Ralph Nader, Suicide Bomber

How the Great Crusader used the Green Party to get his revenge

Ralph Nader exploited his reputation as a self-sacrificing idealist to pursue an utterly selfish goal. He claimed his purpose was to build the Green Party by drawing the 5 percent vote required for federal funding. But this was cover—a way of justifying his lust for revenge. Nader campaigned as the honest man who told the truth while lying about what he believed and wanted.

The most pernicious myth spread by his campaign was the Tweedledee and Tweedledum line—a claim columnist Marianne Means branded "insane" and his opposite number Pat Buchanan never got near. Perhaps Nader concealed from himself that his nostalgic view of a Democratic Party that had shifted away from its progressive traditions was at odds with the hodgepodge he actually grew up with—an amalgam of machine hacks and Ivy League liberals, rip-roaring Southern racists and farmer-labor populists. But he certainly recognized the huge difference between a timid moderate Democrat like Al Gore and fierce right-wingers like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These were Republicans of a sort never in power before Reagan. Like most politicians, however, Nader couldn't reveal what he really thought. He needed an explanation for campaigning in the swing states. So he exaggerated, distorted, misled, and dissembled. He lied.

"Throughout the campaign, Nader brushed aside concerns that he might help elect Bush by employing one of several blithe quips," wrote Jonathan Chait in the November 2002 American Prospect. "If asked about being a spoiler, he'd invariably reply, 'You can't spoil a system that's spoiled to the core.' " Chait concludes: "Not since Steve Forbes has a presidential candidate turned aside unwanted queries so robotically. Nader's one-liners were pure, made-for-television nonsequiturs, all refusing to engage on any substantive level the fact that his candidacy might prove a decisive factor in Bush's election."

Nader's swing-state strategy was the crux of his anti-Gore game plan. If Nader had been truly committed to getting the Greens their 5 percent, he would have taken the safe-state route mapped out by many party advisers. In Stupid White Men, Michael Moore says he rejected Nader's invitation to join him in the battleground states as the election neared. Instead, Moore chose to work only "in those states where Ralph could get a lot of votes without being responsible for Bush winning the election." Places like New York, California, Massachusetts, and such liberal enclaves as Bush's own Austin, Texas, as Chait puts it, "offered the richest harvest of potential votes." This is what Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan did. Nader took precisely the opposite tack. He spent the last days of the campaign in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and, especially, Florida, which according to Sellers he visited five times all told. Pennsylvania and Michigan went Democratic, but Nader forced Gore to expend time and resources on states he should have had in his pocket. And in Florida, though Nader's poll numbers dipped from 6 percent to 4 to his final 1.6, his 97,488 voters tipped the election.

Reached by telephone recently, Martin explained Nader's motives as "a neat blend of his desire to go where the cameras and media are and his desire to make the Democrats pay." But even in the Nader camp this was at best partially understood. Danny Goldberg reported in Tikkun that Nader told supporters he wouldn't campaign late in swing states. Sellers suspects that Moore didn't get it until the last moment. And Ronnie Dugger, the veteran journalist who nominated Nader at the Green convention, learned about Nader's battleground-barnstorming strategy long after the election. "Why hasn't Nader been building the Green Party for the last four years?" he asked me. "Nader was more interested in beating Gore than beating Bush. And Nader has said he will not follow a safe-state strategy in 2004 either."

Hand it to Nader—he ran a brilliant campaign, approaching the loony task of punishing the Democrats by defeating Al Gore with typical hyper-rationality. A mad scientist in both senses of "mad," he devoted his enormous skills, knowledge, and reputation to a bizarre personal agenda. Nothing he has said since indicates he thinks he made a mistake.

The day after the election, I saw a Nader press conference on TV. I'd been watching TV news reporters, various Gore and Bush representatives, Republicans and Democrats, almost nonstop. Everyone was grim. Nobody thought this was a good outcome.

And then up stepped Nader. He had not smiled at his adoring fans and supporters at his New York party. But now, after a few comments, he was beaming. With this deadlocked election, where his efforts in Florida made all the difference, Nader looked happy, very happy. On the first strange day after the election, Ralph Nader may have been the happiest man in America.

What does Nader want to do in the 2004 election? Does he again want to defeat the Democratic candidate by taking swing-state votes? "Absolutely," says Gary Sellers. This time the Greens will likely run David Cobb, who is committed to a safe-state strategy. Nader is not. So voters in Florida and other battlegrounds where the differences will again be razor-thin can expect to see a lot of him. The stampede of his prominent 2000 supporters means many of them know what their former hero has in mind. But there are always new suckers to con. In 2004, as in 2000, Nader's real campaign slogan is: "Vote for Ralph Nader. You too can punish, hurt, and wound the Democrats."

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