Published on Monday, April 23, 2001 in the New York Times
An Unrepentant Nader Sees a Positive Side of Bush Policy
by Robin Toner
WASHINGTON — IN their anguish of recent weeks, as environmentalists and their Democratic allies bemoaned their fates under President Bush, there was another name that came up from time to time, and not in a good way: Ralph Nader.
But anyone who thinks that Mr. Nader himself has any remorse about his Green Party candidacy for the presidency last year, which many Democrats say handed the election to Mr. Bush, should think again. Mr. Nader, just back from an Earth Day tour of college campuses, sounds quite sanguine about the state of politics.
At the same time, Mr. Nader says with serene conviction, this conflict "raises the environmental issues."
"The press reports them, people talk about them, people argue about them," he says. "The environmental groups' treasuries are swelling with expanded membership and foundation contributions." In short, progressives are being energized, "There's a dynamic involved, there's a reawakening involved, there's a churning."
And so, Mr. Nader, 67, says, his only second thoughts about last year's election are regrets that he did not get more votes. He says he does not believe that he helped in the defeat of Vice President Al Gore by pulling nearly 97,000 votes in the excruciatingly close contest in Florida: "He beat himself. He didn't get Tennessee, he didn't get Arkansas." Mr. Nader still contends, nearly 100 days into the Bush administration, that "the similarities tower over the dwindling real differences between the two parties that they're willing to fight over."
So Mr. Nader continues to travel the country, 25 states since the election, in part trying to build the Green Party, to raise money and encourage Green candidates to run for state, local and federal office.
And that, for some environmentalists and their allies, raises the prospect of a familiar nightmare, because Mr. Nader says the Green Party hopes to field candidates in 20 percent of the 435 House districts in 2002. And while these candidates are likely to run for open seats, he says, or against conservative Democrats and Republicans, he cannot guarantee that they will not run against liberals or environmentally friendly incumbents, either. Already, in 2000, a few environmentally friendly candidates, like Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, found themselves fighting two-front wars because of third-party Green challenges.
Does Mr. Nader worry about being a spoiler in a close battle for the House?
"Anybody who's trying to build a party tries to build the party," he says. "You don't worry about how it affects one or the other major parties."
Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, does not, to put it mildly, agree with Mr. Nader's analysis and worries about his strategy's impact on environmentally sensitive candidates in both parties.
"He doesn't seem to have changed his mind one iota about the strategy he pursued in 2000 — and that strategy has led to real devastation for environmental policy," she said. "It's preposterous that the fact that we have a series of environmental catastrophes on our hands is good for the environmental community. That's cynicism to the highest degree.
"Even though we have more members and more money because people have a heightened concern about what's going on," Ms. Callahan said, those added resources are going to environmental defense, not offense.
Mr. Nader is, by now, used to criticism from once-friendly quarters. He acknowledges that he has lost "quite a few" friends, with some of the liberals in Congress the harshest critics.
He insists that the Green Party movement is actually helping many Democrats, by swelling turnout and engaging new voters, and that his efforts actually chart a new path to power for the party if it defies most of the political wisdom of the past 25 years and runs to the left.
FOR now, though, he says the Democrats are "pathetic," a bare "D plus" against the Republicans' "D minus," but "they both flunk."
He acknowledges that he has rewritten his obituary, that his third-party candidacy and the schism with the Democrats would compete in his life story with his legendary critique of the Corvair, "Unsafe at Any Speed."
He suggests that he had no choice. He had to go out to the grass roots, beyond the two parties, because he was shut out of political Washington. "How many press conferences can you have at the National Press Club on what you think are important issues — that were important when they were widely covered, 25 or 30 years ago — and get shut out?" he asks.
"How many times can you be told by Congressional committees that we're not going to consider this for a hearing? How many times can you be told by Democrats, that they won't even introduce this amendment? When the civil society is shut out of the national capital, you do one of two things: you close down and go to Monterey and watch the whales, or you go into the political arena, as Jefferson said."
No, Mr. Nader says, he has no regrets.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company