WASHINGTON — He is sounding like a presidential candidate again, charging the Bush administration with "messianic militarism and subservient corporatism," and the Democrats with soft-pedaling liberal policies that were once mainstays of their party.
Three years after the election in which Democrats say he cost Al Gore the White House, Ralph Nader is considering another campaign, and says he will decide shortly.
At this point, Mr. Nader said in an interview this week, a run depends only on his ability to collect enough money and volunteers to mount a credible effort. Otherwise, he said, he has a zillion reasons to go ahead — including, he insists, that doing so would be good for the Democrats.
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"But you've got to have money, and you've got to have volunteers," he said, though declining to specify the levels he would need of each. "The verdict is still out, but I'll decide by the end of the month."
Four years ago, he said he was running for president because he believed that the major-party nominees, Mr. Gore and George W. Bush, were virtually indistinguishable and that the parties were too cozy with corporate America. Now Mr. Nader, 69, says he has seen enough of Mr. Bush's administration to make defeating him and ending Republican control of Congress the chief goals. And those goals are more achievable, he says, if he joins the race.
That may be a hard sell to many Democrats, given the effect he had on the 2000 election as the Green Party's nominee. He finished with nearly 3 percent of the national electorate and won enough votes in Florida — more than 97,000 — to deny Mr. Gore the state, even in Mr. Nader's calculation that he won half as many votes from Republicans as from Democrats. After recounts, Mr. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes, and with it the presidency.
Mr. Nader would run this year as an independent. (The Green Party will not pick its nominee until June, too late, he says, to mount an effective campaign.) And here is how he says his running could work to the Democrats' advantage:
By hammering away at populist themes like a higher minimum wage, union rights and occupational health regulations, all of which he says have been neglected, he would force the leading Democratic contenders to move left. That, he says, would expand the party's base, drawing out more liberal voters, some angry enough at him about 2000 that they would vote for the Democratic nominee instead, and many who would vote Democratic in close House and Senate races.
At least that is the rationale he offered in recent talks with Democratic leaders, including the party's national chairman, Terry McAuliffe; the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota; and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi of California. "They were very polite," Mr. Nader said. "They listened. They were clearly receptive to the spillover vote."
But while they did not tell him outright not to run, he said, they remained "seized by the inaccurate zero-sum mentality" of a presidential field of just two candidates. He called that a limiting dynamic that forced Democrats to hew to the center rather than "expand the electorate with electrifying issues."
That, Mr. Nader maintained, is the real reason Mr. Gore lost in 2000.
"They are a very, very cautious party," he said of the Democrats. "That caution has led to defeats at all levels of government for 10 years against a very extreme Republican Party. They can't even beat an extreme Republican Party."
Democratic leaders are not persuaded by Mr. Nader's logic.
"Anyone who wants to run can attempt to qualify to get on the ballots," said Tony Welch, a party spokesman. "We're still going to reach out to those who voted for Ralph Nader, to independents and to Republicans to try to put a Democrat in the White House."
For all the apparent friction between Mr. Nader and the Democrats, he has far greater disdain for Republicans. To be sure, he still sees similarities in the two parties' support for a political system that discourages alternative political voices. But he levels particular criticism at the Bush administration, over issues like the budget deficit and what he sees as a growing concentration of power in the executive branch, an apparent lack of interest in corporate crime at a time Mr. Bush has raised enormous campaign sums from corporate friends, and curtailment of civil liberties in the war on terror.
"I would not do this if I didn't really want to defeat Bush," Mr. Nader said, calling the McCarthy era "chicken feed compared with what we have now."
"Seeking justice supersedes everything," he said, sounding more than ever like a candidate. "Without justice, we have nothing in this world. We can't have freedom without justice. That's what freedom is supposed to be."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company