Nader Unrepentant

With longtime allies attacking him for costing Democrats the White House, can Ralph Nader regain his status as the nation's leading public advocate?

The question came from the kid at the microphone. Ralph Nader had just finished speaking at American University, on the far fringes of northwest Washington, on a campus sufficiently left-of-center to have just booted out its food-service caterer for corporate sins. It was the kind of place where Nader should feel welcome.

But it was a tough question. Now that President George W. Bush has rejected the Kyoto treaty on global warming, the student asked, now that he's broken his campaign pledge to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and has scuttled a Clinton administration rule cutting arsenic pollution, do you still think there was no difference between him and Al Gore?

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Then the student zeroed in on the issue that has confronted Nader repeatedly in recent months: whether his failed bid for the presidency has hurt his stature as the nation's foremost consumer activist. "Do you feel your effectiveness and your integrity have been damaged?" the student pressed.

Nader, dressed as ever in a drab but impeccable gray-blue suit and sober red tie, was ready. The differences between Gore and Bush were minimal, he insisted. "Clinton did not even send the Kyoto agreement to the Senate for ratification," he pointed out. "Al Gore did not really confront George Bush on this issue." And even if the Republicans want to loosen environmental protections, Nader added, "no major political party in this country can overtly be against the environment without getting into deep political trouble." That's why the Republicans kept Clinton rules on lead disclosure and diesel pollution, and agreed to issue an arsenic standard.

"They're in retreat," Nader said of the Republicans, "partly because people have aroused themselves and mobilized themselves. It may not be the progress that we would like, but there will be no rolling back."

It was a polished and practiced reply, but it got only scattered applause from the 800 or so students who half filled the arena. And despite his smooth response, the question seemed to throw Nader off his stride. His answer to the next question was confused, as though he were still pondering the first one. And he never did address whether his effectiveness has been damaged.

This could not be what he had in mind when he ran for president a second time on the Green Party ticket. At 67, Ralph Nader finds himself an outcast from his own tribe. Yes, he's had enemies for 35 years—the General Motors honchos who hired private eyes to try to get some goods on him when Unsafe at Any Speed came out in 1965; the polluters and their lobbyists; the manufacturers of dangerous goods and their lawyers. He's used to that.

But he is also used to being called "an American icon," as someone recently introduced him on television. No American who is alive, whole, and healthy today can be certain he or she would be alive, whole, and healthy were it not for Nader. His efforts inspired seat belts, air bags, padded dashboards, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more.

Now, that legacy of reform has been tarnished for many of his closest allies. For the first time in his life, Nader is persona non grata on much of the political left. With many liberals and progressives blaming his quixotic campaign for throwing the election to George W. Bush, Nader has gone from hero to pariah. Leaders of labor unions, civil rights, and feminist groups, even officials of the environmental organizations that owe him so much, can barely contain their anger.

"I think he's hurt the country," says Roger Hickey, a longtime admirer of Nader who co-edited The Next Agenda: Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement and is director of Campaign for America's Future, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.

"He cost us an election at what may be a turning point in American society," adds Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

"Nobody is listening to him," says Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group, one of the hardest-hitting environmental organizations in Washington.

"I'm not going to answer his phone calls," says Robert Musil, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a progressive organization of more than 20,000 health care professionals. Musil uses words like "destructive" and "idiotic" to describe Nader's assertion that there is no real difference between the Democrats and Republicans—and his frequent contention that a Bush presidency will actually help the progressive cause by invigorating the left.

"By that line of reasoning," Musil fumes, "we'd go back to the Vietnam War, back to segregation, back to slavery."

Not everyone on the left has abandoned Nader. Ellen Willis of New York University and Michael Moore of Roger and Me fame remain loyal, offering spirited defenses of Nader's campaign and scathing attacks on Gore's failure to distinguish himself from his opponent. So do writers Howard Zinn and Jim Hightower, as well as celebrities such as Susan Sarandon. Even Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who as chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has declined to invite Nader to postelection meetings, praises him for "challenging the Democratic Party to be true to its historical roots as the party of the people."

But there is no question that Nader is no longer welcome in many circles where he once commanded considerable respect. Many liberal Democrats have sharply criticized Nader, making a point of excluding him from hearings and strategy discussions. "We're not going to touch him with a 10-foot pole," Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Florida, told USA Today. "He has divorced himself from the very ideals that made him a worthwhile political actor. He sold out his constituency."

If any of this bothers Nader, he doesn't let it show. Indeed, he downplays the open hostility that he is arousing in liberals and progressives these days. "They don't disagree with my proposals," he tells me. "They disagree with my approach to furthering these proposals by expanding a new political party."

It is early May, and Nader is on his way from a speech before an adoring crowd at Niagara County Community College to another at the State University of New York at Geneseo. The questions this morning were nothing but worshipful, and Nader was clicking on all cylinders, doing what he does best—saying what no one else in national politics dares to say: that there are too many Americans in prison; that our defense policy is driven in no small part by the demands of defense contractors; that "there is too much power in too few hands"; that "unless we have a civic culture, the commercial corporate culture is going to dominate our horizons." No wonder some college students think he's a hero; Al Gore and Bill Bradley never talked like that. Neither did Bill Clinton. Neither, come to think of it, does Ted Kennedy.

In the car this morning, Nader is all business. He jokes around with the young aide accompanying him on his travels, but he is not interested in talking about himself. I ask if being scorned by his old comrades-in-arms has saddened him.

"I don't think I'd put it that way," he says. When I ask how he would put it, he pauses for several seconds. The anger being directed at him "impedes proposals somewhat," he concedes. "But on the other hand, I've had proposals for 20 years that didn't get considered out of indifference. Now it's out of hostility. So what's the difference?"

Enough of a difference, at least, to bring out a touch of testiness in Nader. Although he insists that he takes none of the criticism personally, he calls his former allies who now shun him "cowardly liberals. Well-intentioned, frightened, cowardly liberals."

Yet Nader knows that his standing on the left has suffered, and he has asked Marcus Raskin of the Institute for Policy Studies, the respected left-of-center think tank, to volunteer as a "peacemaker" to soothe relations with progressives and Democrats. Raskin is not finding this an easy task.

"Personally, I think this has been very sad for him," says Raskin, who has known Nader for years and served on his campaign steering committee. "He is hard to reach, much harder than he was before." Raskin holds out hope that antipathy toward Nader will shift to the issue of Bush's "legitimacy."

For evidence of how rank-and-file liberals have turned against Nader, one need look no further than the empire he created. Public Citizen, the organization he founded in 1971, has a new fundraising problem—its founder. After the election, contributions dropped. "We definitely had a falling-off at the end of the year," says Lane Brooks, the group's development director. When people inquire about Nader's relationship to the organization, Public Citizen sends out a letter that begins with a startling new disclaimer: "Although Ralph Nader was our founder, he has not held an official position in the organization since 1980 and does not serve on the board. Public Citizen—and the other groups that Mr. Nader founded—act independently."

Nader concedes that he was one of the "what ifs" that decided the election—but he takes pains to minimize his role. He stresses that he campaigned primarily in states where Gore couldn't lose, but neglects to mention his visit to Florida in October. And he denies that he equated Bush and Gore. "I never said there was no difference," he insists. "I said there were few major differences between the two parties, and the similarities tower over whatever dwindling differences they're willing to fight over."

But perhaps the biggest concern among liberal Democrats is not what Nader did in the past, but what he's likely to do in the future. Many of his critics say they are willing to forget about 2000, if only Nader and the Greens do not oppose Democrats in close congressional races in 2002. "What's done is done," says Amy Isaacs, national director of Americans for Democratic Action, perhaps the most venerable of the Washington-based liberal lobbying groups. "But if in the face of everything they're still going to threaten good Democratic members in 2002—well, if he wants to commit political suicide, okay, but he can't ask me to drink the Kool-Aid with him."

What Isaacs and other Democrats fear is that Green Party candidates will draw crucial votes from vulnerable incumbents, such as Mark Udall in Colorado and Rush Holt in New Jersey. Holt hung on by just 651 votes last year. The Green Party candidate got 5,811.

Democrats are right to worry. Nader says the Greens will field 80 congressional candidates next year, up from as many as 56 in 2000, and some of them may threaten Democrats. "Holt deserves to lose," Nader says, calling him "pro-nuclear power" and "a conservative Democrat." And what about Holt's perfect rating from the League of Conservation Voters? Nader dismisses such a track record as "easy today, because you don't have that many votes" in Congress on crucial environmental issues.

It is precisely the kind of response that angers many liberals and progressives. These, after all, are the words not of a crusader critical of his allies, but of a rival candidate scornful of his opposition. Nader remains, as he says, "zealous." He is still passionate about social justice, and so independent that he won't even become a member of his own party. But no one can run for office without becoming a politician; that's what an office seeker is. And that is not what Nader has been—until now. "In his whole career he had nothing to do with elective politics," says Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group. "None of the institutions he ever set up bothered with elective politics. They did lobbying. They did organizing around a particular issue."

It is as a politician that Nader is being attacked—and it is as a politician that he continues to make assertions that seem divorced from common sense. He insists, for example, that the Greens can win seats in Congress within a few years, and the White House in the next decade or so—even though the party failed to achieve its own goal of winning 5 percent of the vote last year.

But unlike most politicians, Nader is willing to see himself rendered superfluous. The Greens, he says, offer the Democrats a simple choice: "You better shape up or you're gonna lose." That may mean a more solidly Republican Congress for a few years, he acknowledges, "unless the Democrats wake up and usurp the Greens."

It's a usurpation Nader says he would welcome. "If it happens, yes," he says. "I'm focusing entirely on results."