THE 2004 PRESIDENTIAL RACE:
Nader Signals He Will Run Again in 2004
“Common to all the people who say that [my campaign hurt Gore] is the obligation to answer a more basic question, ‘What would you have me do?’ And their answer is, ‘Not run.’ And that’s not acceptable. This country does not belong to two parties.” —Ralph Nader, arguably America’s Demosthenes*
COLUMBIA, SC—On the face of it, South Carolina would seem an unlikely place for Ralph Nader to give a scathing speech denouncing George W. Bush the day after the president declared war on Iraq. After all, Nader won only 2 percent of the vote in South Carolina in the 2000 election, against Bush’s 57 percent. Plus, Bush’s popularity in the polls spiked during the war as the public rallied around the Commander-in-Chief.
Polls can be misleading. Here in this right-wing Republican stronghold, many conservatives who voted for Bush in 2000 are grumbling about his focus on Middle East standoffs while the economy continues to languish under his watch. One ardent Bush supporter from the upstate, where abandoned textile factories dot the landscape like ruins from another era, shocked me by fuming, “The government’s obviously waging this war just because they can. They’re just showing how tough and powerful they are, and it makes me sick every time I think about it.”
Between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs are lost every month in South Carolina’s textile and manufacturing industries, which accounts for more than 15 percent of the state’s nonagricultural workforce. Throughout Bush’s presidency, the state’s official unemployment rates have stayed consistently above the already high national average of around 6 percent. Given all that, Bush’s recent commencement address at the University of South Carolina calling for another NAFTA-like “free trade area” between the U.S. and the Middle East, which has a cheap labor pool and a large number of apparel factories, had a frosty reception even in South Carolina’s mostly conservative media.
Of course, the “good Christian folk” (i.e., evangelical fundamentalists) who represent the largest voting bloc in this and other Southern states would never vote for a pro-abortion-rights Democrat for president, no matter how much they sour on Bush. Yet the growing discontent among the people in Bush country with the president’s war policies and the nation’s stagnant economy presents a greater opportunity for a third-party maverick like Nader—still well-regarded in these parts—than perhaps either Democrats or Republicans appreciate.
Many of Nader’s critics fault him for campaigning hard in swing states in 2000. Bush, Gore, and Nader all seemed to take for granted that the rural states of the South and the heartland would go Republican, and so they concentrated their attention elsewhere. But the predominantly rural states that fell to Bush in 2000 are riddled with out-of-work textile workers and dwindling numbers of farmers. If some public figure were to show a strong interest in them without pandering, they are likely to appreciate the attention, as Ross Perot discovered in 1992 when disaffection with another Republican incumbent named Bush—and for very similar reasons—allowed the maverick populist to put a sizeable dent in the Republican base.
Perhaps, then, Nader decided to launch his anti-Bush speaking tour in the South as a way of seeking both atonement for his 2000 campaign—and leverage for a different strategy in 2004.
From behind the podium at the University of South Carolina’s Russell House Auditorium, Nader spoke with fluid nonchalance, sans notes, sans TelePrompter. But the words that fell out of his mouth were pregnant with righteous indignation. “Our Commander-in-Chief,” he said, “is a messianic militarist on a revenge trip.”
This statement was followed by one of the longest sentences ever spoken in a public speech: “After listening to [Bush’s message] day after day, week after week, while our country’s health insurance leaves so many people out and so much to be desired, while our environment is degrading in serious and long-range ways, while our energy policies are a shambles focusing on global-warming gases and ignoring solar energy and renewable; while our massive poverty continues as a scar on our national conscience; while our unemployment is increasing; while child poverty is five times higher as a percent of the population than it is in the Netherlands, where they’re ashamed of it and want to do something about it; while Americans can’t make ends meet with two members of the family working, and they’re going into trillions of dollars of consumer debt; while our public work s are crumbling, our libraries, our clinics, our public transit, our bridges are in severe disrepair even compared to the Depression years of the Thirties—what do we hear our president say every day on television? ‘Attack Iraq. Attack Iraq. Attack Iraq.’ An obsessive-compulsive syndrome like has never been seen before.”
Laughter competed with applause before his next words sobered everybody up: “President Bush has a serious personality problem. And he has a great deal of power to inflict the consequences of that closed mind on millions of people, with terrible consequences years hence.”
And it is all thanks to you, Mr. Nader, countered some in the audience. During the Q&A session following the speech, one man explicitly accused Nader of putting Bush in office by siphoning votes from Al Gore in 2000.
Nader rejoined that he didn’t put Bush in office, the Supreme Court did. “Al Gore won the election,” he insisted, citing the independent commission that found that a statewide recount in Florida would have shown Gore had the most votes.
“At the time [of the election], I urged the Democrats to ask for a statewide recount, because there’s more integrity in that. You just ask for three counties, people think you’re trying to rig the system. Gore wins the popular vote—in reality he won the electoral vote, not counting all the disenfranchised, all the shenanigans in the state that’s been documented where people couldn’t even vote—but then it goes to the Supreme Court and Bush is selected. I like to be able to predict the future, but unlike those Democratic critics of mine, I just couldn’t predict that sequence: that Gore would win, would win, and then would lose in a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court. ‘Hey, we won, and if it wasn’t for you, Ralph Nader, we would have—won again?’”
Nader added, “The Socialist candidate got 3,600 votes. Gore [is said to have] lost by some 500 votes. Do we say, ‘David McReynolds, you’re responsible for George W. Bush!’?”
All of which begs the question: What about 2004? Nader gave strong hints that he is gearing up for another campaign.
“Common to all the people who say that [the Nader campaign hurt Gore] is the obligation to answer a more basic question, ‘What would you have me do?’ And their answer is, ‘Not run.’ And that’s not acceptable. This country does not belong to two parties.
“If I do run, I will work very hard to depress Bush’s votes, in ways the Democrats can’t, won’t. Already, I am doing more than I think a lot of Democrats are doing to take him on.”
Nader did, however, make a point of praising one of the Democrats seeking the presidential nomination. “Right now, the better person is [Congressman Dennis] Kucinich,” Nader said. “I think he’d be a good president”—though he acknowledged Kucinich needs more money to secure the nomination. (Memo to Nader-phobic Democrats: Want to keep Nader out of the 2004 election? Campaign for Kucinich.)
But for the most part Nader dismissed congressional Democrats as sellouts. “As far as the Iraq war is concerned,” Nader said, “we have a one-party system, with a scattering of members of Congress you can count on your two hands who are telling it like it is.”
That Americans largely seemed to support the war, according to polls, doesn’t surprise Nader. The government, he said, “lives in a system now that shields them from accountability, because if you can get on national TV day after day and engage in the most outrageous prevarications garnished with a pseudo-rationale for going to war, and it’s not rebutted day after day, and it’s not refereed day after day, because we have state television called Fox News, and because we have a Democratic Party that’s gone to sleep, then obviously you’re going to hold up in the polls, because people aren’t hearing the other side. Imagine going into a court of law, with the jury only hearing the plaintiff, or only hearing the defendant and no one else.”
In a remarkable passage, Nader proved himself savvy enough to understand that a South Carolina audience is as interested in the degradation of economic opportunity and social mores as in terrorism, Iraq, and the Middle East. The typical worker, according to Nader, is plagued with “an overwhelming preoccupation with paying bills, as if our society of wealth should not enable people to spend more time on the things that count. Children spend less time in our generation with adults than any generation in human history. The commercialization of childhood is a huge industry, and children under 12 are now on the average spending thirty hours a week in the laps of these corporate hucksters and purveyors of low-grade sensuality: junk food, violent programming, and over-medication.
“The situation has now reached such a crisis and the invasion of our privacy is so massive, they now know more about ourselves than we do in many areas. You can’t remember them all, but they’ve got them in computer banks. Now, post-9/11, the government’s demanding all kinds of personal information in indiscriminate dragnet systems. They’re going to squeeze these credit files and medical files and so many of the other files on millions of Americans into the government’s computers. So you’re getting a convergence of giant corporations and giant governments in what is charitably known as the ‘Corporate State.’ More rigorously known as Corporate Socialism. More historically known as National Socialism: the control of government by private economic power. In 1938 Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it fascism.
“How much proof do we want that our democracy is slipping away? How much proof do we want that we have a regime that is chilling political dissent, with the opposing major party cowering and looking the other way? How much proof do we want that our media is increasingly a propaganda machine for corporate advertisers?”
That last sentence provoked the evening’s longest standing ovation.
“It all calls for a drive to create a far more engaged citizenry which must not give up on itself. Many of you are students-as-citizens. You’re not citizens-in-waiting because you’re students. You’re citizens now. Your forebears helped get us out of Vietnam, put the environmental violence on the front pages, expanded student rights, and fought the civil rights battles not so many years ago. Isn’t it time for you to pick up the torch of justice for your generation? It’s not enough to sit around a table in and cafeteria and rationalize your futility.”
To that end, Nader offered a sign-up sheet for a citizens’ skills course at the university. And he encouraged people to visit his website, at essentialaction.org.
Brad Carlton is a contributing editor for the Baltimore Chronicle on assignment in South Carolina. This article has been abridged for print publication. To read the complete article, visit http://baltimorechronicle.com/nader_apr03.shtml.
*Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.) was a Greek orator who, in rousing speeches—tirades called “Philippics”—urged the people of Athens to defy Philip II of Macedon.
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This story was published on June 4, 2003.