A little more than 39 months ago, on November 7, 2000, Ralph Nader strode onto the stage at his campaign headquarters and delivered a passionate, congratulatory concession speech. He told the gathered supporters that the expected was taking place, that he was finishing a distant third behind then-Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. But Nader encouraged his backers to focus on the campaign’s successes, and on the possibilities it suggested.
“Going around the country you get the feeling that there are millions of people who are really ready for a new progressive political movement,” he declared. Scores of progressive leaders shared Nader’s conviction on that night, and many still share it today. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about his decision to enter the presidential race.
“I love Ralph. I have a quote from him up on the wall of my office. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guy,” says Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s and a prominent Nader supporter in 2000. “But I just don’t think this is the year for him to be running for president.”
Cohen has been saying as much for weeks, emerging as one of the leaders of movement on the left urging Nader to not run. Other well-known progressives, including most of Nader’s most prominent supporters from 2000, have been publicly or privately doing the same. Last time around, Nader attracted the support of a stellar list of left-leaning celebrities; Phil Donahue, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Paul Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Eddie Vedder, and Ani DiFranco were all Naderites. That won’t be the case this year.
But it isn’t only the celebrities that are frustrated and disappointed by Nader’s decision. Renewable energy entrepreneur John Schaeffer, the founder of Real Goods Trading Co., was a member of the high-profile Citizens Committee unveiled by Nader’s campaign in late September of 2000. This year, Schaeffer says, he wishes Nader “would stay out of it.”
“It’s a hard decision. The guy has wonderful politics, and everything he says makes sense. The problem is, for the first time in most of our lives, the idealism is trumped by politics,” Schaeffer says. “Bush is so bad. The political landscape has changed. It’s just not the same game anymore.”
Late last month, the editors of The Nation made the same argument in an open letter to Nader. At the close of the piece was a simple coda: “Ralph, please think of the long term. Don’t run.” Nader didn’t take the advice. In fact, he fired back at the magazine, accusing it of walking “from those engaging in a difficult struggle it champions on the merits, in a climate of conventional groupthink.”
David Corn, the magazine’s Washington editor, is closer to Nader than most at The Nation. A former staffer at Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law, Corn wrote in November of 2000 that Nader’s experience “confirmed his view that resurrection awaits only those progressives who recognize this harsh reality, give up on the Democrats and act accordingly.” But Corn says Nader’s decision to seek that resurrection this year is “a mistake.”
“I worked for Ralph for 20 years. I believe that he’s done more good for the American people than any member of Congress. But he’s not running this year to build a party, and whatever critique he has to make will not get more attention with him as a presidential candidate,” Corn says. “Really, my concern is less that he will draw voters away from the Democratic nominee, whoever that might be, but that he will taint his own legacy.” There is a vital role for Nader to play in the 2004 campaign, Corn argues, but it is not as a candidate.
“He could make the same critique outside of a candidacy. There is no reason he couldn’t have anti-Bush rallies with Michael Moore, Patti Smith, and others that would rev people up. But he should do it outside a campaign.” In fact, Cohen and other progressives had tried to persuade Nader that he could further his progressive arguments without becoming a candidate. “I was hoping that we could figure out a way to make that happen,” he says. “The message is important. But, personally, I would forego getting the message out this time.”
Even some who remain fiercely loyal to Nader understand the concerns so many of his former supporters are giving voice to. Ross Mirkarimi, Nader’s California campaign director in 2000, admits to being “schizoid” on the issue. “Not only do I understand it, I tend to agree with a lot of what people are saying,” he says. “I understand Ralph’s decision, but I also understand the need to get rid of George Bush.” But Mirkarimi insists it is unfair for so many progressive to blame Nader now, just as it was unfair to blame Nader in 2000.
“As uncomfortable and potentially risky as it is for him to run, the larger issue here is that third parties cannot wait for the Democrats to say it’s okay to participate. It’s incumbent on the Democratic Party to reach out,” he says. “It’s really a shame that Nader’s the one who has to carry the bullseye on his back, but that’s nothing new.”
Jason Salzman, a Colorado activist and writer, wasn’t one of Nader’s high-profile backers in 2000. His name wasn’t found alongside Cohen’s or Schaeffer’s on Citizens Committee — that long list of “prominent leaders in their respective fields” Nader rolled out two short weeks before the election. Salzman was a Nader voter. And, he says, an unrepentant Nader voter until last year. Now, Salzman has teamed with Aaron Toso, his partner at Denver-based Cause Communications and also a Nader voter in 2000, to launch RepentantNaderVoter, a web site devoted to convincing onetime Nader supporters to “vote for the presidential candidate most likely to defeat George W. Bush in 2004.”
Like many of the progressive leaders who have tried to personally lobby Nader, Salzman admits to being conflicted. “You listen to Ralph Nader, and you agree with so much of what he says,” Salzman says. “It just makes me feel bad. But the political reality in this country right now is that we have an extremist in the White House, and that demands that progressives change the way they approach politics.” Salzman says he believes Nader was unfairly blamed for Gore’s loss in 2000, but he’s not willing to take any chances this year.
“I really believed that it was strategic and smart to vote for Nader in the last election. But Bush made me repentant.”