Is This the Year for Nader?

If you've had enough of the choices offered in this year's National Beauty Contest, consider Public Citizen No. 1.


We’ve reached a point in the history of our species and our planet when the only practical solution may be the radical solution. That’s why I’m going to work hard for and cast my votes for Ralph Nader, candidate of the Green Party in the 2000 presidential primaries and general election.

Barring a miracle, Nader won’t win. In fact, there’s something to the argument that a vote for Nader could help elect George W. Bush. However, the “lesser of two evils” conundrum is much less an issue in the presidential sweepstakes than in any other type of election held in the United States. That’s because uniquely, presidential elections are won and lost based on electoral, not popular, votes. Such was the wisdom of the founders.

If by election day, it’s pretty clear that the Democrat or the Republican has a decided lead in any given state, and therefore will take all the electoral votes from that state, there’s really no need to “waste” your vote on a major party candidate. Instead, use the opportunity to vote your conscience. It won’t make any difference in the outcome of the election — but it will demonstrate the size (and therefore the potential strength) of that part of the electorate that is truly disgusted with politics as usual and wants a progressive alternative. Recent polling indicates this group to be substantial, but a poll is not an election.

Perhaps the most tangible benefit to be gained from a Nader candidacy would be qualification of the Green Party for federal matching funds in 2004. The Reform Party has $12 million to work with this year because Ross Perot exceeded the requisite 5 percent threshold in 1996. That’s why Pat Buchanan is attempting to market his AmericaFirst! xenophobia under the Reform banner this year. It would be wonderful for the Green Party to actually have a campaign budget to start out with in 2004. Nader can get us there.

Phony Reformers

A stint in the Congress at the beginning of the decade convinced me that throwing our lot in with the so-called reformers of the Democratic Party is nothing but a kind of complacency, or even delusion. What passes for reform Democrat-style is mostly just another way to reconfigure the status quo. For example, consider the vaunted Bill Bradley health plan, a centerpiece of the former senator’s “insurgency.” The plan, conceived originally by the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, purports to insure the nearly 50 million Americans who lack coverage. But under closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that the Bradley plan would transfer $200 billion of tax dollars to the private insurance industry while millions of uninsured would continue to fall through the cracks. Lower-income Americans, promised a choice, would be relegated to using their skimpy government handouts to purchase the same lower standard of care they receive today. The Chicago-based Physicians for a National Health Program has panned the Bradley plan, calling it “the wrong prescription.”

Friends of the Earth stepped forward to endorse Bradley some months ago, citing his superior record on environmental issues. But considering Bradley’s silence on the recent events in Seattle, it’s hard to believe that F.O.E. had really thought things through. While Bradley’s environmental numbers (based on League of Conservation Voters scorecards) are slightly higher than Gore’s, New Jersey (the state Bradley represented in the Senate for eighteen years) regularly battles Louisiana and Texas for top spot on the E.P.A.’s annual compilation of toxic emissions. While Bradley often co-sponsored environmentally friendly bills, he rarely took a leadership role. He even backed President Bush’s Clean Air Act revisions of 1990, which opened a market in pollution credits, a scheme which greens derisively call “cancer bonds.”

When candidate Bill Clinton chose Al Gore as his running mate in 1992, he sealed the deal for many doubting progressives. I remember watching then-Senator Gore debate biotechnology issues, and I knew of his strong statements on global warming, ozone depletion, and other environmental threats. His book Earth in the Balance was considered the most thoughtful book on the environment ever penned by an American politician. “I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” wrote Gore. A few years into his vice-presidency, the joke was that Gore not only had not written the book, he hadn’t even read it. Now seven years later, the Gore environmental record is a sad joke. It seems doubtful that even the strongly Democrat-leaning Sierra Club will endorse him.

Gore has gone along with the administration’s destructive policies on forests worldwide, including supporting the so-called global free trade agreement on timber, a recent major bone of contention in Seattle. Gore opposes efforts to end commercial logging on public forestland, despite the fact that these lands provide only a small fraction of national timber production. Gore has repeatedly favored sprawl at the expense of environmental protection, including development in the super-sensitive Everglades National Park in Florida. Gore also promised to keep offshore oil and gas drilling away from the Florida coastline, then failed to do so. Now, seven years later, Gore says he will oppose new offshore leases, a position that puts him in line with such ardent environmentalists as Governor Jeb Bush of Texas and our own Gray Davis of California.

As a candidate in 1992, Gore promised to stop the gigantic hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Today, the project is completed and polluting the community. Despite strong statements in his book, the ozone hole has continued to grow under Clinton-Gore. Gore also broke his commitment to protect wetlands, failed to keep radioactive materials out of commercial products, and remained silent as the environmental protection budget has been slashed over the past seven years.

Check Their Credentials

Neither Gore nor Bradley has liberal credentials worth bragging about. Both favor the continuation of obscene military budgets. Bradley’s recent comment to the Des Moines Register — “I don’t want to battle the doctrine till we do the analysis” — is indicative of his reluctance to challenge conventional military thinking. Like Gore, he has avoided any comment on U.S./U.N. sanctions against Iraq, even though it is commonly acknowledged that these sanctions are condemning thousands of Iraqi children monthly to sickness and premature deaths. Nor did Bradley raise a peep about the recent war against Serbia. One might have thought that an eighteen-year veteran of the Senate would complain about the continuing dismemberment of the War Powers Act, under which Congress is supposed to have a say in committing the nation to extended conflict.

To his credit, Bradley was one of only twenty-four senators who opposed the 1996 overhaul of the federal welfare program. Bradley correctly predicted that the “end of welfare as we know it” would end up increasing poverty as we know it. Meanwhile, Gore has basked in the fanciful notion that moving people from welfare to marginal employment without benefits, often without housing, is a step forward for the growing legions of the marginalized in bloated America. Neither man has a plan to deal with the explosion of child poverty, now afflicting nearly one American child in four. Bradley talks grandly about halving the number of poor children. Come on, Bill, why not go all the way?

The Republicrats

Perhaps the less said about the choices on the Republican side the better. George W. Bush, known less than affectionately as “Shrub” in his home state, is living up to his early billing as a kind of “Dan Quayle without the experience.” Molly Ivins, a much smarter Texan than the Guv, recently pointed out that a man who claims Jesus Christ as his personal mentor might want to rethink a few of his gubernatorial positions. Would Jesus really have fought to keep 200,000 poor Texas children from getting medical insurance? Vetoed a bill that would have assured poor people being held in jail a chance to see a lawyer within twenty days? Discouraged people who qualify for Medicaid from applying for it? Signed more than 100 death warrants, including those of people who were clearly insane or profoundly retarded? You get the point.

And who are these doctors who have given John McCain a clean bill of health? Perhaps they need to be examined! After all, can a man who still expounds that the Vietnam War could have been won had the U.S. sent ground forces into North Vietnam and launched a strategic bombing campaign using B-52s be considered truly sane? As Daniel Ellsberg pointed out about the loquacious McCain, “The fact that he says what he thinks is in his favor. But what he thinks is cockeyed.”

McCain supports Star Wars, complains unendingly about the underfunding of the Pentagon, and supports privatization of Social Security, the flat tax, and, of course, the current “lock-’em up” approach to crime. He opposes gun control, abortion, and increasing the minimum wage. He supported every single item in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America. He voted against protecting homosexuals from job discrimination, and (though he’s since reversed his position) voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

McCain, and Bradley, are trying hard to create the illusion that they are “insurgents,” running against the system. Both stump for campaign finance reform, particularly in opposition to the “soft money” contributions used by major donors, mostly large corporations, to get around the single contributor and PAC limits currently in effect. Interestingly, campaign finance reform is not polling very high among Americans’ major concerns in this election year. Even if it were, neither McCain nor Bradley is a credible standard-bearer. Dollar Bill is a ferocious fund-raiser, having raked in more than $20 million from a dazzling array of sources led by the financial sector (i.e., Wall Street), Washington lobbyists, e-commerce firms, and drug companies. McCain, who came to national prominence as one of the Keating Five, rakes in millions through his position as chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee. McCain’s intervention on behalf of interests with business before the Federal Communications Commission, interests who just happen to make large financial contributions to the senator, has become a national story during the past weeks. Meanwhile, McCain flies the corporate jets, railing against the corruption and corrosion of American politics caused by the “big money” that keep his campaign, at least for the moment, aloft.

What about Ralph?

Ralph Nader is as different from the four major presidential contenders of 2000 as the above idea of leadership is from our current celebrity-obsessed perspective. While the vast majority of politicians are focus-group- and image-driven, Ralph Nader remains quintessentially, for better or worse, Nader. Ralph Nader believes in the power of people taking control of their lives. He invented the modern concepts of consumer advocacy, citizen activism, and public interest law because he truly believes that if we “do it ourselves” it will have much greater meaning, and longer lasting power, than if even the most benign and enlightened government does it for us. How can a man who has never been elected to any office, never held any position other than the unofficial title of “Public Citizen Number 1” become broadly acknowledged as one of the great Americans of the twentieth century? It is because he, unlike the vast collection of gasbags who ply us with platitudes, honors us with his belief in us.

Nader’s stands on the issues of the day grow directly out of his belief in the dignity of the individual. He, alone among the major candidates, stands up unequivocally against child labor and the denial of worker rights, for universal health care, for an end to child poverty in America. He supports public funding of political campaigns, withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, vigorous protection of the environment, an end to the consolidation and monopolization of financial institutions, firm limits on biotechnology and genetic manipulation, slashing the military budget, and halting sanctions against Iraq.

For some, Nader remains a problematic candidate. Working for his campaign in 1996, I experienced a little of the anguish that comes from working with a candidate who lacks a strong sense of self-promotion. Contemplating another time around, many of us worry about a repeat, a campaign without funds, and worse, without a sufficiently “driven” candidate.

But the Nader of 2000 has absorbed the lessons of ’96 and believes the time is ripe for a much more complete effort. He rose to the occasion heroically in Seattle, debating ferociously against the minions of globalization with the same energy he employed to fight the automobile industry three decades ago. Nader has pledged to visit every state at least three times during this campaign. He has pledged to raise funds and to have a campaign structure with paid staff. Nader has promised that this will be a real campaign. What more can we ask? The rest is up to us.

Nader often quotes his father telling him that the United States didn’t need a third party so much as it needed a real second party. In truth, we are well down the road of having only the choice between two wings of the business party. The Democrats and Republicans quibble over a range of issues, but the core injustices, inequalities, and stupidities continue or worsen as the years, and decades, roll by. Nader likens the major parties to Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the rival fiddlers who were incapable of stopping their musical feud despite the fact that their tunes were indistinguishable. It’s high time to reject them both, and demand a politics that calls forth, in the immortal words of Lincoln, “our better angels.”

Dan Hamburg is a former U.S. congressman from northern California. He was the Green Party candidate for governor of California in 1998 and currently serves as executive director of Voice of the Environment, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.