Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President
By Ralph Nader. Dunne Books, 400 pages, $14.95
Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon
By Justin Martin. Perseus Publishing, 288 pages, $26.00
The central element of Ralph Nader's public appeal is, and has always been, honesty. He built his image in the 1960s as an almost comically earnest man, eschewing all worldly comforts and tirelessly uncovering the facts. His most famous campaign advertisement from 2000 contrasted "campaign ads filled with half-truths" with righteous Nader himself, filmed in a cramped office, sleeves rolled up, "finding out the truth," as the narrator explained. And he plays upon this aura in his campaign memoir, subtitled How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President.
For a man in Nader's position, though, this is a less impressive claim than it sounds. Major-party candidates, who aspire to cobble together a governing majority, must shade their views to hold together a diverse coalition of voters with widely divergent views. Candidates who merely aspire to reach some small chunk of the electorate do not face this constraint and thus can eschew the characteristic evasions of modern campaigning and say what they really think. For a candidate such as Nader, whose presidential campaign strove only to win 5 percent of the voters (and achieved just half that), honesty is less a badge of honor than a minimal requirement. If you have only 2.74 percent of the vote to show for your efforts, you better have spoken your mind.
So it particularly damning that Nader fails to clear even this low threshold. His public appearances during the campaign, far from brutally honest, were larded with dissembling, prevarication and demagoguery, empty catchphrases and scripted one-liners. Perhaps you think this was an unavoidable response to the constraints of campaign sound-bite journalism. But when given more than 300 pages to explain his case in depth, Nader merely repeats his tired aphorisms.
Nader is at his slipperiest on the issue of whether his campaign tipped the election to George W. Bush. The evidence that he did so is unambiguous. First, by repeating his charge that there was no significant ideological distance between the two major-party candidates, Nader helped bolster the message of Bush, who sought to blur unpopular Republican positions on key issues. Second, by peeling off substantial blocks of liberals in states such as Oregon, Minnesota and Wisconsin, he forced Al Gore to devote precious time and money to shoring up states that would (if not for Nader) have been safely Democratic, leaving him fewer resources for swing states such as Ohio, Tennessee and Florida. Third, and most directly, Nader won 97,488 votes in Florida. Appearing on a talk show after the election, Nader cited polls that showed that, had he not run, only 38 percent of his voters would have backed Gore versus 25 percent for Bush. Strangely, Nader held up these numbers as a defense against the spoiler charge. Yet the very data cited by Nader, if applied to Florida, shows that he took a net 12,000 votes from Gore -- more than enough to hand the state, and the electoral college, to Bush.
Throughout the campaign, Nader brushed aside concerns that he might help elect Bush by employing one of several blithe quips. If asked about being a spoiler, he'd invariably reply, "You can't spoil a system that's spoiled to the core." If asked about helping defeat Gore, he'd answer, "Only Al Gore can defeat Al Gore." Another Nader favorite was, "Would I be running if I were concerned about taking votes from Al Gore? Isn't that what candidates try to do to one another -- take votes?" Not since Steve Forbes has a presidential candidate turned aside unwanted queries so robotically. Nader's one-liners were pure, made-for-television nonsequiturs, all refusing to engage on any substantive level the fact that his candidacy might prove a decisive factor in Bush's election.
Even in cozier settings, Nader was hardly more forthcoming. At a small fundraising luncheon in August 2000, one of his former lieutenants, Gary Sellers, warned against aiding Bush. "Oh Gary, I wish I could be as clairvoyant as you," Nader sneered. "Don't you worry. George Bush is so dumb, Gore will beat him by twenty points." (This account comes from Justin Martin, Nader's fairly sympathetic biographer, whose book provides much of the hard information on Nader used in this review.) Nader's own account of the incident is telling. He does not mention his (now discredited) riposte. He does not even attempt to refute Sellers' argument. Instead, he heaps innuendo upon his critic, calling him "one of the most bizarre recruits" to the anti-Nader cause and referring, without elaboration, to his "personal difficulties." Nader snidely notes that Sellers "was having a ball, debating Phil Donahue on national television and getting on other media," as if Nader himself ventured to a television studio only with the greatest reluctance.
Some of Nader's rationalizations so stretch the bounds of logic that it strains credibility to think he actually believes them. Nader has called the two major parties "Tweedledee and Tweedledum," and stated that "the only difference between them is the velocity at which their knees hit the floor" when corporations come calling. Yet he indignantly denies having said there's little difference between Democrats and Republicans. Another of his favorite rhetorical tricks is to hold up the damage wrought by Republicans as a reason not to vote for Democrats. When asked about GOP Supreme Court picks, Nader's talking point is to invoke the fact that conservative justices have made the bench only with Democratic support in the Senate. This is true, but entirely beside the point: For better or worse, the Senate tends to defer to the president's selections except in extreme cases. Perhaps this practice should change, but the fact remains that, in the real world, whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican is of enormous consequence for future control of the Supreme Court. When confronted with an undeniable difference between the two parties, Nader replies, "Democrats have gotten very good at electing very bad Republicans." In other words, Democrats are to be blamed for their own weakness, and the solution to this is to weaken them further.
Before the election, a New York Times editorial rebutted Nader's Tweedledee-and-Tweedledum analysis by citing the two candidates' starkly different approaches to using the budget surplus -- with Bush favoring a massive tax cut for the rich and Gore preferring other governing priorities. In his memoir, incredibly, Nader throws this back in the Times editors' faces. "So what happens in June 2001, with the Democrats taking over the Senate?" he asks. "The Democrats call a $1.3 trillion Bush tax cut a victory for their side, as indeed numerous Democrats voted with the Republicans." While repellent, the collaboration of a minority of Democrats with the Bush tax cut hardly vindicates Nader; quite the opposite. The tax cut fiasco, like Supreme Court nominations, demonstrates the difficulty of stopping a president's agenda from moving through the legislative branch. But it was Nader who argued (at least implicitly) that controlling Congress mattered more than controlling the White House. He claimed all along that his candidacy would help the Democrats win Congress; indeed, he asserted that the extra turnout he spurred gave Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) her winning margin and that this would offset any advantage Republicans gained by controlling the presidency. The tax cut showed that Nader was wrong and that the Times was right: What really matters in setting governing priorities is which party has the White House. Nothing resembling the Bush tax cut could have passed with Al Gore in the Oval Office.
To listen to Nader explain himself on these questions, then, is to stumble into a funhouse world of illogic and trickery. His systematic dissembling was necessary to hide something he could not, for political reasons, admit: Helping elect George W. Bush was not an unintended consequence but the primary goal of his presidential campaign.
If the purpose of Nader's candidacy really was to build a viable third party, as he stated, he should have been concerned only with maximizing his own vote total. Indeed, if this was his goal, he would have had a clear long-term interest in Gore winning: If Bush carried the election, many Green voters would probably return to the Democratic fold in 2004. Yet Nader chose to help Bush and hurt Gore, even when doing so came at his own expense. When American University professor Jamin Raskin proposed that Nader supporters in swing states swap their votes with Gore supporters in safe states -- thus maximizing the Nader vote while simultaneously helping Gore -- Nader denounced the idea.
Then there was the debate within the Nader campaign over where to travel in the waning days of the campaign. Some Nader advisers urged him to spend his time in uncontested states such as New York and California. These states -- where liberals and leftists could entertain the thought of voting Nader without fear of aiding Bush -- offered the richest harvest of potential votes. But, Martin writes, Nader -- who emerges from this account as the house radical of his own campaign -- insisted on spending the final days of the campaign on a whirlwind tour of battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. In other words, he chose to go where the votes were scarcest, jeopardizing his own chances of winning 5 percent of the vote, which he needed to gain federal funds in 2004. Nader does not mention this decision in his own account of the campaign. He does write that when Sellers worried that he would focus on electoral battlegrounds, "I told him we were running a fifty-state campaign to maximize our votes and were not going out of our way to target swing states." Either Nader was lying to Sellers or is lying to his readers.
To justify his campaign against the Democrats, Nader relies upon deliberate factual distortion. In Nader's telling, Gore delivered a populist attack on the oil, insurance and drug industries at his nominating convention, only to have his running mate quietly nullify those promises shortly thereafter. "Bob Davis of the Wall Street Journal wrote a remarkable article less than a week after the convention," Nader writes, "recounting how Senator Lieberman was telling business that Gore didn't really mean what he said." Actually, the article to which Nader refers says nothing of the sort. Rather, it reports that Lieberman attempted to explain how Gore's criticism of a few industries blocking necessary reforms did not reflect a broad hostility to business, and that Democratic policies over the previous eight years had helped produce a growing economy that helped business. Moreover, Lieberman tells Davis that when businesses "are doing something unfair to the people, we're going to be prepared to challenge them."
While Nader's attacks on Clinton and Gore might seem, on the surface, to mirror the criticisms liberal Democrats make of centrist and conservative Democrats, it reflects, in fact, something altogether different. Nader does not confine his objection to the party's rightward turn under Clinton; his sense of grievance with the party encompasses even its most liberal elements. In his book, he denounces not just Democratic moderates but also the party's labor allies and its Progressive Caucus, some of whose members he has vowed to unseat. He has endorsed the Minnesota Green Party's campaign to unseat Sen. Paul Wellstone, the closest thing to a real-world ally Nader could hope for.
Nor has Nader's confined his displeasure to the most recent Democratic administration. He excoriated Jimmy Carter, despite the fact that Carter put Naderites -- including his closest ally and protégé, Joan Claybrook -- into positions of some importance. Nader vociferously denounced Claybrook and demanded that she resign because she settled for compromises he deemed inadequate, including "an unheard of lead time provision that not even the worst of the Nixon-Ford years produced" for an air-bag law. "In the last year we've seen the 'corporatization' of Jimmy Carter," Nader declared at the end of Carter's term. "The two-party system, by all criteria, is bankrupt -- they have nothing of any significance to offer the voters, so a lot of voters say why should they go and vote for Tweedledum and Tweedledee." In 1980, of course, the Republican candidate was Ronald Reagan.
Nader's perpetual disillusionment with Democratic officeholders results only in part from ideological absolutism. The more important factor is his particular psychology, most obviously his egotism. What seems to set Nader off against Democratic officeholders is not so much doctrinal deviation but that they fail to listen to him. "I want access," he complained early in the Carter administration. "I want to be able to see [Carter] and talk to him. I expect to be consulted." In his memoir, he provides detailed recollections of slights at the hands of Democrats -- meetings denied, suggestions spurned. Nader sounds downright flabbergasted that the House Progressive Caucus or the AFL-CIO would fail to take up his proposed agenda when he took the time to present it to them.
The most hilarious evidence of Nader's stratospheric self-regard is his frequent insistence to the contrary. He fills his memoir with anecdotes of others offering him praise, and of himself demurring. He takes enormous pride in his humility. "Running for president requires a level and intensity of political ego that I do not find congenial," he writes at one point. Two paragraphs later, he recalls, "Friends chided me for rarely mentioning the achievements that I have registered over the years."
Nader's paranoia is even more pronounced than his vanity. In the 1960s, General Motors famously hired private detectives to trail him and dig up any dirt that might discredit its adversary. One might naturally assume that an episode like this would inculcate an overdeveloped sense of suspicion, but Nader's actually seems to have preceded that episode. As an obscure technocrat in the U.S. Department of Labor, long before he grew famous, Nader repeatedly warned his boss, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that the department's phones might be tapped. ("Fine! They'll learn that the unemployment rate for March is 5.3 percent," replied Moynihan.) Later, when Nader told his friends he thought he was being followed, one told him, "Ralph, your paranoia has grown to new extremes." The great joke is that in this one spectacular instance, he happened to be right: The conspiracy theorist happened upon a conspiracy.
Nader's suspicions occasionally verge on the bizarre. In 1992 he tried to force presidential primary candidates to answer a series of questions about issues affecting New Hampshire. "Curiously, the Gennifer Flowers uproar helped Clinton attract attention," Nader explains. "I'm almost certain that he and his close associates knew it was coming, especially after they planned and postponed a presidential run in 1988. Clinton knew how to stay on message, and nothing was going to get him to take a stand on President Bush's NAFTA proposal before Congress, or on nuclear power, or on the failing banks in New Hampshire." The language here is convoluted, but he seems to be arguing that Clinton orchestrated or at least took advantage of the Gennifer Flowers revelation to avoid having to answer Nader's questions.
Paranoia, of course, naturally lends itself to a particular intellectual style. Like any conspiracy theorist, Nader attributes all disagreement as evidence of corruption. No matter that the media has long publicized his causes and glorified him personally. He simply takes this attention for granted, as the recognition of an obvious truth. In recounting a laudatory opinion column by The Washington Post's David Broder, Nader writes that Broder "produced an accurate column-length article." It is a revealing choice of words: Punditry that endorses his own views is not friendly but "accurate." And Nader makes no provision for legitimate disagreement. Here, for instance, is how he describes a critical piece about him by my New Republic colleague (and American Prospect contributor) John Judis: "There was no surprise at the twisted piece that resulted. The publisher/owner of The New Republic was Al Gore's professor at Harvard and has made sure that his protégé received first-class touting in his publication." In fact, Judis set out to write a positive piece -- he stated so at an editorial meeting -- and only after studying Nader's campaign did he change his mind. The corruption of journalistic ethics that Nader describes as fact is actually a figment of his fevered imagination. This episode reveals two very telling aspects of Nader's psychology: the familiar lack of concern for truth and an inability to accept that some criticism -- even if, in his view, wrongheaded -- might be genuinely felt, rather than serving some nefarious agenda.
Judis' article argued that Nader's radical, demagogic campaign betrayed his own history as a consumer activist who appreciated the value of concrete, ameliorative progress. A similar liberal critique of Nader emerged as the 2000 campaign surged toward its conclusion: that, by helping to elect a right-wing president, he was undermining his own legacy. How, his former allies wondered, could he undertake such a baffling course of action?
The answer is that Nader's kamikaze effort against the Democrats was not as out of character as his anguished former allies supposed. There was a brief period in our political culture when a character such as Nader was able to produce an astonishing array of political triumphs. But his paranoia and irrationality, contempt for nuance and savaging of allies were there all along. Deliberately helping to elect Bush was in some ways a betrayal of Naderism, but in other ways its apotheosis. Whereas once Nader's style served the cause of social progress, it now serves the opposite.
Perhaps the most interesting question is how Nader's destructive accomplishments stack up against his constructive ones. We cannot know the answer to this question until the current administration departs office, but Bush will probably do more to set the country back than Nader did to move it forward. In weighing Nader's social-activist legacy against his Bush-electing legacy, one thing to keep in mind is that the former is more historically inevitable than the latter. If not for Nader, somebody else would have put seatbelts in cars; nobody else would have thrown the presidency to Bush.
Nader likely would respond, as he has frequently, that Bush's achievements will inevitably backfire as they provoke a massive popular reaction. But the existence of such a progressive revival remains largely speculative for now. And let us not forget that Nader's achievements did galvanize a massive reaction from business, which, largely in response to Nader and his movement, organized itself into a potent political force that dominates Washington to this day. If we are to subtract from Bush's achievements the hypothetical progressive backlash it will bring about, then we must discount from Nader's achievements the actual conservative backlash it did bring about. However one figures it, the conclusion is the same: When it comes time to write Nader's political obituary, the three-word headline will be, "He elected Bush."
The discussion of Nader's legacy continues here with Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner's rebuttal to Jonathan Chait; Chait's defense of his take on Nader; and Kuttner's final rejoinder on the subject.