On the Left: What Makes Ralph Run

Consumer crusader Ralph Nader -- long the scourge of Corporate America -- is nominee of the Green Party in the 2000 Presidential race. He is hoping to win at least 5% of the popular vote in November, which would make his party eligible for federal funds in four years. Recently, Business Week correspondent Lorraine Woellert joined him in his campaign minivan on a trip to the eastern end of Long Island, where some 400 followers paid $10 each to listen to his stump speech. Here, in edited excerpts, is an extended version of the Q&A which appears in the Sept. 25 issue of Business Week:

Q: You're preaching an anti-Big Business, anti-globalism message. How does that sell during this age of prosperity?
People feel pushed around at work. They're laid off because of profiteering and moving of plants abroad. Loyal workers of 15 and 20 years get the pink slip. Their privacy is being invaded. They can't get a human being on the phone anymore. And they're commuting back and forth. But the critical issue is: Most people are falling behind. After 10 years of prosperity, they're still not making what they made in 1989. That is a stunning, unprecedented disconnect.

Q: Was there any one single thing that inspired you to run?
Yes. The total Republicanization of the [Democratic] Party. The two parties are more and more converging, morphing into one another, beholden to the same interests. At the [May fund-raiser at Washington's] MCI Center, bragging that they broke the Republican fund-raising record, Democrats had the same donors at the same tables and raised 26.5 million bucks. It's just a complete orgy.

Q: You've had some success attracting large crowds at your rallies. So how do you explain your polling numbers, which currently put you at about 3%?
For any new political startup, there are events beyond your control. It's a Catch-22. You're not up in the polls if you don't get mass media; you don't get mass media unless you're up in the polls.

Q: How do you overcome all these obstacles?
We just think harder. We're going to smash the two-party system. It's going to start this year. You wait and see what's going to happen.... The two-party system is the enemy of our democracy. It's exclusionary, it's look-alike, and it's beholden to the same corporate interests.

Q: Has Al Gore been borrowing your message in recent weeks?
Yeah, but he's an imposter. Joe Lieberman is the real Al Gore. Joe Lieberman is a corporate Democrat. He takes big money from the pharmaceutical, insurance, HMO, and defense industries. He's against civil justice, he's a tort reformer, he's never seen a weapons system he didn't like. He's never seen a corporation he doesn't want to give immunity or limited liability to in courts of law. And he was named by Gore. [He] is the real Al Gore. The rhetoric is to take away votes from me.

Q: How do you respond to Democrats who complain that you're hurting Al Gore's chances?
He's taking away votes from me. Why should I entitle Gore to votes he doesn't deserve? Let's say your company is challenging Exxon. Do you say, "Are you worried about taking business away from Exxon?" Of course not.

Q: Why has Gore adopted part of your message?
Because he knows it's appealing. Clinton did this. It's a tactic the Democrats use. If they were a corporation, they'd be prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices.... All the Democrats have going for them is that the Republicans are worse. Whenever you press the Democrats, they say, "Hey, George W. Bush is worse."

Q: But you agree with that, right?
Yeah, but it's the bad and the worse. That's not an acceptable choice for the voters.

Q: What about the Supreme Court argument in favor of Gore?
The Supreme Court is a big one. Like people at The Nation, they're worried about the Supreme Court. And I say, "Who was in charge of the Senate when Clarence Thomas got through? Who voted for [Justice Antonin] Scalia?" A lot of Democrats.

Q: What's your assessment of Bush's campaign so far?
I really think Bush is going to decline. He can't handle a high-pressure situation. The press is giving him a free ride. It's disgraceful. They run these little pictures of minority kids and Bush in his talk about education, and back in Texas it's like a third-world country for a lot of kids: child hunger, no health insurance, sickness.

Q: Does the discontent among more liberal members of the Democratic Party help you?
Indirectly. It's not what I want to do -- I'm strengthening the Democrat Party. They never would have gone populist without [my campaign]. You know how third-party candidates go up [in the polls], then go down? It's because of the populist b.s. that the Democrats hurl. It works every time. But it's not going to work this time. I've been around too long not to know how to outfox these guys. This campaign helps Gephardt gain control of the House.... He's not displeased about this campaign, though he's not saying it publicly.

Q: Are you disappointed that some of the old-line progressive leaders of the Democratic party -- the labor leaders, the environmentalists -- haven't given you more support?
Yes, because they are defining their support by how bad Bush is, by saying, "You must know that Bush is so much worse than Gore." That's a hell of a way to build a progressive party. But I knew what I was getting into. Don't worry, we'll break through.

Q: What do you think of Alan Greenspan?
He's a useful icon. The stock market speculators have to have someone like Alan Greenspan or they'd invent him. It's a joke. What does he have to with the economy? He doesn't enforce the consumer laws under the Federal Reserve, which are quite extensive. Equal credit opportunity laws, for example, laws against predatory lending.

Q: Do you have someone in mind to chair the Federal Reserve?
Yes. James K. Galbraith, professor of economics at the University of Texas, former economist for the Joint Economic Committee, son of [John] Kenneth Galbraith.

Q: You put a lot of blame for your drop in the polls on an inattentive media. Is that where you're really laying all the blame?
I'm just saying I don't think they're doing their jobs and they're a corporation, and I'm a long-time critic of corporations that don't do their jobs, especially conglomerate corporations.

Q: Are you actively targeting the minority vote?
Yes. What has Gore ever done for poor people except stand in the pulpit and mimic black clergy talk? It's disgusting. It's pandering. The Republicans are so much worse in the minds of minorities, people of color. But in reality they're not all that much worse.

Q: You're a strong critic of corporate monopolies. Yet you own some $1.2 million worth of Cisco stock. Cisco has more than a 70% share of the Internet-router market. Isn't it hypocritical for you, a corporate crusader, to own the company's stock?
No, because we don't have a per se monopoly percentage in antitrust law. And they've been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and exonerated. They don't have tie-in sales like Microsoft, they don't have intellectual-property issues that tie up competitors. They just got out of the box first. And they're very well managed. And in this new technology, if you get out of the box first, you tend to stay first for a while. But if they were a monopoly, I'd be going after them.

Q: Does your crusading have the potential to hurt your investments?
Who cares? What we need more in this country is conflict against your interests. Not conflict of interest. Where you do something because it's the right thing to do, even though it damages your financial interests. I grew up that way. My father ran a restaurant. And he was very outspoken politically. And once in a while, someone would come in and say, "Mr. Nader, don't you know this is going to hurt your business? Because if you disagree with someone in politics, they're not going to want to come and buy a sandwich." You know what he said to them? He said, "Let me tell you my friend, when I sailed past the Statue of Liberty in 1912, I took it seriously." And it did hurt his business.

Q: In your acceptance speech, you assailed sweatshops and said nobody should be making less than $10 an hour. But don't many of the groups that you founded actually pay low salaries and have employees that work extremely long hours with no overtime?
I don't think any of them pay under $10 an hour now. I think the starting salary is above that. And they get good health insurance. And all the groups I start get unlimited, paid sick leave. For example, a person in the office had a sick mother, and she was out for two months. And she said, "Really, you shouldn't pay me anymore." And I said, "Marsha, if you have to stay with your mother for five years, you will be paid."

Q: So what do you know about running a government?
From a little office in Washington, I've had quite an impact on our government. Nobody has studied it more, nobody has investigated it more, nobody has sued it more, nobody has gotten more things through it in spite of overwhelming odds.

Q: But you've never held elected office.
No. But I held the most important office of all, the office of citizenship.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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Nader and Buchanan: What You Won't Hear in the Debates

On the Left: What Makes Ralph Run (extended)

On the Right: Buchanan's Last Stand? (extended)

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