Ralph Nader, Suicide Bomber


On Friday, October 13, 2000, at Madison Square Garden, the largest of Ralph Nader’s “super rallies” kicked his campaign into high gear. It was a great event in many ways. Fifteen thousand ticket buyers cheered songs, jokes, skits, and pep talks delivering timeless radical truths about wealth and power in America. Nader’s speech was actually the low point, circulating randomly through riffs about corporate power, health insurance, the environment, and what Ralph Nader had accomplished.

But Nader also served up disturbing untruths. Most notable was his insistence that Al Gore and George W. Bush were “Tweedledee and Tweedledum”—they look and act the same, so it doesn’t matter which you get. I went home angry. But it took me a while to understand that my progressive hero had turned suicide bomber—that Ralph Nader had strapped political dynamite onto himself and walked into one of the closest elections in American history hoping to blow it up.

The next day I was invited to a fundraising party in Greenwich Village. There I approached Michael Moore and described how the campaign could use the Web to provide the latest data on battleground states like Florida, where Nader supporters should hold their noses and vote for Gore. When Moore realized what I was suggesting, he puffed up like one of those fish that expand when threatened, leaned into me, poked his finger into my face, and yelled: “You can’t say that! You can’t say that! You can’t say that!”

Later I was introduced to Nader’s closest adviser, his handsome, piercingly intelligent 30-year-old nephew, Tarek Milleron. Although Milleron argued that environmentalists and other activists would find fundraising easier under Bush, he acknowledged that a Bush presidency would be worse for poor and working-class people, for blacks, for most Americans. As Moore had, he claimed that Nader’s campaign would encourage Web-based vote-swapping between progressives in safe and contested states. But when I suggested that Nader could gain substantial influence in a Democratic administration by focusing his campaign on the 40 safe states and encouraging his supporters elsewhere to vote Gore, Milleron leaned coolly toward me with extra steel in his voice and body. He did not disagree. He simply said, “We’re not going to do that.”

“Why not?” I said.

With just a flicker of smile, he answered, “Because we want to punish the Democrats, we want to hurt them, wound them.”

There was a long silence and the conversation was over.

Milleron’s words are so remarkable they bear repeating: Ralph Nader ran so he could hurt, wound, and punish the Democrats. His primary goal was not raising issues, much less building the Green Party. He actively wanted Gore to lose. Where did this passion to punish come from?

In his admiring, balanced 2002 biography, Ralph Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, Justin Martin explains that early in his career, “Nader felt he could achieve anything” in Washington. He testified regularly before Congress and was seriously proposed as a Democratic candidate for Senate and even, under McGovern, vice president. He was so allied with the Democrats that in 1972 he rejected a New Party presidential run because, he explained, that might “help throw the election to Nixon.” Nader had access to the Carter White House, where many of his former staffers worked, although his notorious nastiness and self-regard prevented him from fully capitalizing on it.

After 1980, however, he was completely shut out by the right wing—and just as galling, the Democrats tried to ride out the conservative onslaught, challenging it only selectively and knuckling under on electability issues such as crime and energy policy. By 1992, Nader campaigned briefly in a Democratic primary, but during the Clinton years, says Martin, Nader was “a pariah even among the most liberal members” of Congress and was altogether shunned by the White House. By 1996, he’d had it with Democratic gutlessness. Running on the Green ticket against a Clinton who supported NAFTA and “welfare reform,” he told Mother Jones, “I think his best nickname is George Ronald Clinton.” Nevertheless, Nader did little campaigning. In 2000, after a slow start, he threw himself into the process. Clearly, this election was going to be extraordinarily close, and in a September 2000 interview, Nader discussed playing spoiler:

Rolling Stone: “In 1996, you told the New York Times, ‘If I really wanted to beat Clinton, I would get out, raise $3 or $4 million, and maybe provide the margin for his defeat. That’s not the purpose of this candidacy.’ Since you’re planning to raise $5 million and run hard this year, does that mean you would not have a problem providing the margin of defeat for Gore?”

Nader: “I would not—not at all.”

Martin reports that during the 2000 campaign, “no matter how hard he tried to be evenhanded in doling out criticism of Bush and Gore, Nader did show a bias”—against Gore. “It was clear to many,” writes Martin, “that he truly despised Gore, while he was merely dismissive of Bush.” Martin was especially struck by a Portland speech where Nader said that Gore was “more reprehensible” than Bush because Gore “knows so much and refuses to act on his knowledge.”

Gary Sellers has a simpler way of putting it. Although Nader was the best man at Sellers’s wedding, the two are no longer close. After extensive discussions with his old boss in late 1999, Sellers created Nader’s Raiders for Gore in 2000. He believes Nader hated Gore, he told me, because “Gore wouldn’t return his phone calls.”

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.”