Nader's Raid

Citizen Ralph Runs for Real in 2000

In 1996, when Ralph Nader made his first run for the Presidency under the banner of the Green Party, he had a hard time articulating the party's many-hued platform, preferring to stick with his tried-and-true message about the dangers of multinational corporations. This year, as he runs a better-funded and more visible campaign, he's talking about the Greens and their issues. “Did you see our web page about industrial hemp?” he asks.

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Four years ago, the well-known consumer advocate spent only $5,000 on his campaign, but made the ballot in 22 states and collected one percent of the national vote. As a committed candidate in 2000, Nader could do a whole lot better, and will definitely be a factor in a close contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“This is a real flat-out candidacy this time,” he says, “with a projected $5 million budget, coast-to-coast appearances, federal matching funds, 30 seasoned fulltime organizers leveraging massive numbers of volunteer hours, and all furthering a broad-based agenda ignored by the two tweedledee-tweedledum candidates.” The Green Party/Nader campaign stands for: dismantling the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose work often abrogates environmental law; controlling sprawl and rebuilding the cities; offering free time for political candidates on radio and TV; providing universal health care coverage for all; and ending “corporate welfare” subsidies and giveaways.

Obviously, it's the latter point that gets Nader most animated. Ask him an environmental question about, say, population growth, and he gives this answer: “We could have twice the population with a tenth the urban sprawl. The problem stems not from population growth but from the control of land use by corporate developers, zoning lawyers, banks and insurance companies, not to mention the auto companies that destroyed public transit.” OK, but don't the sheer numbers overwhelm even well-designed environmental policies? “That's like blaming the sewage for the lack of a proper sewer system,” he responds.

Nader's concentration on corporate power “is not out of line when you look at who pollutes,” says Elliot Negin, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Congress is attaching anti-environmental riders to spending bills at the eleventh hour, and those riders are directly connected to campaign contributions from industry. The problem is that big-spending business interests deeply influence the public sector. And that's despite strong majority support for the goals of environmental organizations. We need to have public funding of elections, and only Nader is actually talking about that.”

He sure is. “Gore and Clinton have been making statements about campaign finance reform for eight years,” Nader says, “and they don't even assign one person fulltime to lobby Congress on the issue. It's all blowing in the wind.” Gore can't radically reform campaign finance, Nader says, “because he's unwilling to challenge the big business power that runs his administration and fuels his political ambitions.”

Still, in the public's mind, it's not Ralph Nader but Democrat Al Gore who's the environmental candidate. Gore, whose groundbreaking book Earth in the Balance was rereleased last April, is trying to shore up longstanding environmental ties that have become strained in recent years. Some green groups believe that Gore is taking them for granted, and hasn't pushed hard enough for environmental programs in the Clinton administration. Charles Margulis, a genetic engineering specialist at Greenpeace, sees a clear difference between the candidates. “While Al Gore has promoted biotechnology, Ralph Nader lays out that it will be corporate agribusiness rather than family farms controlling our food supply,” he says. “It's not hard for people at Greenpeace to give up on Gore, because the Clinton administration has dropped the ball on a whole range of environmental issues.”

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Bush, too, has been campaigning like a reborn environmentalist since winning the Republican nomination, but he's had to answer to a dismal record during his time as governor of Texas. Houston has surpassed Los Angeles as the U.S. city with the worst air quality, and Bush has both made anti-environmental appointments to the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission and allowed polluter industries to police themselves. Bush's environmental record was further tarnished last spring when polluter industry leaders held what the Environmental Working Group's Kenneth Cook described as a “secret meeting to plot dirtier air” in the event of a Bush victory.

In his nearly 40 years as a consumer advocate, Nader has formed a huge number of public advocacy institutions, including the Center for Auto Safety, the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), Multinational Monitor magazine and Public Citizen. He has never founded an environmental group per se, though he points out that the PIRGs, which operate on many college campuses, spend a lot of their time on green issues. “I did want to form a solar energy group at one time, but couldn't find the right people to run it,” he says now.

It may be the Green Party banner that helps solidify Nader's environmental credentials. Although best known in Europe, where it campaigns on anti-nuclear, social justice and environmental issues (and wins enough parliamentary support to hold cabinet positions in Germany), the Green Party now has a presence in all 50 U.S. states. In New Mexico, its congressional candidates have swung elections. In 1996, Nader sounded less than conversant with Green Party positions, but he's waving the party's flag now. Nader is also the only candidate who can take the stage at the newly emergent protests against the World Trade Organization and not get hooted down.

The national Zogby poll in early April showed that Nader is actually in third place in the Presidential race, with 5.7 percent of the vote compared to 3.6 percent for the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan. But as Jeff Cohen of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) points out, Buchanan has been getting far more television time from the major networks, putting him in a better position to win the 15 percent poll support necessary for inclusion in the televised presidential debates. Nader has noted with dismay that the same networks that are ignoring his candidacy get to certify—through their own polls—which candidates qualify for the debates. While this process may reduce Nader to a political footnote, it definitely confirms his world view.