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Ralph Nader tried to steal my baby

And other Democratic hysterics

Up close, Ralph Nader doesn't look much like the devil. Not even a hint of sulfur.

He's taking questions from a half-dozen journalists in a stuffy Holiday Inn conference room that overlooks Athens traffic. A tired air conditioner wheezes in the background.

Nader, 70, is slump-shouldered and bedraggled, dressed in a rumpled navy blue suit with chalky pinstripes. He's on a sweep of Southern colleges, going state to state to try to get his name on the ballot as an independent presidential candidate. And yet, if you've read much of the press from America's liberal aristocracy, you'd be forgiven for thinking Nader is Satan's golfing buddy.

The consumer crusader has been subjected to everything from low-brow broadsides — Seattle alt-weekly newspaper The Stranger's recent "Ralph Nader is a megalomaniacal asswipe" cover — to mannered missiles from the likes of Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker.

In his piece, "Reckless Driver," Hertzberg lionizes Nader's years of public service that made Americans safer and catalogues how President Bush has gone about dismantling much of Nader's work. He ends the essay with this poison arrow: "If Nader once again succeeds in making himself the decisive factor in a Bush victory, then his legacy will be less than zero. His legacy will be George W. Bush."

Ouch.

Hertzberg's right, mostly. The best Nader can do is help shape the debate, which is all he says he wants to do.

Four years ago, in the presidential race that pitted the compassionate conservative against the chameleon candidate, the argument for a protest vote carried some weight. But a full term of environmental degradation, thousands of dead Americans and make-believe weapons of mass destruction have a funny way of clearing up any illusions that Democrats and Republicans are just the same animals in different sneakers.

But Nader's at it again anyway.

I admit I went to Athens to bury Nader, not to praise him. But I came away thinking some reassessments need to be made.

Nader sits slumped
in front of me drinking bottled water. He's recovering from a cold.

I introduce myself, forehead wet with sweat, while my 4-month-old daughter, Elliott, examines the famous hangdog mug. She's there because of a babysitter snafu, and when he sees her, for the first and only time, Nader's face lights up. For a moment, he's downright avuncular, before lapsing back into besieged candidate mode.

First, the most obvious: Why run when your mere presence on the ballot could ensure four more years of someone who opposes nearly everything for which you stand?

This is old hat. Nader makes it clear that he harbors no Perot-ian illusions that he's going to win over the country. The goal, he says, is to push the Democrats' agenda.

On its face, this doesn't fly. But on the other hand, he did like my baby.

That's when Nader starts talking about kitchen table issues — universal health care, gas prices, the minimum wage and public transportation. He neatly ties inaction on these basic needs to the insidious corporate influence in the American political process.

Here's where he hooks the average idealist — even someone who came ready to disbelieve.

This is "what third parties do," Nader says of shaping debate. "They did it against slavery ... for women's right to vote and trade unions."

As much as Hertzberg is right in his dire predictions of a Nader candidacy, the candidate himself points out the painfully obvious fact that Democrats haven't done much to endear themselves to U.S. voters in the last 30 years. American families have, on average, less spending money now than they did in the 1970s, even though the economy has doubled in size since 1973. Reversing this trend means finding solutions for the problems sucking Americans dry — childcare, health care, housing and education costs. And yet what voters most often hear coming from Dems aren't visionary new programs but, rather, arguments over who should get the lion's share of tax cuts.

"If three-martini lunches can be deducted as business entertainment, ordinary and necessary, why isn't daycare?" Nader asks, "I think the government has a responsibility ... to form cooperatives, cooperative daycare, because these daycare chains are not good from the consumer point of view, by and large, and they're very expensive."

Amen, brother, I think, as Elliott practices blowing bubbles.

But where will the money come from to pay for such social programs? For Nader, the answer is obvious: the defense budget. "What does the F-22 [fighter], nuclear submarines, more aircraft carriers have to do with stateless terrorism?" Nader says. "What have Bush and John Ashcroft caught since Sept. 11?

"You have to confront terrorism in a way that does not produce more terrorism. [The president] is producing more terrorists. Bush got us out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Bush wants to arm outer space. Bush wants to build more nuclear subs. He's crazed. The only way to describe it is psychiatrically. We've already got enough weapons to blow the world up 300 times. What does he want to do? Make the rubble bounce?"

Then reality hits. Should I vote for Nader? Should you? Even while visiting him — a visit during which I found his message increasingly seductive — the answer is still "no." It remains an unrealistic choice, and if you don't want to give Bush four more years, drop it.

The hard truth is that Nader alone can't even get his message heard. He won't be invited to debates. He may not even get his name on the ballot in some states. The key for him is the Democratic Party, and perhaps vice versa. There is a chance for symbiosis here, if only the party would take his message more seriously than the threat his candidacy poses.

Democrats would do well to stop whining about Nader and just co-opt his message and ideas. Pull him closer. Don't push him away. Embrace his ideas — ideas that appeal to Americans who've found themselves balancing $2 trillion of household debt. Voters, hungry for real change, will come along. And Nader can retire with a legacy unblemished.

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com