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.
Even if more progressives were open to accepting Nader’s claim that he is the anticorporate, antiwar alternative, he is having a hard time making that case. Instead, Nader’s spring, summer and, now, fall have been taken up with bitter and seemingly endless ballot-access fights. After he lost the support of the Green Party in late June, in part because of the disregard that his campaign showed for the activists who built the base for his 1996 and 2000 campaigns, Nader found himself locked in a state-by-state battle for ballot lines that would have been his for the taking as the Green nominee. Nader’s campaign has been forced to hire paid signature gatherers in a number of states and to shell out huge sums to fend off constant and frequently picayune legal challenges to its petitions. “This is the biggest assault on an independent candidate’s right to get on the ballot in memory,” he says. “They’re using Jim Crow ballot-access laws to stifle political dissent.”
Teams of lawyers with ties to the Democratic Party and labor unions allied with Kerry have gone to war to block Nader’s access to ballots. And some Democratic officials have made what look to many like partisan calls to remove Nader’s name from ballots even where his backers have filed what traditionally would have been sufficient documentation. But for the most part, the Democrats are not apologizing. They say they are only holding Nader to the letter of the law–something he taught some of them to do–and they argue that, in the high-stakes world of presidential politics, they are not about to cut any breaks to the man they blame for costing them the presidency in 2000.
Nader’s campaign, ill prepared for the intensity of the struggle and desperate to leap the ballot-access hurdles, accepted contributions from major Republican givers such as billionaire Richard Egan, the former ambassador to Ireland, and his wife, Pamela, who have raised more than $600,000 for Bush, and on-the-ground assistance from conservative groups like the Oregon Family Council and Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy, which urged Bush backers to help Nader get on the ballot in that state. Nader dismisses charges that his campaign is powered by Republican money and foot soldiers, noting a recent Center for Responsive Politics study that says only 4 percent of the funding for his cash-strapped campaign has come from GOP-tied sources. “Don’t you think that if the Republicans, with all their resources, really wanted me on the ballot in every state that I would be on the ballot in every state?” he asks. But even an arm’s-length dalliance with the right in states such as Oregon has given ammunition to opponents, who now portray him as a willing accomplice to the Bush/Cheney campaign.
Nader’s foes are using that ammunition to justify attempts to knock him off ballots. By late September, the Nader campaign had staked a claim to ballot lines in at least thirty-three states, with lawsuits pending to put him on in seven more states. The long, expensive technical fights over petition formats and signature validity will go on in some states through the election.
Nader and his aides admit their campaign has been “distracted” by these ballot-access battles, evidence of which can be seen in the muted cry for the inclusion of the independent candidate in this year’s presidential debates. Make no mistake, Nader wants in, but it is hard to demand inclusion when you are still struggling to gain the ballot placement that confirms at least one form of electoral legitimacy. As frustrating as the ballot-access fights are, Nader gamely declares, “Democracy is not a bad issue to run on.”
In practice, however, Nader’s crusade for democracy often degenerates into carping about Democrats. Rare is the conversation in which Nader fails to use the term “totally bankrupt” in reference to the Democrats. He is quick to detail the sins of Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and to recite what he sees as the failures of John Kerry and John Edwards–the latter earning particular scorn as a trial lawyer who has failed to challenge the attacks by Bush/Cheney “on the pillar of our democracy, the right of citizens to have a day in court.”
As the election approaches, those criticisms of the Democrats will be heard a good deal in battleground states because of a boneheaded strategy of the Democrats. When they got Nader tossed off the ballots in noncompetitive states such as Illinois and Texas–where he would have spent most of his time banging Bush–they in effect guided him into states where polls show the Bush/Kerry race so close that even a marginal Nader vote could do damage. Instead of knocking Nader out, Democrats have drawn him into places where they least want him to be. Now, he is turning up regularly in the competitive states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Nader still says that he is more likely to hurt Bush than Kerry. But polls from battleground states–where Nader’s 1, 2 and 3 percent support figures often mirror the margin by which Bush leads Kerry–frequently suggest otherwise. Nader likes to say that “the first step in recovering power is the realization that you don’t have any.” This fall, Nader could yet prove himself both right and wrong. While he does not seem to have the power to give Kerry a needed nudge to the left, he could yet have the power to pull just enough votes away from Kerry to tip several battleground states to the right. It is the fear of precisely such a result–as opposed to any loosening of left-wing faith, or fatal attraction to John Kerry–that has led so many of Nader’s old allies to abandon him.