Why, yes, Ralph Nader would be delighted to discuss the Enron scandal. But don’t expect the once and possibly future presidential candidate to do so with a straight face. “I hate to say ‘I told you so,'” he begins, barely cloaking his glee over what could be the greatest corporate scandal in the lifetime of America’s greatest corporate critic. “But”–and now the 67-year-old consumer activist pauses with an unexpectedly theatrical flair–“I told you so!”
With that, Nader rips into the issue that official Washington is struggling to wrap its spin around. “Enron is our engine for reform,” he says, sounding almost as optimistic as the Harvard Law School grad who hitchhiked to Washington in the 1960s with the notion that he could force the auto industry to make safer cars. After years of warning about the dangers inherent in a system that permits corporate political action committees to buy government favors in the form of deregulation, lax regulatory oversight and economic globalization, suddenly Nader can point to the Enron mess as Exhibit A. “Enron is the supermarket of corporate crime for our time,” he announces. “It has embarrassed the hell out of the business community. It has raised questions about accounting practices. Investor confidence is severely shaken. The investment bankers are quaking. The lobbyists are scared. The politicians are scrambling to explain why they took those checks from [Enron chief] Ken Lay. I could talk about this from now until 2004.”
Even if he still gets the cold shoulder from Washington Republicans angered by his penchant for calling Bush campaign contributors “criminals” and Washington Democrats who believe his renegade 2000 presidential race ushered the criminal coddlers into the White House, America seems to be listening to what Nader is saying now. Since the Enron scandal broke, the man who argues that he was “not silent, but silenced” after the end of his 2000 presidential campaign has gotten quite a hearing. Nader has appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week and PBS’s Firing Line. He even stirred it up one morning on Fox News Channel’s Fox and Friends. Nader, who as a presidential candidate held a press conference to which no press came, showed up at the National Press Club in January to pitch a “corporate decency” proposal–a traditional Naderite stew of more regulation for auditors, independent trustees for pension plans and restoration of rights for investors to sue corporations–and was greeted by ten television cameras and four dozen reporters. Nader’s life these days is a city-to-city rush from television studio to newspaper editorial board to talk-radio show to crowded auditorium. Theresa Amato, who managed Nader’s Green Party candidacy and now heads an outgrowth of it called Citizen Works, admits, “There’s been so much press demand. I wish we’d had this during the campaign.”
For Nader, who has written an unrepentant recollection of his candidacy, Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender, a January book tour that one critic suggested should be billed as “coming soon to a small independent bookstore near you” has turned into a rollicking tour of the country that gave him a mere 2.7 percent of the presidential vote in 2000–and, depending on one’s analysis of the vote patterns, the dubious distinction of handing Al Gore’s presidency to George W. Bush. “He’s a rock star,” said Bob Maull, owner of 23rd Avenue Books, a Portland bookstore that had to move Nader’s reading to a nearby auditorium, and still turned away 400 people. “I have a hard time thinking of any other political figure at this point who would draw this kind of crowd, especially the young people.”
Up the West Coast, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly–an unusually harsh critic of Nader as a self-absorbed political dilettante–welcomed the consumer activist with an admission that “just as this column was ready to get rough on Ralph Nader, who hits town today to promote a self-celebratory book on his 2000 presidential campaign, along came twin reminders of why America needs a burr-in-the-saddle corporate critic.” After reflecting on how Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill described the Enron mess as an example of “the genius of capitalism” and George W. Bush referred to Enron’s CEO as “Kenny Boy,” Connelly acknowledged the unavoidable reality that “Enron’s collapse has renewed Nader.” While only a handful of Congressional Democrats are speaking to him, while his requests to testify before Congressional committees seldom get a response and while it is never hard to find a commentator like Joe Klein ready to dismiss him as “a sour and unrelenting demagogue,” Nader is packing crowds into book signings and “People Have the Power” rallies. One $10-a-ticket event on January 26 in Austin, Texas, drew 5,000 people and reunited the supposed persona non grata of American politics with Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Jackson Browne and Patti Smith. “America is starting to understand what Ralph has been trying to tell them all these years,” says Smith, the most loyal of Nader’s superrally compatriots. “People don’t trust Washington, but they trust Ralph Nader.”
Her point is well taken. As Democrats in Washington scramble to make the case that they were less in hock to Enron than the GOP–noting the corporation’s contributions favored Republicans by a 3-to-1 ratio–Nader declares “a pox on both their houses.” He announced in Portland, “The prospect of reform is eviscerated because of both parties’ sticky hands. That is what is so disgusting. The Democrats can’t really go after this scandal because so many of them look like hypocrites. They took as much money as they could get from Enron, and they keep raising money from corporate PACs.”
For all of his current Green trappings, Nader still pours enormous energy into the thankless work of “inserting a spine into the Democratic Party.” Rare is the conversation in which Nader does not settle into a fierce rant about his disappointment with a party that no longer seems capable of mustering the righteous indignation he remembers coming from its previous generations; his comments are peppered with references to former California Congressman John Moss, former Oregon Senator Wayne Morse and other now-gone legislators. “If Democrats were saying the kinds of things that we are saying about Enron, this scandal would be blowing wide open,” he says. “But they are not saying much, are they? That’s how bad it’s gotten: They cannot even seize an issue like Enron.”
Nader’s fury with the Democrats can bring out his poetic side: “They have decided to risk losing through cowardliness, rather than to risk winning through valor.” But it can also get the best of him. The weakest sections of Crashing the Party recount, often at great length, the slights Nader and his campaign suffered at the hands of Democrats and progressives he once worked with: folks like Representative John Conyers Jr., onetime “Nader Raider” Toby Moffett and Gloria Steinem. In a book that is thick with engaging anecdotes and optimistic outlines for a renewal of citizenship, these pages read bitter. “I wanted to show how totally inflexible most of the Democrats in Washington are, and how they haven’t learned a single lesson,” says Nader. “There are exceptions, like Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney and Jesse Jackson Jr. They’re saying, ‘Look, we’re going to lose more voters if we don’t change course and adopt a more progressive agenda.’ But they’re not getting anywhere, nowhere at all.” He adds, “The corporate Democratic grip of the Democratic Leadership Council is absolutely ironclad.”
Nader criticizes the Democrats for allowing the Bush Administration a free hand not just on military issues but on domestic matters since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Republicans, he says, have treated the war as “manna from Heaven, a perfect excuse for drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, tort deform, fast track, corporate welfare,” while Democrats like Senate majority leader Tom Daschle have looked at Bush’s high poll numbers and decided to give him whatever he wants. Says Nader, “Bush has used the war to advance a domestic policy that is all about increasing the strength of the commercial militarists, the autocratic ideologues and the corporate greedhounds. He has attacked our civil liberties. For this, he is praised by Democrats? It’s amazing.”
In Nader’s view, if Democrats fail to challenge Bush aggressively, not just on Enron but on a host of issues in coming months, they could destroy the party’s prospects for years to come–guaranteeing the loss of the Senate and the House this fall and the presidency in 2004.
The only prominent Democrat who Nader seems to believe offers the party any chance for redemption is Russ Feingold, the maverick senator from Wisconsin who cast a lonely vote against the Bush Administration’s antiterrorism legislation. Feingold is a rare Democrat who consistently says things like, “Ralph Nader is talking about issues Democrats should be talking about.” But the mutual admiration goes only so far. Nader rejects the idea of backing a Feingold run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. “I’ll say a lot of good things about him, but we’re not trying to build the same party,” he says.
For now, Nader says, he is determined to beef up the Greens. “The failure of the Democrats to fight Bush on most of the major issues has created a vacuum that can be filled by a party that is willing to take a stand. And the Greens have taken a stand in their positions–on civil liberties, on the bombing of Afghanistan,” says Nader, the party’s 1996 and 2000 presidential nominee. “Greens have been calling on senators who took Enron money to recuse themselves from the investigation. Do you think Democrats would ever do that?”
But are the Greens really a viable alternative? The party has never won a Congressional election, and looks unlikely to do so this year. While it has a greater presence at the local level, its entire class of elected officials numbers roughly 130. The party even faces sniping from the Libertarian Party, to the effect that were it not for the strength Nader showed in 2000, the Greens would actually rank as America’s fourth party. Nader admits he experiences “lots” of frustration with the Greens. He warns that the party is not running enough candidates to achieve critical mass at election time, and he says it must do so–even where that means challenging relatively liberal Democrats. He frets that some state parties remain mired in internecine “bickering, trivia and process-mania” that make them unappealing to grassroots Americans who simply want to put a few hours a week into building a political alternative. “The Greens are terrific in a lot of states,” Nader explains. “But in a few states there are longtime Greens who, if they are not careful, are going to turn away the vast numbers of people who are going to make their party into something.”
Nader’s impatience with some Greens is paralleled by impatience on the part of some Greens with Nader. During a question-and-answer session in Portland, a veteran West Coast Green activist, Robin Denburg, rose to repeat a not uncommon complaint that Nader’s Washington-based aides have approached independent-minded Green activists and groups less as political partners than as affiliates of “Team Nader.” Yet Nader remains enormously popular with the Green cadres–people like Pacific Greens campaigner Jennifer Malidore, who after Nader’s Portland talk announced, “He really is the heart of this party. He’s our national presence. I would love to see him run again in 2004.”
“I am thinking about how to do it,” says Nader, as he reviews the mistakes of the 2000 campaign: starting late, putting too little money into the development of a grassroots organization and get-out-the-vote drives. Nader goes on to describe how he has been encouraged not just to mount another Green candidacy but to enter the Democratic primaries or even to run as what he actually is: a confirmed independent. The discussion is serious and detail-oriented, so much so that Nader finally interrupts himself. “This is not like a sure thing in 2004. There are a lot of things you have to see in order to make a decision like that,” he says. But, he explains, before reflecting on how a third presidential run would need to expand dramatically beyond a base that remains too white, too middle-class and too frequently clustered in college towns, “if a decision is made, it is going to be a campaign that no one has ever seen–in terms of its strategy and diversity.”
Does Nader worry, even just a little bit, that another candidacy might divide progressives and produce another Bush presidency? “Look, I’d rather be engaged in the nonpartisan work of building a civil society. For me, there has been a gradual commitment to getting involved in the electoral process, and I still cling to this civic, nonpartisan vision of how to do things,” Nader says. “But if you do an acute analysis of why things don’t change in this country, you come back to what has happened to the Democratic Party. When I look at how the Democrats have responded to Enron so far, it seems to me that we all have a responsibility to try to jolt them into an understanding of what is at stake. If Democrats respond effectively, there will not be much point to me or anyone else challenging them. But if they do not, something has to give. People realize that. People know what the Enron scandal means. This is a test. Are Democrats capable of addressing massive corporate crimes effectively? If Democrats cannot, if they are in such a routinized rut that they are incapable of responding, then how could anyone make a case that they should be given deference at the ballot box?”