Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

December 20, 2000:
The "Spoiler" speaks out
Ralph Nader looks back at the election 2000

Ralph Nader '55 inspired great passions during his 2000 presidential bid. Now 66, the legendary liberal crusader and two-time presidential candidate was thronged by voters in auditoriums across the country, yet also vilified by Democratic partisans for potentially tipping the race from Democrat Al Gore to Republican George W. Bush. Nader, though he garnered almost 2.8 million votes, failed to take 5 percent of the votes cast - his long-stated benchmark. On November 27, PAW contributor Louis Jacobson '92 interviewed Nader at his campaign headquarters, located in a modest townhouse on the northern fringe of downtown Washington, D.C. In 1990, Jacobson was among the first class of summer interns for Nader's Princeton Project 55, a group that places Princeton students in jobs that address "systemic" societal problems. Since 1993, Jacobson has covered politics and lobbying for National Journal magazine in Washington. The following is a lightly edited transcript of his hour-long interview with Nader.

Do you consider your campaign this year to have been a success or a failure, and why?

I consider it a success because we now have in place the third-largest party in the U.S., replacing the Reform Party, as well as the fastest-growing party and the party that we think is first in its spirit of determination to take back our government for the people. What that means strategically for the other two parties is that no longer can they say, "You have nowhere to go because the other big party is worse."

That's especially true for the Democrats, who for the past 20 years have been saying to progressive Democrats that they have to take it or leave it. The [moderate-to-conservative] Democratic Leadership Council that dominates the Democratic Party and has spawned Clinton, Gore and Lieberman has given the back of its hand to its progressive wing, even though it is historically the soul of the Democratic Party. They say, "Support us regardless," but that approach to keeping in line progressive voters won't work as well anymore because they can go Green.

So in that sense, there's quite a bit of leverage that progressive Democrats now have inside their party. Increasingly, the Greens can cost the Democrats more and more races on the margins. We also brought in a lot of young people - the campuses were alive with activity. We had coordinators on 1,000 campuses all over the country and we brought a lot of adult voters back into politics as canvassers and organizers. And we generated a very strong debate within the liberal community, centered on the pivotal question of whether we work to preserve the status quo against a worse alternative, or whether we work against the worst alternative by expanding the hope for justice in our country.

Do you think you've won that debate?

At least it's a debate now. The first leap forward occurred on November 7. We're hoping to field over 1,000 candidates for local state and national office in 2002. So it was a good baseline. On other hand, we didn't get the 5 percent we wanted, and there will be a lot of analysis of why that was. Our polls held up until the Monday before the election. I guess the scare campaign by the Democrats worked and got some of the wavering Democrats back into the fold. It did teach us that the vast majority of people don't think in terms of the electoral college. They looked at the national news and saw it was going to be a close election between Bush and Gore. They didn't say, 'Well I live in Texas and it doesn't matter," or "I'm in New York and it doesn't matter, so I'm going to vote Green."

The other benefit now is that we have a watchdog party. See, the progressive community here in Washington - all the various citizen groups - they go up on Capitol Hill and they try to make three arguments in their favor. One is the evidence, the second is the moral appeal and the third is the ability to expose the voting records of the senator or the House member in the press. Well, now they're implicitly going to have a fourth argument: that if the Democrats don't wake up, they're going to lose votes. Now, they're not going to say that directly, but it's going to be in the minds of people like [House Minority Leader Dick] Gephardt and [Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle]. I helped the Democrats this time around in the House and the Senate because only 10 percent of the congressional districts were challenged by Greens.

Do you have any regrets - things you might have done differently, with the benefit of hindsight?

Oh, yeah. That's the only way you learn. There isn't a politician who's credible that says he or she didn't make a lot of mistakes in the campaign. (Laughs). No one has the omniscience and omnipotence to foresee and forestall all mistakes.

Well, one of them was that I started a little bit too late - I started March 1, and we didn't really have a staff going until about May or June. I don't like long campaigns, but I think we didn't get the machinery in place until too late. Second, we had a small amount of money to spend in the last 3 weeks, and I had wanted to spend it on hiring short-term people to get out the vote in key areas. I was persuaded to put it into television and radio. I think that was a mistake. I think that unless you have huge amounts of money and are already contending on a major party level, then it's better to have 200 or 300 people working for you full time for three weeks in key areas, rather than putting it into a television buy that couldn't even cover the country.

Third, we had six people working full-time in front of a computer, going into major constituency group, that we thought might resonate with our agenda - agriculture, environment, labor. We know now that the Internet didn't increase the overall turnout. There was massive use of the Internet by all parties, but turnout barely went up. So I'm not sure that was a good use of their time.

Now, to clarify: This was a 50-state campaign. It was not a campaign to defeat Al Gore, because if it had been, I would have focused on the swing states. As it happened, I spent more time in California, which was firmly in the Gore camp, than in all the swing states put together. I hardly campaigned in Florida. I was in Florida for three days since March. So it was a campaign to establish a Green Party presence in as many states as possible and to get as many votes as possible.

What surprised you about the campaign? Was there anything that struck you as totally unexpected?

Yeah - being thrown out of the debate premises. It's one thing to be excluded from the debates, but I had credentials to be interviewed by the student television station at Washington University [in St. Louis]. In Boston, I had credentials to sit in an adjoining auditorium - an adjoining auditorium! - pursuant to a Fox News invitation to sit in a trailer and give them commentary at 11:00, after the debate. That was pretty astounding. So astounding that it's leading to litigation! (Laughs.)

The other thing that was astounding was that I spent 1 percent of the money and got 1 percent of the national media attention and was excluded from the debates - yet the thing I wasn't prepared for was that 95 percent of that 1 percent of the press coverage dealt with the horse race. I don't think I got more than an infinitesimal amount of space or time on any of our agenda issues, which were very clear. If you look at our Web site, we made a big thing out of agricultural policy. Well, that's not a marginal issue in America. We were not talking about recommending a thorough investigation of the UFO phenomenon.

We made a big thing out of corporate crime, and all kinds of reporting occurs in the Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes and the New York Times about that. We made a big thing out of corporate welfare, a big thing out of labor law, a big thing about a living wage, a big thing about international trade agreements, and big thing out of consumer protection. These are major areas that were indisputably of concern to tens of millions of people, but which the two major candidates ignored. Now, when you take all those things together, you would think that there would be some press coverage.

For example, I had a press conference on Social Security at the Madison Hotel in Washington. The Washington Post couldn't even cross the street and attend. This was an issue that Bush and Gore had both taken positions on, and my position was that there is no crisis. It's a phony crisis - for Bush because he wants to get Wall Street's hands on the money, and for Gore because he wants a place to park the surplus that's politically invulnerable. Now, the Associated Press did a story, but there was no TV coverage, no radio. This was three weeks before the election. So it was a big surprise that all these areas were ignored, even though they met those criteria of newsworthiness.

In a more general way, the press can never figure out how to cover significant third-party candidates unless they are billionaires like Ross Perot. I would say to them, "What's your criteria? What about the track record of the candidate? The number of people who show up at gatherings? The agenda of the candidate? The polls?" Any one of these could have been a criteria for more regular coverage. Instead, the coverage was primarily feature-oriented. An editor at the Los Angeles Times would say to a reporter, "Hey, I wonder what the Nader/LaDuke campaign is up to - we haven't written anything on them for a month. Go out and write a feature." There was never regular news coverage, even when they were accusing me of deciding who the next president would be.

The funniest thing was, we hired a van with 14 seats for the reporters who wanted to come with us. In the last three weeks of the campaign, when all I heard was about how I would be throwing the election to Bush, we never had more than four reporters with us. I laughed with the ones who were on the van - a guy from USA Today, someone from the L.A. Times. We'd joke, "Here's the guy who's going to decide the margin of the presidential election, and we've got seven empty seats!"

Did the experience of the campaign make you more or less interested in pursuing your goals through electoral politics, as opposed to what you have traditionally done with interest groups?

More. Simply because for the last decade or so, the citizen groups have been crowded out in Washington. They can't get anything done compared to what they did in the 1960s and 1970s. About 1980 it started to slide. Ronald Reagan was one factor, but also [former Rep.] Tony Coelho teaching the Democrats how to raise money from big business interests. That was one of the things that prompted me to run.

Four things prompted me to run. One was that we, the citizen groups, simply don't have a chance to participate any more. They don't want to admit that, because otherwise how can you go to work in the morning? But it's fair to say that they are working harder and harder for less and less, whether they're working on the environment, civil rights, civil liberties, consumer protection, anti-poverty, labor, whatever.

The second thing was all these stories that the press would write. There were terrific investigative stories on corporate misbehavior that went nowhere - page-one stories in the New York Times, and nothing happens. Reporters tell me they work three months on a story, sweating it, then get it placed perfectly, but nothing happens - no investigation, no congressional hearing, no prosecution, no regulatory action, no nothing. That is a symptom of our collapsing democracy. Big business has been on a collision course with our democracy, and our democracy is losing.

The third thing was that there are so many solutions available to so many of our problems, right on the shelf. The function of a strong democracy is to connect systemic solutions to systemic problems and injustices, and it hasn't been happening. We had solutions for energy, for housing, for education. But they never got a chance.

The fourth reason was that so many good people who had an interest in running for elective office and were qualified didn't want to become part of the political muck, the dirty political scene. That's very unhealthy for our democracy. The system is so messed up and so dirty that it discourages some of the best people from running for office.

Are you going to continue to work through your outside groups too?

Oh, yeah. Sure.

If you had the chance to meet Al Gore or George W. Bush, what would you tell them?

Right now?

Right now.

Flip a coin. They're not going to recount the whole state, and they're not going to do it by impartial tribunals, so it's hopelessly deficient. Western Europe can't believe that the Democrats and the Republicans decide the votes in different counties. Since the margin of error is greater than the margin of the votes between the two of them, and since we don't want people to feel as though the election was tainted and stolen, it would be best for them to flip a coin.

You could have a one-hour, global extravaganza on television. You could sell ads and use it to fund elections. Politicians would have a four-year hiatus to see how they can conduct governance without having to raise money. (Laughs.) I think Coca-Cola would probably spend $20 million for a half-minute ad. It would be the biggest global audience in world history. You could have Muhammad Ali flip the coin.

OK. But seriously, in terms of how the campaign turned out, is there anything you would like to say to them?

Obviously I'd have a lot to say. One is that they should have laid out a compelling plan for campaign-finance reform, leading to public money for public elections. That's the biggest single obstacle to moving our country ahead. Second, they should have had multi-candidate debates. They should have had the grace to open it up, as the two parties did in Minnesota with Jesse Ventura in 1998.

Third, I would say, "Why didn't you have anything in your agenda about strengthening the tools of democracy, so that voters, workers, consumers, taxpayers and small investors would have a bigger say in each of their areas, as befits a people-sovereign democracy?" The people have absolutely nothing to shift power with. The central tension within politics is power - where is it, who's got it, who's got too much of it, who abuses it. They had no shift in the power agenda whatsoever. All that Gore would say is, "I represent the people, not the powerful," but he never followed up on it. That, I think, seriously undermines the promise of a presidential campaign. There's always a propensity for power to concentrate. You have to have the political system counterbalance that. Jefferson said the purpose of representative government is to counteract the excesses of the moneyed interests. But the campaign didn't perform that role. It did not urge the redress of power in any way.

What was your thought on some of the vote-trading plans that were put forward on your behalf. [Several Web sites offered Nader supporters in swing states the opportunity to trade votes with Nader backers in states that were safely Republican or Democratic, so that Gore's chances of winning the electoral college vote would not be hurt.]

I didn't like them. First, they are unlawful in certain states. Second, I want people to vote for whoever they believe in - to vote their conscience, just as they want their senators and representative to vote their conscience. Third, it's unenforceable. You don't know that someone who agrees to do it is actually going to deliver. I think it cheapens the franchise a bit.

One idea that's been floated is an "instant runoff," in which voters rank-order their votes. If no candidate wins 50 percent, the bottom finishers are eliminated and their supporters' second- or third-place preferences are added to the remaining candidates' totals. Is that something that you would support?

Yeah. There are arguments on both sides, but it does allow multi-party candidacies to flower. People could say, "I want to vote for this third party, but I do have a preference between the two majors."

Truly deep down in your heart, did you not care who won the election, as long as it wasn't going to be you?

I didn't care. You've been around this city long enough - you know there are fewer and fewer decisions that are not made by the permanent, corporate government here, represented by corporate lobbyists, political action committees and the whole corporate infrastructure. I say to myself that the real issue is which candidate is going to dislodge the permanent corporate government in Washington once they get into office. There is no clear answer to that from Bush or Gore.

There is a little rhetorical difference, of course. But on corporate welfare, corporate crime, labor, welfare reform, GATT, NAFTA, the Democrats behaved the way the Republicans would have behaved, and sometimes more intensely, as in the case of corporate welfare. On defense policy, Gore actually wanted billions of dollars more in spending.

On the Supreme Court, I hold the Democrats responsible for losing Congress to the extreme wing of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party in the last eight years has become very good at electing very bad Republicans. So they can't turn the question around after not being able to stop [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott and [House Majority Whip Tom] DeLay and [House Majority Leader Dick] Armey and [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich. The Democratic Party sent [conservative justices Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas to the Supreme Court. It was 98-0 for Scalia, including Gore. With Thomas, the Democrats gave him 11 votes to put him over the top. So what are they talking about? What kind of credibility do they have, when they couldn't stop the people they now say are the two worst justices on the Supreme Court?

Are there any particular issues for which you think there might be a difference between Gore and Bush?

Yes. Social Security is one where there are real differences, but I think the decision on that is really in the hands of the AARP [formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons]. There are real differences in forest policy, but it's not that Gore is really good, it's that Bush is so bad. I would give Clinton-Gore a C on forest policy. Bush is worse.

Now, as far as how they spend a nonexistent 10-year surplus, I don't really pay too much attention to that. In retrospect, that may become a relic. On health insurance, Gore's a little better, but he still wouldn't come out for universal health insurance. There are 10 million more people uninsured now than there were when Clinton and Gore entered office in 1993.

On the military they're the same, on foreign policy there's not much difference. On education, what's the federal government going to do on education? On the National Institutes of Health budget, Bush was probably better - at least he said he was going to double the budget. Then again, they've got more money now than they know how to spend fruitfully.

Now, rhetorically, there are a lot of differences. But I give them no credence. For example, the regulatory agencies under Clinton and Gore were as bad, or worse, than under Reagan and Bush. Auto safety totally crashed - the government is basically a consulting firm for Detroit now. Food and drugs - Sid Wolfe [a longtime Nader ally on drug issues] said it hasn't been this bad at any time he's seen in the last 29 years.

The Federal Aviation Administration is a captive agency. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has not issued one chemical control standard in eight years, something that had never happened before in any eight-year period. The Democrats are for D.C. statehood and the Republicans are against D.C. statehood, but both make sure year after year that nothing happens. So, rhetorically, Gore is obviously better than Bush, but if you look at the record - and that's the way I'm answering your question - I think that the reality comes down to what they're willing to fight for.

Which attacks on you - from the other candidates or the media or whoever - most bothered you and why?

The ones from people like [Democratic Rep.] John Conyers - people I've worked with for 30 years. I don't know if you read his statement - clearly he didn't write it, because it's not his style. But he signed it. It was just disgraceful. He not only promoted Gore, which is OK, but he denigrated all my civil-rights work. He knows what I've helped do - fighting red-lining in the cities, supporting neighborhood groups. That's what's so terrible. We've been in the lead in predatory lending and in fighting the rent-to-own rackets, which have viciously exploited the ghettoes.

Was the campaign fun for you?

Yeah. You want to know why?


Because a long time ago I realized that if something was important to do, you made it enjoyable. Otherwise every day you'd be fighting yourself. So if it's important to do, its pleasurable. It sounds rather simple, but it's a very important attitude. You've seen people who do things because it's important to do, but they hate every minute of it. It just eats them up.

Some of these things you've covered already, but I'll throw them at you again. What I'll do is repeat a couple of charges by folks who are critical of you. You can give me a response. First, what do you tell people who say you cost Gore a victory?

I tell them, first of all, that Gore ran a terrible campaign, and that he should have won in a landslide over the bumbling Republican governor from Texas with the terrible record. Then I say that there are at least a half-dozen what-ifs, and I'm only one of them. What if he didn't lose Tennessee? What if Bush didn't take two days off in the last two weeks so he could campaign in Florida? What if Buchanan hadn't hurt Bush in key states? Buchanan didn't do very well, but he did get more than the margin of victory in Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico. There are a lot of what-ifs. So the interesting question is why they picked just one - my candidacy.

The other thing he could have done, and I begged him to do it, is to take away my agenda. He could have taken a stand on agriculture, he could have said he was going to crack down on corporate crime and enhance consumer protection, he could have said he was going to do something on trade in a credible way. But he didn't do that. Just a little rhetoric, which did help him. That rhetoric in the convention speech, where he said he would crack down on Big Oil and Big HMOs, I do think it helped him. It depressed our polls.

If you had to do it over again, would you have wished that 1 percent of your voters in Florida had switched to vote for Gore, so that he could have won a clean victory?

No, because you have to be loyal to your supporters. I wasn't running in order to help elect another candidate, however determined the Democrats were, and are, to confer that on me. (Laughs.) You run to take as many votes as possible from all the other candidates. It's axiomatic. Somehow, they thought lurking behind my candidacy was a desire to undermine my candidacy! (Laughs.) It was as if they were entitled, instead of having to earn those votes.

Some have suggested that your approach will necessarily lead to things getting worse in the United States before they get better, as a result of George W. Bush entering office. Is that something you believe is true?

No. I never want things to get worse, because they're bad enough to generate reform as is, without getting worse. I never want anybody to suffer more in order to provoke some sort of reform backlash. Given what people are entitled to expect in this country, things are pretty bad as they are. You've seen the data - the majority of workers today are making less than they were in 1973 or 1968 in real dollars, and yet they're working 163 hours a year longer, on average. That's an unprecedented disconnect between a period of a growing gross domestic product and the overall wage levels of most workers. You know the old story, that a rising tide lifts all boats. Well, this time there's massive child poverty, uninsured people, homelessness, and environmental degradation. Those are bad enough.

In your career, which has now been about four decades long, have you ever felt more pessimistic about the future of America?

I've never seen lower expectations. Citizens have felt so powerless that it appears to be a case of apathy, which is the other side of powerlessness. They've really given up on expecting their leaders to take our country to a level commensurate with its huge wealth, which is heavily concentrated in very few hands. That's true for the state of health care, housing, public transit, a living wage, the environment, anti-sprawl efforts - all these things.

I don't think we fully understand [this apathy], but it does come from powerlessness. There's a sense that people have lost control of almost everything that matters to them, and as long as more members of the family can get a low-paying job to make ends meet, family-wise, they hang in there. In the campaign, I saw the faces of the Department of Labor statistics. Anybody who thinks people are pretty satisfied with this country ought to talk to the 47 million workers who make five to nine dollars an hour, before they subtract the increasing costs of just getting to work - another car, insurance, repairs. They are running around totally frantic.

I think the thing that's keeping the lid on is that our economy is a job machine. It's not a very lucrative job machine, but it's sort of like a steam valve. You may not be able to make ends meet with two members of your family working, but there's likely to be an opportunity for the third member. We pay an intangible price for that as a society, though. The community dries up - the volunteerism for civic groups and local city boards of education dry up, and time with children and family dries up. We're paying a cost here.

Certainly throughout your career you've been known as a pretty selfless guy. Recently, some have suggested that your decision to stay in the race was a selfish act. How do you respond to that?

They misconstrue what we're trying to do. We're laying the basis for a long-term political reform movement. In that sense, it transcends November 7th. Rome wasn't built in a day - you've got to build this brick by brick. The critics you just reflected looked at it like we were just looking for the tally on November 7th, and since we weren't going to win, well, we should have dropped out. We want to strengthen democracy in all areas, including one I didn't mention yet, which is a core civics curriculum in our elementary schools and high schools. Students will learn how to practice citizen skills, grappling with real problems in their community. They come out of the classroom thinking that they can really shape the future in wondrous ways.

To pick up on a point from a moment ago, you mentioned a sense of powerlessness. Do you think that is a long-term, structural problem, or do you sense that there is vitality lying underneath that feeling of helplessness?

Well, there is a desire to improve things, and it takes its expression in charity. A society, however, that has more justice is a society that needs less charity. So as people go into service, that indicates that they want to help other people and their communities. But they can't do it structurally, and they can't do it under the principles of Princeton Project 55, which is an emphasis on systemic approaches to systemic problems.

When I was campaigning across the country, I would say to people, "Do you want more power?" It was a question they were not used to being asked, so they said, "What do you mean?" And I said, "Well, your votes are increasingly nullified by money in politics. Sometimes you don't get any choice - you have single-party congressional districts, and you really don't have any power in the workplace." I mean, what power do people have at Wal-Mart? They're making $6.50 an hour if they're lucky. You don't have power as a taxpayer, because your tax dollars are increasingly being siphoned upward to the rich and powerful in corporate subsidies and stadiums and giveaways and bailouts rather than schools and clinics.

And as a consumer - this is where they really laugh. I said, "When was the last time you didn't sign on the dotted line when you bought an insurance policy, opened a bank account, checked in with your HMO, or bought a car?" I ran them through it. These companies are private legislatures. That fine print is corporate regulation of you, in the buying-selling relationship. You sign on the bottom line and you agree not even to go into court if there's a dispute; it's binding arbitration instead. You give up your constitutional rights to trial by a jury.

So I said, "The next time you go in and buy something, why don't you try changing a paragraph here or there? Double the warranty, cross out the binding arbitration, put your little initials in the margin. Then go back to the salesman and say, 'You sign on the dotted line!'" (Laughs.) He would roll into the aisles laughing! But it makes the point. And it's not like you can go across the street to a competitor - it's the same standard form. Of course, with shrink wrapped licenses on software, you agree to that before you break open the product. Did you ever read the fine print on that?


Just for the fun of it, you ought to. It's absolutely beyond belief.

Shifting gears now, let's talk about the future. Where do you go from here?

We're going in several directions in terms of building the party. First, we will recruit and field more candidates - local, state, and national. We will try to have training seminars for them and for our organizers.

These would be formally under the banner of the Green Party, then?

Yes. Then we will try to help with fundraising, in small amounts, and help expand the campus Greens. And we'll be continually honing our agenda. All of these are just means to communicating with the American people about the future directions of their society and the world.

We'll also be deepening a motif of the party, which is to lock arms with existing citizen groups between elections, fighting the good fight on the ground, whether it's for public transit, affordable housing, clean air, lead control, political reform, stopping subsidies for stadiums, or redirecting the public budget. That's what these groups do now, and it's really going to make a difference in the way the public perceives the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Connecticut Greens were fighting the Millstone power plants to make sure the proper safety standards were imposed. They were on the line with labor on living wage. They turned the tide against the New England Patriots' move to a new stadium in Hartford. They also led the fight against a version of electricity deregulation in the legislature. Now, you don't see the two parties doing that as parties, so that we will try to refine that approach more and more.

Structurally, I know that there's a bit of disorganization, shall we say, in who actually controls the Green Party apparatus. How is that all going to be worked out?

Well, the Greens are going to file at the FEC [Federal Election Commission] for national-party status this spring. We are going to have a parallel organization, the exact contours of which are yet to be determined, to further some of these agenda goals. I think there should be some Green Party presence working Capitol Hill. After all, you now have the ability to draw away votes, so you ought to have the ability to change some of the output of Congress.

Will you have a titular position with the Green Party, then?

Oh, just symbolic. I don't want to get involved inside the Green Party, because I think a party has to have two focuses. One is inside, working out all the problems, et cetera, and two is the outside face. I want to be that extroverted face. I'm an independent voter, I've always voted independent. The Greens have to begin appealing, big-time, to independent voters.

But the Green Party will be a single, unified mass - it won't have little factions and so forth?

Yes. By my staying outside, I help unify them. The two factions will join together in filing before the FEC, where earlier they had been going their own way.

You mentioned the incident with John Conyers. Does it bother you that some of the people and groups that have been supporters of yours for years and years spoke out against what you were doing?

Yes, I wanted to give you some more examples. Brent Blackwelder, the president of Friends of the Earth - he was filling my ear, and I was filling his ear, about how bad Clinton-Gore were on every environmental issue conceivable - motor-vehicle fuel efficiency, agriculture, biotech, you name it. Then he turns around and supports Gore. The same with Carl Pope [of the Sierra Club] and the League of Conservation Voters.

Does it bother you deep down, personally, in addition to politically?

Over the years, I have immunized myself. It doesn't bother me. You know, in January, we will be working with Friends of the Earth. They'll be complaining about either administration.

So you don't see this as a case where these are irreparable breaches - you see them as things that can be worked out in the next couple of months.

Yeah. The one that may be irreparable is with Conyers. That really is. I talked to him just before his article in the Nation came out [it was critical of the Nader campaign] and his big concern was just what you pointed out - the irreparable rift in the progressive community, that issues are issues, and that we'll eventually be back on the same ticket. But little did I know what was about to emerge. You can't work with someone who makes those kinds of statements. If he wants to change those statements, fine.

If you had to limit yourself to, say, five different items, what would your agenda be right now, for the next Congress and White House to take up?

It would all be centering around those five roles of empowerment. So one would be public funding for public elections. Another would be the repeal of Taft-Hartley and other obstructions to trade-union development, especially among low-income workers, plus enforcement of OSHA rules. Also, a crackdown of prosecutorial resources against frauds on consumers. A crackdown on corporate crime and the elimination of corporate welfare as we now it.

Redirecting the military budget to national-defense considerations, rather than Northrup-Grumman and Lockheed-Martin procurement demands. And we should withdraw from NAFTA and GATT. We should give the six-month notice of withdrawal and renegotiate trade agreements so that they pull up standards around the world, rather than pulling our standards down. That is the creeping coup d'etat that is eating at our ability to be first in the world.

And last, promulgating a "tools of democracy" kit that would make it very easy for people, through inserts in billing envelopes or mailings, to join democratic, member-controlled, consumer and environmental groups. Do you know about CUBs? We first succeeded in Wisconsin and Illinois with legislation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Every telephone and gas company puts an insert like this (he holds up a flyer) inviting people to join. Two-hundred thousand people now belong to the Illinois Consumer Utility Board. They now have their own power base vis-a-vis the utilities. They negotiated a $3 billion - that's with a "b" - refund in 1993 from Commonwealth Edison for overcharging families in northern Illinois.

That's what we call the democracy toolkit. It's a way of making it easy for people to band together vis-a-vis banks, insurance companies, and cable TV companies, so they can, in a private-sector fashion, redress the imbalance of power, not only representing themselves before the three branches of government but negotiating collectively, the way labor unions do, for fairer standard-form contracts and the like.

What is your vision for a third party? I'll give you three different options. Would it eventually become one of the two dominant parties? Would it win by getting pluralities? Or would it force the Democrats to the left and then, at some point, be fully absorbed by them?

Probably all three. As the party moves toward a desired majoritarian status, it will affect the margins in close elections between the two parties. It will push the agenda, but it will probably never push the agenda to the degree that the Green Party will find itself in a zero-sum game, as when Norman Thomas ['05] lost unemployment insurance and workers compensation to Franklin D. Roosevelt. I don't think the Democratic Party is capable of internal reform. It's too much in the grip of the DLC types. They will continue to lose the left side of the party, because they think they can continue to eat into the Republicans on the right side.

I think the Green Party has got three presidential four-year cycles to prove itself. That's three new cycles, starting now. Because challenging the two-party system - it's incredible. They command almost all of the money, they command the attention of the media, they command who gets excluded from the debates, they command the statutory barriers to get on the ballot in some states, such as North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana. And then they start out with 30 percent of the vote to begin with - the hereditary Democrats and Republicans. Then they have a winner-take-all system. So it's extremely difficult, compared to other western democracies, for a third party to achieve that status.

But having said that, it's certainly worth trying, and it's not going to happen by conventional means, like getting a fair share of the media attention. It's going to be done by a huge person-to-person effort. What we hope to do is enlist 1 million Americans who pledge 100 hours of volunteering a year and raise $100 each. And it's not going to be done by national television ads. It's going to be done by the proverbial 1,000 people reaching out to 5,000 people reaching out to 25,000 people in a very organized, systemic way. Now if we have that, we have $100 million dollars a year, 100 million hours a year, and a million people, each one responsible for a certain set of duties, a certain set of votes. That's the only way it's going to get done.

Do you know where we did best in the country? It's where we found people going door-to-door, people doing political house parties and talking it up. It's amazing. You look at the dots around the country, like Yuba County, Calif. They gave us 25 percent of the vote, and I didn't even campaign there. There was never an ad there. It's north of Chico, a rural county, but something happened there. Great Barrington, Mass., gave us 14 percent. That was because of a series of political house parties and door-to-door canvassing and lots of lawn signs and bumper stickers.

On that point, do you feel that your movement needs to be national, or is it maybe better to focus on smaller areas where you have the best chance of succeeding because you have dedicated supporters already in place?

I always like to do both. There are all these theories that say you start at the bottom and go up. But that doesn't always work. I say you start at the top and the bottom and then meet. I think they fortify each other. The bottom fortifies the top, and the top gives unity across the country for the message. So I never saw a contradiction. Obviously, there will be inescapable concentrations on certain campuses and college towns.

I interviewed Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura about a month before election day and asked him some of the same questions about how you build a third party that lasts. What do you think about the Ventura phenomenon as an example?

I think it's very instructive to learn from. As you know, he had more success with the Internet than anyone since. But he also said that three things won for him, other than his flamboyance. The first was the debates. The second was the public funding he got from the state. And the third was same-day voter registration. We had a press conference together outside his office in St. Paul about four months ago and made those points. They are transferable nationwide.

The only way you can reach tens of millions of voters is by the debates. I could have done what I did in the 50 states, 40 times over, and still not reach the kind of audience that watched the debates. The only way you reach them in any sustained, non-sound-bite way is through those debates. My goal is, as soon as possible, to stimulate some of the politically reform-minded philanthropies like [financier George] Soros and Pew [Charitable Trusts] to help establish a people's debate commission to break the monopoly of the two-party debate commission. As long as they have the key to the gateway, there's no way for a small startup to get a leg up. You know, when Perot got in, when [1980 independent candidate John] Anderson got in, they did very well by comparison. The debate commission now knows that, and they're not going to make that mistake again. So that's very important. That's a reform that is as important as any other reform. Maybe we can get network sponsorship, union sponsorship, in key states, so that the major parties in 2004 can't ignore it.

Here's my last pair of questions. If you look ahead to your obituary, where will the 2000 election rank?

It depends on what it leads to. If it leads to the emergence of a majority party, or a very significant third party, it would be right up there. But it won't be as high as showing by example to millions of citizens that they can make a difference to further justice.

What achievements would you like to see at the top of your obituary?

That's one. Over the years, I see a lot of people who at a young age become leaders in their community for their entire lives because of my example years ago. The other thing is health and safety. If you think things are bad now, I hate to think what it would have been like without auto safety, environmental controls, worker-safety frameworks. These corporations know few boundaries that aren't imposed upon them in their rampant search for profits at any price.

There's also a surprising one near the top of the list, which is the Free Information Act of 1976, including the override of President Ford's veto, which we were very uniquely responsible for. The Freedom of Information Act had started in 1966 but it was weak. The 1976 changes significantly strengthened it. It was one of the post-Watergate benefits.

What is your official stance on whether you might run again in 2004?

I won't decide that until much later.

Thank you very much.



The official Ralph Nader Web site is located at www.votenader.com or www.votenader.org.