Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A gift on a silver platter: An interview with Ralph Nader, October 2004

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Today, from 3 to 4:30 p.m., at Brown University's Salomon Auditorium in Providence, independent candidate for president Ralph Nader invites you to hear him speak and to listen to his campaign platform.

Take note -- pitchforks and torches will be confiscated at the door.

I voted for Nader in 2000, and then I watched in horror as Bush flushed America's economy down the toilet, squelched dissent and stuck our collective derriere in a messy war in Iraq. Now, I'm desperate for Democratic Sen. John Kerry to be elected -- but like a lot of people on the left, I'm worried that Nader's campaign might steal the precious few votes that might decide the election in Kerry's favor, thus locking the country into another four wretched years of The Bush Problem.

To sum up, I was worried that Nader might be insane.

As it turns out, he's not. His strategy is actually quite ingenious.

In advance of today's event in Providence, and because of my worry, I pestered his campaign for an interview with Nader. By a miracle, I actually got one. No joke.

He was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time. He was due to give a speech there. Why Nova Scotia? No idea. I didn't bother to ask, either. Instead, I imagined hordes of Canadians impersonating Americans on Election Day and over-inflated Nader figures along border towns in New England.

Nader answered his own phone. Not only that: he said tiredly, "M'yello?"

Nader's campaign for president can be charitably described as quixotic, given the reputation he has for being the fly in the 2000 election ointment.

Polls show Nader's support is eroding. He's pulling an average 2 percent in national polls. That's down from his 2000 numbers, and expect it to drop further on Nov. 2.

Nader can't even get on the ballots in many states, including Massachusetts -- Naderites here will have to write him in. So far, he's on 32 state ballots and in D.C. He's in court to determine his status in 12 other states, he's a write-in for six, and Oklahoma won't even return his calls.

But he said the task of being placed on ballots state-by-state doesn't distract from his campaign -- it's part of why he's running.

"First of all, there's a collateral benefit in that it's raised to a national stage ... the systemic barriers in one state after another installed by the two major parties against competition, against third parties," he said. "It's only when we stretched the system that the political bigotry erupted from what otherwise are laws that could be called trapdoors in waiting. ... And that will provide very rich material for reform after November 2."

I asked if, as part of that reform, he included scrapping the Electoral College and the use of the popular vote, the only accurate gauge of actual support, to count elections. The New York Times, in an excellent and persuasive Aug. 29 editorial, called for just that.

Nader agreed, but noted, "That's very difficult to do by constitutional amendment because states -- the small states -- will likely object."

He hinted at one of the major complaints about the Electoral College system -- that your vote doesn't count -- when I asked why I should vote for him, the safe vote for Kerry be damned.

"First, you're in Massachusetts, so you don't have to worry," he said. "You can vote your conscience, because Kerry's going to take Massachusetts. Bush doesn't even think he's going to compete."

What impressed me about Nader, besides his effortlessly articulate manner that left me ashamed of the sound of my own voice, was his reason for running.

"If you're going to vote for Kerry, if you don't make demands on him, you're complicit with Kerry moving into the corporate realm even more rigidly. Because corporations are making demands on Kerry and pulling him in their direction all the time. And the people who are 'least-worsters' ... they'll vote for Kerry with the mantra, 'Anybody but Bush,' 'Leave Kerry alone,' 'Make no demands on him' -- they're letting the Democratic Party and Kerry be pulled away from them," he said. "They have signaled to Kerry that their vote can be taken for granted, because there's no demand in return, by way of positions like living wage for all, full single-payer medical, Medicare for all, getting out of Iraq, cracking down on corporate crime and abuse, ending corporate subsidies.

"So if you're going to vote for Kerry, you won't make Kerry better -- corporations will make him worse. ... He's surrounding himself with corporate consultants, corporate advisers, corporate financiers. Why? Because liberals and progressives are giving him a free ride. They're so desperate."

Right then, I'd figured out his campaign secret.

Listen: Nader isn't quite opposing Kerry -- he's making sure Kerry doesn't run as a Republican Lite.

By courting the left-leaning vote, Kerry must stay competitive among his own people. Nader's keeping Kerry honest for Democrats.

It's a thankless job, but somebody has to do it.

When I realized that, I mentioned something I'd read on Nader's Web site,, as research. Nader gave the Kerry-Edwards campaign what he called a "Gift on a Silver Platter": advice on how to beat Bush. Nader lists 10 points on which Bush is weak and shows Kerry how to exploit them. You can read it on his Web site, under the "Media & Press" section.

He seemed genuinely pleased when it became obvious that I figured out his strategy.

"You liked that?" he asked. "I thought [the Silver Platter] would become a better news story, but the AP and others didn't pick it up. I thought it had everything. It had topicality, it had substance, it had visual images. ... In fact, one of the reasons we're doing this, among many reasons, is to expand the opportunities against Bush in ways the Democrats won't pick up."

Even if Nader is concerned that the Democrats aren't covering their own bases well enough, he did point to the discussion of the draft -- one of the points on the Silver Platter -- as a hopeful sign.

"We've been hammering at Bush and Kerry to come out against the draft, and Kerry's come out against it," he said.

I wondered toward the end of our conversation how somebody like me, a columnist at a small hometown newspaper in a spoken-for state, could get through to one of the most controversial presidential candidates in modern history. It occurred to me that perhaps nobody else called him. He sounded alone, and even though he'd agreed to give me just five minutes, he ended up doing all the talking for more than 10. Everybody's so quick to forget he's even running. Everyone thinks it'd be simpler without him -- but then no one would keep Kerry on his guard.

Before I left him to prepare for his speech, he asked eagerly, "Can you put our Web site in?"

"Sure, I can mention that," I said.

Here it is again:

"That's good," he said. "The way I like to put it is, 'Those who want a recess from sound-bite journalism, visit our Web site:'" Then he said, with a smirk I could hear over the phone, "Which is, you know ... a sound-bite."

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