The thing that really galls Ralph Nader is not that so many of his prominent 2000 campaign supporters are now actively campaigning for Democrat John Kerry. To be sure, he is angry about the abandonment. But what gets him so fevered that he starts accusing old comrades of engaging in “the most amazing unconditional surrender by the left in decades” is his belief that they have given their support to the Kerry campaign without asking anything in return. “They made no demands,” Nader says of the dozens of his former backers who recently signed a letter urging support for Kerry. “They forgot the wisdom of Frederick Douglass, who taught us that power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Certainly, the defections of Studs Terkel, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bonnie Raitt, Tim Robbins, Noam Chomsky and others whom Nader refers to as “the finest people on the left” has knocked a little more wind out of the independent candidate’s wheezing 2004 campaign. But Nader seems to be at least as concerned that the endorsements are doing so little to buck up Kerry’s campaign. “If the left does not exert pressure on Kerry, the only pull he is going to feel will be from corporate interests,” he says, dismissing “Anybody But Bush” sentiments as intellectually and politically vapid. “If the left does not make Kerry better, he gets worse. He moves to the right. And when Kerry moves to the right, his poll numbers go down. So, you see, when liberals back Kerry without asking anything of him, they don’t do him any favors. That’s why he’s losing what should have been an easy race.”
While Nader may find some takers for that point of view, he steps onto shakier ground when he suggests that “the only force pulling Kerry in a progressive direction is our ticket.” As of now, the Nader campaign does not appear to be much of a force. Running in 2000 on the Green ticket, Nader won nearly 3 million votes–2.7 percent of the national total–and secured more than 5 percent of the vote in ten states and DC. This year, after causing a brief stir when spring polls suggested his anti-Iraq war stance was resonating, Nader’s poll numbers have dwindled nationally and in most, though not all, battleground states. And he has yet to mount a campaign anywhere to match his 2000 effort.
Nader has made stops in all fifty states, but for the most part his travels have resembled a lecture tour rather than a presidential run. During late September visits to cities that in 2000 were hotbeds of Nader activism–San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and college towns like Madison, Wisconsin, and Iowa City, Iowa–I was struck by a complete absence of the street-level campaigning that was such a vibrant characteristic of Nader’s last campaign. In 2000, when Nader portrayed his Green Party run as an effort to build a genuine alternative to the two major parties, it was impossible to set foot in any of those communities without encountering undergraduates tabling for Nader, older lefties arguing fervently that the time had come to build a Green alternative, and mainstream liberals raising the ubiquitous “Let Ralph Debate” call. This year, a visitor could pass through without hearing mention of Nader’s name by anyone other than angry Democrats who still blame him for tipping the balance to Bush in Florida in 2000–a charge Nader disputes–and who spend inordinate amounts of time assessing his prospects as a spoiler in this year’s race.
“There isn’t a campaign to speak of,” says Ross Mirkarimi, the San Francisco Green Party strategist who was one of the ablest organizers for the 2000 Green effort. Unlike 2000, says Arab American Institute chief James Zogby, Nader is “having trouble establishing himself as a legitimate candidate.” While Nader complains a great deal about his abandonment by the “liberal elites,” the real abandonment appears to be at the grassroots. “Most of the people who backed Nader in 2000 recognize that this year the election is about getting rid of George W. Bush,” says David Austin, a savvy Wisconsin political activist who backed Nader in 2000 but now places himself firmly in the Anybody But Bush camp. That has made it cool–or at least acceptable–to back Kerry in places where backing Gore in 2000 was anything but hip.