiency increase or no crackdown on auto dealer fraud. It’s never like that. The checks come in, we use them. They know what we’re doing and I’m sure anybody who was a Republican who sent us a check didn’t get what they expected because we went after the Republicans and their nominee far more intensively than the Democrats were willing to. And that was true in 2000 too. Like Bush’s record in Texas, Gore almost ignored. But we didn’t.
WW: You have said frequently that one of the reasons you ran for president past and present is to get the views of public interest groups heard in Washington, get Washington to open up, in a sense, to people who were not having their voices heard. How does the mere act of campaigning—results in the single digits when it comes down to the actual votes cast—how does the act of campaigning help or hurt that cause?
RN: Well, you know, historically it’s exerted a pull on one or more of the two major parties—the anti-slavery, women’s right to vote, farmer/labor parties of the 19th century, [six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party] Norman Thomas in the 20th century, [Progressive Party candidate in 1924 Robert M.] La Follette in the 20th century—but we’re now in an age where these parties are very stubborn, so it takes more of a pull. And also most of the states they have slam-dunked. You know they’re red-state/blue-state because of gerrymandering among others, so they don’t have to worry about…they have to worry about far fewer states that are fluctuating than their predecessors did in [the] 19th and early 20th century. They developed the art of gerrymandering in districts, congressional districts.
But also, the Democratic Party years ago decided they weren’t going to be active in the Rocky Mountain and in the South, and they basically conceded that part. And of course the Republican Party concedes largely New England, New York, New Jersey, California, etc. So it’s this bizarre mutual concessions that reduces the ability of third parties to pull in more states on these candidates. So all we can do is try to recommend reforms and work in the close states.
WW: The Atlantic Monthly, in voting you into their list of “100 Most Influential Americans,” described your legacy as, “He made the cars we drive safer; 30 years later he made George W. Bush the president.” What would you --
RN: Really? I thought George W. Bush was the one who stole the election. I don’t recall the Green Party stealing the election in Florida, and I think Gore won. He won the popular vote and he won in Florida; it was stolen from him in so many different ways before, during and after Election Day, from Tallahassee to the five Republican politicians on the Supreme Court in Washington.
What The Atlantic Monthly is revealing here is not only a factual ignorance, because I think they know better, it’s political bigotry. There’s a winning or unwinning political bigotry in state ballot access obstruction laws in the minds of a lot of liberals and progressives who think that the Democrats own all their votes and shouldn’t be challenged. There is that political bigotry and it affects a lot of well-known writers and liberal politicians. And, you know, The Atlantic Monthly is in that category.
WW: …And I only bring it up to ask you what you would consider your legacy to be, and most specifically, at the risk of your campaigns becoming more about you than about the issues you advocate, who do you see as your successor? Do you feel that you are carrying the mantle alone?
RN: No, we’re bringing in a lot of young people who are not celebrities and therefore their names are not known into political activity, developing skills, organizing, running for local office, and they’ll be heard from more in the future. My legacy is basically strengthening Democracy on all fronts: for workers, consumers, communities, small taxpayers, voter rights, candidate rights, and the control of our government by the sovereign people rather than the powerful corporations. Corporations should be our servants, not our masters. And instead they’re tearing the heart and soul out of our country in ways that the media is reporting constantly—abandoning the country with its industries to fueling the arms race and world market in weaponry to exacerbating global warming. It’s all in the press. It’s just liberal progressives don’t want to draw the next conclusion, which is we need a political movement with candidates. Instead they go every four years with the Democrats because they’re the least-worst, and every four years the Democrats get worse because the corporations are pulling them undeterred in their directions, and the liberal progressives are giving them a pass.
If you look at all the websites of liberal progressive groups supporting Obama, ask yourself how many are making demands on him. So they give him a free ride. Therefore they don’t pull in their direction. Corporations are pulling in the opposite direction. That’s why both parties are getting worse…the Democratic Party is dialing for dollars from corporate interests like, ferociously.
WW: You’re holding the Super Rally in Denver at DU’s Magness Arena on the 27th during the Democratic National Convention. One of the stated aims of that rally is to encourage your supporters to help open up the presidential debates. Why is being a part of the debates so important?
RN: Yes of course it is. First of all, it’s the only way you can reach tens of millions of people. [The Democrats and Republicans] have a lock on the debate commission which they created; it’s a private corporation. Just check out opendebates.org, you’ll get the lowdown, opendebates.org. They created it in 1987 and they control it, the two parties. So if we can’t open those debates we got to have other debates sponsored by Google and Yahoo and the whole internet giants. But I think that’s why…I mean, a lot of people are coming and speaking at this rally because of the open debates theme of the rally—Jello Biafra, Nellie McKay, Cindy Sheehan, of course my running mate Matt Gonzalez, Sean Penn, maybe others as well that are well-known…we’ve got a couple of pretty major stars who are about to say they are going to do it.