On the Road With Ralph Nader | The Nation


On the Road With Ralph Nader

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On a spectacular spring day at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about 1,500 college kids are sitting by the lake outside the student union, drinking beer, listening to bands and waiting for Ralph Nader to show up and explain why he's running as the Green Party candidate for President of the United States. A woman with purple hair finishes playing the acoustic guitar, and a gaggle of Green Party activists troops onstage. The campus rep to the county board grabs the microphone, and someone announces it's his birthday. He begins to giggle uncontrollably. "Uh-oh, I guess the cookie is crumbled," he says. Another young Green Party member, who is running for governor of Wisconsin, introduces Nader, telling the crowd, "He's been fighting for your rights since before you were born--since before I was born, for sure." So far, this presidential campaign stop brought to you by Wayne's World.

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

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Then Nader steps up to the mike, tall and gaunt, looking like Abraham Lincoln in his dark, rumpled suit. The whole stage seems to tilt forward under his relative weight. Next to this crew, his presence is overwhelming. As a sailboat glides by behind him, Nader invokes the civil rights and antiwar movements of the sixties. He praises the students for "the antisweatshop movement that's sweeping the country" and for recent protests against the IMF and the WTO. "After a long slumber, student activism is waking up," he says, and gets a rousing cheer.

Soon he's in full swing, nailing applause lines as he attacks corporate power. After decades of fighting for consumer protection, he says, today he finds that corporate lobbyists in Washington have made his job nearly impossible. "Commercial interests have congealed into giant economic interests" with such political clout that "the two parties have merged into one corporate party, with two heads and different makeup."

This anticorporate message bears some resemblance to the one that electrified voters briefly when John McCain delivered it during the Republican primary. But Nader's public-interest track record (he is frequently referred to as the most respected man in America) and the depth and breadth of his knowledge put other presidential candidates to shame.

"When do these corporations begin to lose credibility? They fought Social Security, Medicare, auto safety. They fought every social justice movement in this country," he tells the crowd, which is by now roaring its approval. "It's time for us to band together and strengthen this new Green Party here in Wisconsin and around the country."

Nader explains that he's running with the help of local grassroots activists, which is nice. But you can't help wondering about the future of the Republic if it's in the hands of the goofballs on stage with him in Madison--a bunch of nervous kids. Still, Nader's speech is so inspiring, and the reaction he produces is so strong, you get the feeling something big might be happening. Afterward the crowd gives him a standing ovation.

Nationwide, Nader has some older and weightier supporters. Paul Newman and Phil Donahue have contributed to his campaign. So have other liberals and progressives from New York to Hollywood, including two generations of idealists who got their start as "Nader's Raiders" in his citizen-action groups. So far he has raised $876,000. And he has pulled ahead of Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, polling about 7 percent of prospective presidential votes. If he does that well nationally in November, the Green Party will qualify for about $12 million in public general-election funds, making it a much more formidable political force. The goal of his campaign, Nader says, is to build a nationwide network so that "in 2004 or 2008 there could really be a credible challenge to the major-party candidates." Meanwhile, if he gives the Democrats enough of a scare, he says, labor unions, consumer groups, environmentalists and other progressive interests can capture the attention of their representatives again.

But what has really focused national media attention on Nader's campaign is the fact that he could cost Al Gore the election. He doesn't seem to mind. Speaking to a group of about 100 middle-aged professionals at a Madison fundraiser in the home of an alumnus of Nader's Public Citizen, Nader says: "A funny thing is happening in the Democratic Party. Every time they win, they say it's because they took Republican issues away. And then when they lose, they say it's because they are not appealing to the Republican voters. We want them to say they lost because a progressive movement took away votes." This gets a big cheer. It tells you something about Madison progressives that they applaud the idea of making Al Gore lose. But if the People's Republic of Madison is prepared to overthrow the two-party system, is the rest of the country ready for this?

As Nader took his quixotic campaign on the road this summer, bumping through all fifty states in rental cars, the news has traveled fast behind him: If he continues to pick up steam, particularly in California (where major media outlets are speculating that he could draw 9 or 10 percent), he might be a spoiler for the Democrats. This has begun to cause some real consternation, even among his friends. In Los Angeles, left-wing Democrats helped raise $30,000 for Nader at a recent event. Still, "about one-third to one-half of the people milling around were saying 'a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush,'" says host Stanley Sheinbaum. People might be moved by Nader's message, but "then they're not sure what to go out and do," Sheinbaum added.

Many remain unpersuaded that Nader's campaign will achieve more than helping to propel a Republican into the White House. Liberal pundit John Judis declared in The New Republic that Nader "betrays himself" by attacking the Democrats. It's true that the Clinton Administration has lost ground on issues ranging from the environment to the minimum wage to Social Security, Judis conceded, but "the relevant question...is whether the Democrats are as responsible for these setbacks as the Republicans." His answer is no. Without a Democratic administration applying the brakes, right-wingers in Congress would have done even more harm.

Nader turns this argument on its head. "When I saw that the Democrats couldn't even defend this country against the baying pack of right-wing extremists in the Republican Party anymore, that's when I said it's time for a new progressive movement," he says. "Can you imagine what Harry Truman or FDR would have done with the likes of Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay? They would have landslided them!"

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