TOPICS > Politics

Newsmaker: Ralph Nader

February 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with Ralph Nader, who announced yesterday that he will run again for president as an independent, four years ago, he was the Green Party nominee. Mr. Nader, welcome.

RALPH NADER: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe the reaction to your announcement thus far?

RALPH NADER: Unthinking. I think first of all it’s extremely autocratic to think that this country belongs only to two parties, and everyone else just step aside.

The whole tradition of third parties and independent candidates in our country has been a very constructive one, even though they very rarely have ever won an election. The abolition of slavery was led in part by a third party, the whole farmers’ populace movement, the trade union movement, and there’s such an intolerance now that it’s become part of state law with huge ballot access barriers in some states.

JIM LEHRER: Has there been any positive reaction, anybody who said, right on, Ralph, anything like that?

RALPH NADER: Well, they’re not people who are celebrities and they’re not well-known. But you know, obviously people who are working for a wage they can’t live on, a nonliving wage would like more voices and choices, and our position on that. The same with universal health insurance and describing other than in a dull way.

I think it was the Institute of Medicine that said 18,000 Americans die a year because they don’t have health insurance. Can you imagine how many are injured? So the liberal intelligentsia, as I now have to call them, are so freaked out at President Bush that one — they’re forgetting how inept and bad for consumers the country in general the Clinton-Gore people were, how concessionary they were to corporate power in one area after another, that I outline in some detail in my book — Crashing the Party. But they are putting themselves in a position with the mantra, anybody with Bush, that who ever wins the nomination for the Democratic Party has no mandate.

JIM LEHRER: Well, then who is going to support you? That’s what I’m trying to get at, who have you heard from, do you have a cadre of people that you’ve already identified before you announce that these are Nader people, they’re going to work for you, give you money, et cetera?

RALPH NADER: It’s a remarkably scattered constituency, you can’t pigeonhole it — lots of young people, lots of students who were trying to reduce their cynicism of the roll of politics and bring them into an idealistic clean campaign that gives them a participatory role.

Lots of workers, not the unions, but the workers who know of our work on occupational health and safety, which has, disease has taken 58,000 worker lives according to OSHA a year. We have independents those who are looking for an independent candidate, we have conservatives who are furious with Bush over the deficit, over the PATRIOT Act, big brother over corporate subsidies and other things that are in accord with our positions, not all of them by any means, and maybe they’ll be looking for an independent candidate. But here’s the real answer to your question.

It’s a huge country, and 100 million people don’t vote. We’ve got to find some innovative ways, which the two parties haven’t been able to crack yet, on how to get into that huge constituency of turned off voters.

JIM LEHRER: Has the negative reaction gotten to you in any way, caused you to have any second thoughts, made you angry, what reaction did you have, beyond what you just said?

RALPH NADER: Yes. Well, the reaction is that once they say anybody but Bush, they stop discussing any variables, any strategies, any alternative. I tell them look the Democrats for ten years have lost race after race against the extreme wing of the Republican Party.

They lost the House, the Senate, governorships, state legislators, they won in 2000. But it was taken from them. I said what makes you so inspired that you can rely only on them to defeat George W. Bush and not look at a second front that perhaps could have new strategies and new ways to probe the failures of the Bush administration.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the reaction, as you know, has been personal. Let me read the lead editorial in the New York Times this morning, and it says this, “The most regrettable thing about Mr. Nader’s new candidacy is not how it is likely to affect the election, but how it will affect Mr. Nader’s own legacy, and then it says, they understand why you’re angry over being marginalized in Democratic Party politics, but then it says but it would be a tragedy if Mr. Nader allowed it to give the story of his career a sad and bitter ending.”

RALPH NADER: Let me give you the genesis of why I ran in 2000 and now very quickly. I started a lot of citizen groups in Washington, we came to Washington thinking we could affect government policy, we could provide health, safety, environment, consumer worker protections, we could get government more open, the Freedom of Information Act we worked on.

Starting in 1980 when the Democrats started under Tony Coelho going big time for corporate money, dialing for the same dollars that the Republicans did. We could almost see the doors closing on the citizen groups, they couldn’t get petitions responded to by the Regulatory Safety Agency, they couldn’t get hearings in Congress. After a while, you say this is a shutout. And what do we do?

We either go to Monterey and watch the whales, or we do what Jefferson counseled — that when the government is take answer way from you by the corporate interests that are swarming over this city you’ve got to go into the electoral arena.

The New York Times doesn’t understand that. Let me tell you how they would understand that. If the two parties were defiantly against abortion, the two major parties, this is a hypothetical, does anybody doubt, including the New York Times, that the groups who are for a woman’s right to choose would not form a third party?

Well, try about 10 major life saving issues that we have been blocked on in trying to improve the quality of life and safety in our country. That’s the genesis.

JIM LEHRER: So it’s wrong for them to suggest, for anybody to suggest that you are being driven to run for president out of bitterness or anger?

RALPH NADER: Driven to run for president out of the fervent desire to make the doors open so Americans can have a chance to improve their country.That’s a critical right in a democracy. And the idea of the government being taken from them by corporate interests, every department and agency and offices on the Hill, I read the newspapers.

Jim, I read the great exposes in The Times and Post and on your programs and 60 Minutes, and so forth, it’s time to take those seriously. They add up to something, which is the loss of our government.

JIM LEHRER: Do you really want to be president or are you running to make the points that you have just made to me and others that you will make?

RALPH NADER: Both. I really would like to be president.

JIM LEHRER: You think you’d be a good president?

RALPH NADER: I think I’d be an excellent president. I know the government inside out for 40 years of work. I only work for the American people. I don’t say that in any pompous way. I have sacrificed a lot in order to focus day in and day out and on weekends on the economic health and safety of the American people, and their right to have a voice and their right to have a political choice.

JIM LEHRER: But what’s the personal thing here for you?


JIM LEHRER: The Times and others have, as I say, have made this personal, they’re talking about that you’re driven by something that doesn’t have anything to do with these issues, has to do with Ralph Nader.

RALPH NADER: I’m driven by justice, to an almost esthetic level. That’s the way I grew up, I remember Daniel Webster saying justice is the great work of human beings on earth. But I’m also driven by the need to elevate the quality of politics from sound bites, repetitive questions, four or five issues dwindling into September and October by the two candidates, routine, dull, dim, drab.

That’s why I sent in late October, a 35-page agenda inquiry, it wasn’t accusatory, to the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, hoping to open up the dialogue, and by the way the text is on our Web for those who are interested, and the Republicans said they were going to respond. Then, they said our response to all these issues and subject matters and flights into innovation and taxes, environment, consumer protection, electoral reform like instant run off voting and so on, was our response to the policies of the Bush Administration. So that was that. Terry McAuliffe has read it.

JIM LEHRER: He’s the chairman of the Democratic Party.

RALPH NADER: Right, he read it on the way to Philadelphia, and just a few weeks ago I got a letter from him basically a two-page letter denouncing the Republicans. I think in a proper way and about five issues that had in my agenda inquiry but basically not responsive.

What can you do? They had three months –I was in touch with them all. You just can’t elevate politics from the outside anymore. You have to do it from the inside and hope that the civics groups would understand what I’m trying to do, which is try to give them more entry so they can do their good work in government.

JIM LEHRER: A process question — do you have a campaign plan, how you’re going to raise money, how much money you’re going to need, how you’re going to get your name on the ballots of the 50 states, et cetera?

RALPH NADER: Yes. The civil liberty of the third parties is an issue in this campaign for us, there are about 14 states there are difficult, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, they run about 30,000 to 100,000 signatures.

JIM LEHRER: Signatures required to get on the ballot.

RALPH NADER: Right. You have to stand on the street corners and signature gatherers and the officials pick at the signature and stay the street, not an avenue, disqualified, tremendous harassment. And we must try to overcome, even litigate and try to get rolled back in the legislature, as Florida did, by the way, that’s one. The second is we have a whole core of volunteers, I’m very pleased that they’re all coming into our Web site, and in terms of the money obviously that’s a problem.

So we’re trying to raise money on the vote Web site. We’re trying to raise money by offering books, trying to get people to read about politics — perhaps dinners, fund raising dinners — and anybody who wants to participate. I think there should be a demonstrative model of how presidential campaign, however small, should proceed in order to provide a framework of reference for the other two parties. I’ve never seen a worse decay in dialogue. They were so much better in the 19th century, it’s moving from sound bite to sound bark.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, realistically, do you think you can raise enough money to get your message, that you just said to me and you’ve said to others, over to everybody in this country who is going to vote?

RALPH NADER: Yes, I think so because we’re going to work on precinct by precinct. We’re going to get lots of volunteers, it’s really quite well thought through, in fact it’s inspired by a little manual Abraham Lincoln wrote on how to get the vote out, which is as timely today as it was then. The Web of course is a great opportunity to get the word out.

JIM LEHRER: Have you studied what Howard Dean did?

RALPH NADER: Oh, are we ever, yes indeed that was a great contribution he made.

JIM LEHRER: And you’re going to try to do the same thing?

RALPH NADER: Yes indeed.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe you’re going to be on all 50 state ballots?

RALPH NADER: That’s what we’re striving for. We were on 43 state ballots plus the District of Columbia in the year 2000. We’ve learned some lessons.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have a goal for fundraising?

RALPH NADER: Yes, we’d like to get 15, 20 million dollars, and they’re not going to go to fancy consulting firms, they’re going putting organizers and full-time state coordinators on the ground. We want to excite people in the campaign. Politics is very important, it shouldn’t be dull, it shouldn’t be cynical, it should be interesting and should march with the assets of the people.

The people are actually solving problems in energy, in nursing home reform, in schools, and public transit and cracking down on corporate crime, fraud and abuse, and honest billing practices. Why not run with all the people who are actually solving problems here and there, but they never get visibility in the electoral arena?

There’s a Professor Williams at Princeton who has a unit, a brilliant way to deal with our energy problems, and make us energy independent and go into renewable energy. So it’s all out there, but if we just, you know, make politics as usual extremely routine, no wonder people are not interested. No wonder they think it’s a lot of hot air.

JIM LEHRER: Ralph Nader, thank you very much.

RALPH NADER: Thank you, Jim.