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Archive for Saturday, December 30, 2000

Former allies desert Nader

Onetime backers blame Green candidate for Bush’s victory

December 30, 2000

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— They call him "traitor," "egomaniac" and "fool." Some of Ralph Nader's old battle buddies even call him "politician."

Many of those who fought with Nader on the frontlines for the environment, consumer rights and other liberal causes now say he betrayed them by not ending his presidential run in time to save Al Gore's candidacy. And they say his career as a public advocate is through.

"Who's going to work with him now?" snorted Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a powerful congressman who once worked with Nader on labor and regulatory issues.

The iconoclast's idol is undergoing the kind of beating he once trademarked, but Nader could care less.

"They were all anesthetized by Clinton, the snake charmer," said the man who described Gore and Bush as "Tweedledum and Tweedledee."

In an interview in his cramped campaign office just blocks from his cramped Washington bachelor's pad Nader sounded the same themes that informed his campaign: the two major parties are beholden to corporate interests, and voters lacked choice.

"The Democrats were moving toward the Republican Party, developing Republican agendas for Republican issues to take Republican voters away," he said.

That elicits moans from his former allies, who agree with him that much was wrong with the Democratic Party but who say differences are real, and now very very evident, thanks to the man they still affectionately call "Ralph."

Each starts by mentioning Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, whose controversial civil rights record is already dogging his attorney general nomination. They also point to Andrew Card, a former automobile industry lobbyist named as White House chief of staff, and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney's oil industry past.

"We all complained how Clinton gave a green light to industry, but it can be greener," said Ken Cook, who heads the Environmental Working Group.

Nader now concedes that Bush will cause more damage for the cause than Gore.

"Bush is probably going to jettison the tobacco lawsuits, and he's not good on energy," Nader said.

That's a major departure from his insistence that Gore and Bush were two sides of the same coin. Having made the concession, Nader who avoids eye-contact like an oncoming Ford Pinto started scribbling notes to himself, and said a Bush presidency will at least galvanize liberals.

"Oh yeah," Conyers said scornfully. "Now that we're not anesthetized, Ralph, we want to work real close and take instructions from you."

Spreading the blame

Not all in the advocacy community blame Nader.

Maggie Geist of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod blames Gore for straying from his strong pro-environment record in a misguided attempt to win the center.

"He will have to explain to himself why he chose not to highlight that during his campaign," she said.

Joan Claybrook, head of Public Citizen, a consumer group, and once a close Nader ally, is also wary of a Bush presidency but she blames Gore's poor performance.

"You have to ask why he didn't win by a landslide, why he wouldn't let Clinton campaign in Arkansas," she said.

Nader's detractors readily agree that Gore misstepped but they say that pales next to Nader's willfulness.

"Nader was never the only factor (in Gore's defeat)," said Cook. "But it was the only factor that was a betrayal."

Nader had his strongest support in a handful of states Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. Gore ultimately won all five, but only after being forced to spend precious time and money there. Meanwhile, Nader only took 2 percent in Florida a state that was never considered a Nader stronghold but that was enough to throw the state to Bush.

Colored by dislike

Some say Nader strayed from his original aim of establishing the Green Party as a national force, and let his personal dislike for Gore color his judgment.

Gary Sellers, a retired activist whose friendship with Nader dates back to the 1960s Nader was the best man at his wedding says Nader hinted last summer that he would withdraw if it were getting close.

"He said, 'Oh, Gary, don't worry about it," Sellers said.

When it became clear in October that Nader had no such intention, Sellers established Nader's Raiders for Gore. He now describes Nader as an "egomaniac" seduced by one more stab at the national spotlight, and says he lied to his constituents about Gore's record just like the establishment politicians he once reviled.

"You don't throw the country away" to prove a point, Sellers said, noting that Bush could appoint as many as 600 federal judges.

Peter Petkas, a Houston businessman and a Nader's Raider in the 1970s, said the same single-mindedness that drove Nader to heroic victories in those days undid the election.

"Ralph didn't see a way out, he locked himself in," he said. Petkas says he suffers the consequences of the ex-Texas governor's deregulatory fervor on a daily basis Houston is the nation's smoggiest city.

No Green betrayal

Nader says pulling out would have betrayed the Greens. "The campaign built the basis for a long-range political reform movement."

Notably, he does not use the word "party" the Greens fell well short of getting the 5 percent needed to qualify for federal matching funds, and they elected just 20 people to local office, including a sewage commissioner.

For some, those numbers spell the last of Nader. Norm Shiren, a retiree in Chappaqua, N.Y. Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton's new home modeled his modest local environmental activism on Nader's. No longer.

"Nader ended up throwing the election to someone who is going to do everything to ruin his issues," he said.

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