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On the Road With Ralph Nader | The Nation

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On the Road With Ralph Nader

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Several days later, UAW president Stephen Yokich released the following statement: "We are deeply disappointed that Vice President Gore has failed to speak out [on China].... It's time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates." The statement stopped short of endorsing Nader, and it didn't prevent the House from passing the China trade bill. But it sent a message that union leaders could heed Nader's call to "play hardball" and reject the Democrats' assertion that they have nowhere else to go. On June 14 the 31,000-member California Nurses Association officially endorsed Nader. And on June 22 Teamsters president James Hoffa nodded to Nader's call, endorsing his position on trade and suggesting that he appear in the debates.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive magazine.

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Reading three or four newspapers each morning as he rolls along in the passenger seat of his rental car, Nader tosses out commentary: "Look at this. Clinton's dominating the media with this China trade thing. He's in there every day. Can you imagine him doing that on an issue that's important for people, not corporations? What a pimp he is."

He's equally unsparing of Gore: "I want to fight fer you?" he drawls. "Gore changes his clothes three times a day. He has absolutely no idea who he is." (Nader, on the other hand, could make history wearing the same dark blue suit to all fifty states.)

But even if you accept Nader's critique of the Clinton/Gore Administration--that it has abandoned principle to raise corporate cash--aren't there still some crucial differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush? "The lesser of two evils beats the hell out of the greater evil," says Representative Barney Frank, who is dismayed by Nader's challenge. On gay rights, abortion and affirmative action, progressives stand to lose a lot if Bush wins, Frank says. And don't forget the Supreme Court. "But Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott decide the nominations anyway," Nader argues. Clinton has sought Supreme Court nominees who were acceptable to the Republican majority, withdrawing the names of liberals Mario Cuomo and Bruce Babbitt at Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Hatch's behest. Nader expects Gore to do the same. Nor does he believe that Roe v. Wade is hanging by a thread; on the current Court a majority of Justices, including Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor, have declined to overturn it. In Congress, he contends, Democrats' chances aren't tied to Gore either: Nader insists his candidacy will draw disaffected progressives to the polls, which will help Congressional Democrats.

For people who still don't buy it, there's always Texas, where campaign staffers gathered 74,100 signatures (twice what they needed) to get him on the ballot. Texas could be a great state for Nader. Since Bush is a shoo-in there, Democrats don't face such an agonizing choice: A vote for Nader won't hurt Gore. Conversely, the stakes for Democrats casting a Nader vote are also lower in Gore strongholds like Massachusetts and New York.

National media attention continues to build, which will aid Nader in his toughest battle yet: breaking the two-party lock on the presidential debates. Nader has filed a lawsuit accusing the Federal Election Commission of violating campaign finance rules by allowing Anheuser-Busch and other corporations to fund the debates, which amounts to a corporate campaign contribution to the two major candidates. It's a long shot, but a victory could mean a new, more open debate forum and a huge boost to Nader's campaign.

In the meantime the journey continues, by rental car. Nader is at his best in Montpelier, Vermont, before an enthusiastic crowd of about 400, warmed up by their own independent member of Congress, Representative Bernie Sanders, who calls Nader "one of the heroes of contemporary American society." Nader then gets personal, saying that, at 66, he has decided he wants to make it his contribution to try to start a movement.

He reminds the crowd that other historical movements also faced tall odds. "Think of the farmers in East Texas who in the late nineteenth century started the populist, progressive farmer revolt against the big banks and railroads," he says. "They had nothing but their hearts, their minds and their feet. Do you think they gave up?" Think what it was like for the early abolitionists, he says, or for the suffragists, or the workers who formed the trade union movement. Conditions today are hardly any worse.

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