Washington When Ralph Nader is amused about something, a crooked smirk creases his somber face, the shoulders beneath the pin-striped suit start to quiver, and the abrupt, shrill laugh that escapes his mouth can best be described as a strangulated giggle.
He did it the other night, in his favorite bookstore cafe eight blocks from the White House, while ruminating about his life as a pariah, as a fringe presidential candidate who is virtually friendless in these early days of his third quixotic campaign.
As for the widely held theory, among Democrats, that his 2000 candidacy took votes from Al Gore and put George W. Bush in the White House, and that now he seems poised to do it again ... well, Nader thinks that's downright hysterical.
"Oh, the whining!" he declared, after his mirth turned to husky disdain. "The endless whining! The liberals are always whining! You know, scapegoating me is a sign of a decadent party, a party that whines instead of going to work."
Last Thursday, 15 liberal and progressive groups sent letters to Nader imploring him not to run, saying his candidacy last time led to the election of the "most destructive" administration in history.
Nader spurned their plea, and said at the cafe: "This liberal attitude of 'Anybody but Bush,' that's like a virus. ... They say to me: 'Ralph, you've done great things, but don't run again, you're going to hurt your legacy if there's another four years of Bush' -- the sheer hubris of that! They're telling me not to exercise my right of free speech!"
So he's running again -- four years after he won 97,000 votes in Florida, where Bush won by 537 -- and Democrats are apoplectic. These days, they're not lauding his good works -- the padded car dashboards, the cleaner water, the healthier baby food, all the fruits of 40 years as a citizen activist. No, they're talking like Mitch Caesar, the Democratic chairman of Broward County, Florida, who said the other day: "If I met with him, I might strangle him."
'A second front'
But, this time, Nader insists his candidacy will aid the Democrats. If he seemed contemptuous of Gore last time, that was because he saw the 2000 race as a referendum on Clinton-Gore. He hawked his candidacy as a haven for liberals who viewed Clinton and Gore as corporate lackeys. But 2004 is a referendum on Bush, and Nader sees himself as John Kerry's helper, constituting "a second front" against the president.
He plans to meet soon with Kerry, to offer advice. He complains that Kerry sometimes seems "drained of any inspiration," and he wants to "jolt" the guy, push him leftward on issues. But Kathy Roeder, a Kerry spokesman, says that, while the two men will undoubtedly confer, "we're not looking for any shadow candidate, any 'second front,' to provide us with any kind of support."
Somehow, Nader's new pitch hasn't mollified his old friends and erstwhile liberal sympathizers. Micah Sifry, a citizen activist and author who has known Nader for several decades, said the other day: "There was a time when I could trust Ralph to be intellectually honest, but I don't feel that way anymore."
And what's the vibe in Washington, where Nader lives?
"Total ostracism!" Nader roared. "There's an annual conference on the 'progressive future of America,' and I'm not invited. (In 2001) I wanted to testify in the Senate against John Ashcroft's nomination. (Democrats) didn't respond to my request. The beat goes on."
Critics abound. Jonathan Chait, a liberal commentator, calls Nader "a selfish, destructive maniac." The ice-cream magnate Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, was a major Nader financier in 2000; this year, he generated 40,000 e-mails to Nader, imploring him not to run. In fact, the notables who have dumped Nader reads like a who's who of liberal Hollywood.
"Phil Donahue, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins," Nader groused, "not to mention Danny Glover, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Moore, Willie Nelson. Just look at the remarkable unanimity among people who should know better. You know what this is? This is panic! Total panic! They have amnesia about the terrible performance of Clinton-Gore, and they just focus on what Bush has done."
Apples and oranges?
That's true. Democrats do tend to focus on Bush's record, starting with the fact that he launched a war in Iraq based on questionable intelligence. Does Nader still believe, as he declared four years ago, that there are scant differences between the two parties? For instance, would Al Gore have launched such a war in Iraq?
On the Gore question, Nader replied, "Nostradamus I am not." But when prodded further, Nader said that Gore "would have tried to overthrow Hussein with covert action, rather than invade."
Given the loss of life in Iraq, isn't that a big difference?
"If my clairvoyance is correct, sure," Nader said.
And would not Gore's record have differed from Bush's record in other ways -- on tax cuts, the environment, and judicial nominees?
"On a fraction of the issues, yes ... But are both parties still dialing for the same (corporate) dollars? You bet. Are we satisfied with two parties that are dragging the country at differential speeds, on behalf of big business? Is that enough to satisfy us, to support the party that's taking us at a slower pace?"
He said that the liberals were so "freaked out" about Bush that they'll support Kerry without asking for anything substantive in return, such as a higher minimum wage, or big money for solar power. Indeed, he said, "they've put rings in their own noses. They're saying: 'Hey, anybody but Bush, take me!' And they're being taken."
And if liberals are really so determined to vote Democratic and take no risks this year, why are they worried about Nader in the first place? That's what he's wondering. And most polls thus far don't paint Nader as a major threat to Kerry. But, as a national Democrat said privately the other day: "We're still very sensitive, almost superstitious, about anything related to the devastating outcome in 2000."
Nor are Democrats charmed by Nader's latest contention that, rather than attracting liberals this year, he'll pull votes from conservatives who are angry at Bush "over his big deficits, the outsourcing of jobs to communist China, and Big Brother provisions in the Patriot Act." The problem is, most surveys say otherwise; the new Keystone poll shows that he's favored by 8 percent of Pennsylvania liberals and only one percent of conservatives.
Nader still must get his name on 50 state ballots, but he's expected to clear most hurdles (even the high hurdles in Pennsylvania, where state House Democratic leader Bill DeWeese calls his candidacy "an abomination"). And Nader says he won't leave, even if it appears he might be helping Bush: "You don't string people along for 10 months, get them to work their hearts out, then turn around and say 'Sayonara."'