WASHINGTON - Ralph Nader's metamorphosis from icon to pariah has been swift and merciless, but he insists that he could not care less. And he even has a plan that could cost the Democrats some congressional seats in 2002.
He enumerates the most recent indignities with a shrug. Liberal activists from all over the nation flew into town Wednesday to plot strategy for the Bush era - but he was not invited. The Progressive Caucus, a congressional group of 55 liberal lawmakers, has been meeting lately as well - but he has not been invited to address them. Most of them refuse to meet with him at all.
They still scorn him for Al Gore's narrow presidential defeat, for luring liberal votes to his Green Party candidacy.
Nader does not seem to mind being treated as a leper, because he has decided that he is right and his liberal critics are wrong.
In a long conversation at his office the other day, he said: "I'm just amazed that people think I should be concerned about this stuff. It's absolutely amazing. Not a minute's sleep do I lose, about something like this - because I feel sorry for them. It's just so foolish, the way they have been behaving. Why should I worry?"
Nor are there any prospects for a cease-fire, because now Nader is mapping new mischief with the potential to gladden the hearts of Republicans everywhere.
He is working with the Greens to run as many as 80 candidates in the 2002 congressional elections - twice the number that ran in 2000. If he succeeds, Nader could drain liberal votes from Democrats in tight races, and severely impede the Democratic effort to wrest the House of Representatives away from the GOP.
He is not coy about his motives. Just as he ran for president to punish Gore and the Democrats for allegedly betraying their progressive traditions and currying favor with global corporate power, now he wants to knock off congressional Democrats who have committed the same sins. As he put it, "The Democrats are going to have to lose more elections. They didn't get the message last time."
Naturally, Democrats are a tad upset about all this. Robert Borosage, who organized the Wednesday liberal conference but omitted Nader, said: "When you announce that the Greens are going to run against Democratic candidates, we tend to take that kind of thing personally. Nader has been a man of enormous integrity, but he led people on a fool's errand last year, and now he seems to be in a box he can't get out of."
Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut congresswoman and a House Democratic leader, winced when Nader's name was invoked. She said: "There is a lack of reality, on his part, about the best way to fight for the progressive issues we all care about. Ralph Nader has helped to make my job even harder."
Nader, who will appear at 20 fund-raisers this spring for the Green congressional effort, insisted that he would not target "really good Democrats" who have hewed to the liberal line. But critics already blame Nader for one liberal loss in the 2000 congressional elections. In central Michigan, Dianne Byrum lost to Republican Mike Rogers by a mere 110 votes. The Green candidate, meanwhile, pulled 3,467 votes.
The same thing nearly happened in central New Jersey. Freshman Democratic Rep. Rush Holt squeaked past the Republican by only 651 votes - in part because the Green candidate drew 5,811. Lisa Wade, spokeswoman for the League of Conservation Voters, said: "Rush has a 100 percent environmental record. So Nader's strategy is ultimately self-destructive. I don't know if he's suffering from an identity crisis or what."
Nader faults his critics for practicing selective outrage. He grinned and said, "Who do you think brought the Democrats to 50-50 parity in the U.S. Senate?" Then he tapped his index finger against his trademark gray suit. He was referring to the narrow election of Maria Cantwell in Washington state, arguing that his presidential candidacy sparked an unusually large turnout among liberal voters.
"I get no credit for that," he scoffed. "They'll all condemn me for what happened to Gore, but they won't say thanks about anything else."
Gore's loss does tend to be a deal-breaker for many Democrats. The math is simple: Gore lost the pivotal Florida race, officially, by only 537 votes, while Nader pulled 97,488. In his defense, Nader said: "OK, but that was only one banana peel, out of 20 banana peels that Gore slipped on."
And there's New Hampshire. Even without Florida, Gore would have won the election if he had won the Granite State. He lost it by 7,211 votes - while Nader drew 22,188. Many of those voters would not have shown up if Nader had not run, but Democrats insist that others would have gone to Gore, perhaps enough to win. Nader said: "Yeah, well, the Gore people did get the rest of New England."
In any case, Nader still believes there are scant differences between President Bush and the Democrats: "OK, there are differences on gun control, tobacco, and abortion. But if you stack up the similarities, they just tower. Both parties are presiding over the further concentration of global corporate power. They're selling elections and our government to the same corporate bidders. It's unforgivable."
He acknowledged that Gore would not have tapped John Ashcroft as his attorney general. But, he said, "Let's see what really happens. Ashcroft is going to be a prisoner of bureaucracy." And he said that Bush's Supreme Court would not overturn abortion: "Republican operatives tell me, 'You think we're going to shatter our party over Roe v. Wade?' It'd be like trying to ban alcohol again."
He also acknowledged that a Democratic president would not have called for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve. But he said: "Does that mean the Bush people will really be able to do it? If Democrats are really so much better than Republicans, won't they be able to stop it in the Congress? Bush won't be able to get a lot of stuff passed."
Amy Dean, a top AFL-CIO official in California, said she could not fathom Nader's reasoning. Bush has already signed antilabor executive orders that did not require congressional input. She said, "Now working people have to live under an administration where we may have to scrap for bones."
And his critics argue that Nader is caught in a contradiction: that while he expects congressional Democrats to fight Bush on a number of fronts, he is also mapping a congressional-election strategy that would jeopardize Democrats, reduce their seats, and make it tougher for them to wage that fight.
When asked whether there is a risk that he will weaken Democrats over the long haul, Nader nodded, "There is. But in the short term, over the next couple years, this threat can make the Democrats fight harder, if they've got the Greens breathing down their necks."
Borosage has fenced with Nader over all this. He recalled: "I saw Ralph at a political dinner not long ago. Nobody was talking to him. I went over to say hi. I told him that I was 'fighting the new crowd.' He said, 'They're no different from the last crowd.' I finally said, 'Ralph, I think they're gonna show us just how different they are,' and I walked away."
Nader does have a few defenders. A prominent liberal commentator, Robert Kuttner, argued not long ago that "nothing will be gained by ostracizing him. . . . If Democrats fail to keep [progressive] causes alive, and instead keep cultivating people with the big bucks, they are practically begging for third-party candidates."
Precisely, said Nader. It's the causes that matter, even if he has to play the martyr.
"All this stuff about me is just static," he said, with a dismissive wave of the hand. "But it's good friction, and it's generating a lot of good thought and debate. It's like I'm performing a public service. That's what I've done all these years."
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.