NEW YORK TIMES
March 31, 2004
Reason to Run? Nader Argues He Has Plenty
By TODD S. PURDUM
WASHINGTON, March 30Ralph Nader knows all the arguments against him. He can recite, word for importuning word, the letters from old friends urging him not to run for president - "all individually written, all stunningly similar" - and he does so with the theatrical relish of a man whose public life has been one long, unyielding argument with the world. "Here's how it started," he said, his soft voice taking on mock oratorical tones over dinner with a group of aides in Charlotte, N.C., last week: "For years, I've thought of you as one of our heroes." He rolled his eyes. "The achievements you've attained are monumental, in consumer, environmental, etc., etc." He paused for effect. "But this time, I must express my profound disappointment at indications that you are going to run."
"And the more I got of these," Mr. Nader said, "the more I realized that we are confronting a virus, a liberal virus. And the characteristic of a virus is when it takes hold of the individual, it's the same virus, individual letters all written in uncannily the same sequence. Here's another characteristic of the virus: Not one I can recall ever said, 'What are your arguments for running?' " So ask him already. He is bursting with answers. No, he says, he is neither a nut nor a narcissist. Yes, he agrees with his sharpest Democratic critics that defeating President Bush is essential. In the end, he believes, out-of-power Democrats will rally around John Kerry, and Mr. Nader will take votes from disaffected Republicans and independents. He is running as an independent, but might accept the endorsement of the Green Party, which nominated him four years ago, though not if doing so means refraining from campaigning in swing states, as some in the party insist.
His goal is to raise $15 million to $20 million ("Very tough to do," he said, noting, "We had $8 million last time.") He aspires to get on the ballot in all 50 states, a daunting task demanding tens of thousands of signatures in each state. He vows to conduct a creative campaign, "opening up new areas in August, September and October as the two parties zero in on five issues and beat them to a vapid pulp." He has asked for a meeting with Mr. Kerry next month to make his case that he can offer fresh ideas "field-tested by a second front," and Kerry aides say a session is being arranged. "We are going to focus on defeating George Bush and showing the Democrats, if they're smart enough to pick up on it, how to take apart George Bush,"
Mr. Nader told a rally of a couple of hundred students at North Carolina State University in Raleigh last Thursday, his shoulders no more slumped and his chest no less concave at 70 than when he began addressing another generation almost 40 years ago. "Things have gotten so bad in this country, you look back at Richard Nixon with nostalgia." But even some of Mr. Nader's admirers remain skeptical of most or all of those arguments. They remember how his presence in the razor-close 2000 election helped deprive Al Gore of victory in states like New Hampshire and Florida, and they worry about some early polls that showed Mr. Kerry leading Mr. Bush in a two-way race, but trailing if Mr. Nader is added as an option.
"He's made his decision, and now all of us have to live with it," said Mark Green, the former New York City public advocate and co-chairman of Mr. Kerry's campaign in New York who was one of dozens of old friends urging Mr. Nader not to run. "I'm hopeful that we who admire Ralph and are ardent Kerry supporters are all vindicated in the end. First, that his numbers shrink to under 1 percent, because Kerry is such a strong progressive, and second that Ralph does not make the margin of difference in any swing state that he manages to get on the ballot of." "Ralph can bring a lot to a campaign," Mr. Green said. "But it's still, in my mind, not worth the risk." Mr. Nader countered, as he has since 2000, that Democrats "know who beat Gore: it was Gore." He added: "The reason why I'm convinced I'm going to get more votes away from Bush than the Democrats is the wholesale abandonment of our campaign by the big donors in 2000 and our prominent liberal supporters: Michael Moore, Phil Donohue, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, I could keep going. They're out of here. And I keep saying to our new adherents, `It's a big country out there.' And it's proving true."
Public Citizen, the consumer and political advocacy group that Mr. Nader founded in 1971, lost about 20 percent of its members and roughly $1 million in support in apparent protest after his 2000 campaign, even though he has not held any post with the organization since 1980. The group has posted statements on its Web site this year, noting that it has no involvement with Mr. Nader's campaign, and no influence over his decision to run. "We've worked really hard," the group's president, Joan Claybrook, said, "and we've almost come back up, but you never recover the funds you lost. I'd really hate to see our missions compromised. This year, I can't tell you the effect yet. We did get about 600 e-mails in the week or two after Ralph announced his candidacy, and 200 letters. It's hard to tell whether that's going to translate into money. I don't know. We're not doing as well as we were last year at this time."
Favorable public opinion about Mr. Nader has sharply declined since 2000, while the percentage of Americans who view him unfavorably has increased, according to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey. Four years ago, Republicans were the most negative, with 33 percent viewing Mr. Nader unfavorably; now that figure is 42 percent. And Mr. Nader's argument that he can draw more support from Mr. Bush than from Mr. Kerry has yet to be proved. A New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this month found that when voters were asked to choose between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, 46 percent chose the president and 43 percent Mr. Kerry. When Mr. Nader was added to the mix, Mr. Bush's support stayed at 46 percent, Mr. Kerry's dropped to 38 percent and Mr. Nader drew 7 percent. More than half of Nader supporters preferred Mr. Kerry in a two-way race.
"Conservatives for Nader," the comic Jon Stewart mused recently. "Not a large group. About the same size as 'Retarded Death Row Texans for Bush.' " But Mr. Nader insisted in an interview: "There's a lot of disgruntlement among conservatives and Republicans out there. I mean, we're talking on the margins here," and on "Crossfire" on CNN on Tuesday, he urged: "Don't prejudge it. Just wait and see how it develops." Mr. Nader acknowledged that four years ago he seemed to be tougher on Mr. Gore and Bill Clinton than he was on Mr. Bush. But he said that was partly because the Democrats were the incumbents then, with a record to defend, just as Mr. Bush is now. He also made it clear that his own relationship with Mr. Gore, once friendly, had soured over lack of access to Mr. Gore in the second Clinton term and the Clinton administration's lack of interest in Mr. Nader's ideas.
"He changed," Mr. Nader said quietly of Mr. Gore. "I don't know why he changed." Mr. Nader does not dispute that there are real differences between Republicans and Democrats on social issues like abortion and gay rights, and over judicial appointments. But he said that both parties' exaggerated rhetoric tended to mask the reality that conservatives did not have the votes in Congress to pass constitutional amendments banning abortion or gay marriage and that Democrats failed to block judicial conservatives from the bench, even when they controlled the Senate. He maintained that big breakthroughs in American politics, from women's suffrage to industrial regulation, have always begun outside the mainstream - and he challenged his student audience in Raleigh to think about what that meant in terms that suggested how he must sometimes feel. "How would you have liked," he asked, "to be an abolitionist in North or South Carolina in the 1830's?"
Copyright 2004, The New York Times Company
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