Published on Wednesday, October 25, 2000
Nader Or Gore?
Jim Hightower Vs Paul Wellstone
Transcript of PBS NewsHour
October 24, 2000

With the election two weeks away and polls deadlocked, is Green Party candidate Ralph Nader a spoiler for Al Gore? Following a background report, Gwen Ifill talks with Jim Hightower and Paul Wellstone.

GWEN IFILL: So is Ralph Nader a spoiler? Pitting liberals against liberals, populists against progressives? We pick up the debate with Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota; the two-term Senator has one of the most liberal voting records in Congress. He supports Al Gore. And Nader supporter Jim Hightower, a populist radio commentator and publisher of a monthly political newsletter, he's the author of "If the Gods had Meant us to Vote, They Would have Given us Candidates." Welcome both gentlemen. Mr. Hightower, why should progressives vote for Ralph Nader?

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower
JIM HIGHTOWER: Because it's a vote for the future. It's a vote against being taken for granted by a two-party, money-soaked duopoly that is not meeting the needs of the majority of the people. They're stiffing the family farmers who are going bankrupt at about 1,000 a week now, that are stiffing the working folks who are being downsized at a steady pace, they're stiffing consumers with genetic manipulation of the food supply. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are willing to stand up on these issues, for example, the globaloney of corporate-managed trade that's being shoved down our throats through NAFTA and the WTO. There's a rebellion against this. This isn't about Ralph Nader. It's about ordinary people looking far real political channel that works for them for a change.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Wellstone, the same question for you, except why should progressives vote for Al Gore?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Well, as Jim said, it's a vote about the future. Let me talk about ordinary people. I think that there's an echo here. I hope you can hear me okay. Can you hear me okay, Gwen?

GWEN IFILL: Hearing you fine.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: I think that what Ralph is saying is important, but we have reached a point right now where... can somebody fix it? I can't come through. I'm sorry.

GWEN IFILL: We'll try to fix it and we'll get back to you, if you don't mind.


GWEN IFILL: I'll be right what with you. Mr. Hightower, does a vote for Nader hurt Al Gore?

JIM HIGHTOWER: I don't think so. I think Al Gore hurts Al Gore. But I also have been to a number of these rallies that your film was showing and that you were talking about earlier, including 6,000 people here in Austin, which is rather astonishing for Ralph Nader. You know, 10,000 in places like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, 12,000 in Minnesota, 15,000 in New York. And these are people who are not Gore backers. If you want to back Al Gore, I think that's what you should do. That's an honorable position. But it's just as honorable to be reaching out to the 60 percent majority, Gwen, who are not going to vote in this November 7 election or are going to vote for third party candidates because they don't believe they have a choice right now. I believe that it's irresponsible for us, particularly as progressives, not to be reaching out to that vast majority of people and offering them a chance to build a new political channel. I come to you as an old-time Democrat, elected here in the state of Texas as a Democrat, proud to be so. But now I look up at my national party, and the Al Gores and the Democratic Leadership Council; they've taken off the old Sears Roebuck work boots and strapped on the Guccis and Puccis that the Republicans strut around in.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we're going to try to give Senator Wellstone a chance to get back in this. Can you hear any better now?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: You know what -- even if I'm echoing

GWEN IFILL: You've got a lot to say here.

Paul Wellstone
Paul Wellstone
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: I've got to respond to what Jim is saying. You know, I think you do focus on ordinary people, but I think that what we're saying is, if you live in Texas, Jim, go ahead and vote for Ralph. But in states where it's going to be close, if you care about the environment and if you care about economic justice, whether or not there's more investment in education and kids and health care, and if you care about reform, and if you care about a Supreme Court that will respect the right of women to choose, and a Supreme Court that won't overthrow much of the work that we've done in our lives, then you're going to vote for Vice President Gore. That's what this election is about. I'm for Ralph doing well up to the point that this means that George W. Bush gets elected president. You don't want George W. Bush and his supporters in control of national government. The differences make a difference, especially for the lives of ordinary citizens in America. I'm sorry, Jim, when it comes to Head Start, or child care, or kids in school, or prescription drugs for elderly people, those are important issues to people's lives. I don't think you want to see a vote for Ralph becoming a vote for George W. Bush.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, I do want to give you an opportunity to follow up here. Are you saying then that, in fact, a vote for Ralph Nader would hurt Al Gore?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: What I am saying is, while I have tremendous respect for what Ralph has done, did you hear what I just said earlier?

GWEN IFILL: Absolutely.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Okay, I'm sorry, the connection is all off. What I am saying is that I have tremendous respect for Ralph, and I appreciate a lot of what he said about the issues, and I'm in agreement with what he says about a lot of the issues, but if you live in a state like Texas where Jim's from, fine, but in the battleground states, where it's close, you don't want to cast a vote for Ralph Nader which becomes a vote essentially for George W. Bush. You don't want to do that! Not if you care about the environment, not if you care about health care, not if you care about education, and not if you care about the future composition of the Supreme Court. It's too dear a price to pay.

GWEN IFILL: What is it about Al Gore...what is it about Ralph Nader that's so appealing, Mr. Hightower, to these Green Party, outsider kind of voters? Are these people who aren't going to vote otherwise at all, or would these people who would have voted Democrat?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Mostly at these rallies, these are folks, particularly young people, they're like 60 percent, 70 percent young folks, folks being brought into the process. Ralph is not subtracting from Al Gore, he's adding to the political process and adding to democracy. And the reason he's reaching these people is because this is a guy who is not for sale. He's got, you know, more than 35 years of being on the side of the people, willing to take on the concentrated global corporate power, powers that Al Gore has willingly gone along with.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: But Jim is avoiding one question. Ralph is adding to the political dialogue of this country. He is speaking to important issues. I give him full credit for that. But Jim cannot say he's not subtracting from Al Gore, because in the battleground states, not Texas, Jim, but in a state like Minnesota and other states we've mentioned, clearly if people end up voting for Ralph Nader, we could very well get George W. Bush, and I think the Palo Alto supporters know that.

JIM HIGHTOWER: We have to vote something we're for, that means taking a risk, just as the founding fathers took a risk back in 1776.

GWEN IFILL: Let me jump in and ask Senator Wellstone a question. You're in Minnesota. You've run in Minnesota and won. This is one of the battleground states you're talking about. What is it about Ralph Nader that's making him so appealing to people in Minnesota?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: I think Ralph has tremendous conviction. I think Ralph has taken on a lot of issues that deal with distribution of power in America - some of the global economics questions that Jim and I agree on - but, Jim, I'm for more investment in Head Start, I'm for more investments in children's education. I'm for expanding health care coverage. I'm for more environmental protection. I'm not telling you we're not going to have to organize hard after Al Gore wins, but I'm telling you the differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush on these issues make a difference to the lives of ordinary people, and we shouldn't have too much distance from those problems, everyday problems that people have to say it makes no difference.

GWEN IFILL: That's a good question for you, Mr. Hightower. Does it make a difference at all?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, certainly Al Gore is incrementally better than George W. Bush, including on the kind of social programs that my friend Paul Wellstone, by the way, if he were running, I wouldn't be sitting here, I'd be championing Paul Wellstone. But as a Democrat, I've been terribly disappointed. We've had these promises from Al Gore and Bill Clinton before, and they didn't deliver. They took progressives for granted and went along with Wall Street. I'm tired of being taken for granted. I'm tired of the family farmers and the ordinary working people of this country and around the world, by the way, getting stiffed - and particularly the poor people in this country getting stiffed. That's why I think we finally have got to take a break and get out there and get back to the grassroots level, get out of the Wall Street suites and back into the streets of ordinary people and build a new politics. And I hope this ends up in the Democratic Party, but if we don't take that break now, we're going to be right back in 2004 waiting for the same thing.

GWEN IFILL: Are you saying, Mr. Hightower, that you're gambling on the fact that even if George W. Bush wins this, it's okay because it will energize liberals?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, it's not just liberals. This is not about right to left, it's about top to bottom. Again, you have got 60 percent of the American people who are voting no to the two-party. They're either not going to vote or are going to vote or vote for third-party candidates. We had better be building something new, or these people are going to be in serious rebellion.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Here's what bothers me, Jim, about your comments about taking a break. I see this crowd in the Senate. You know, as a favor, as a special favor to pharmaceutical companies, they don't want to have prescription drug coverage for elderly people. As a special favor to the insurance companies, they don't even want basic patient protection. As a special favor to the bottom-dwellers of Congress, they don't want to raise the minimum wage. They call legislation the Safe Act. They call legislation that overturns the 40-hour week the Family Friendly Workplace Act. We can't afford to take time out. It's too important to people's lives. I'll tell you this, first things first. In the battleground states, I hope that Ralph's supporters will support Al Gore for the reasons I've stated. And after we win this election, then we do the organizing that you're talking about, and we make sure that Vice President Gore and then President Gore walks his talk. I agree with you on the issues. And I agree with you on the importance of organizing for power. But this is...the stakes are too high, and it's too dear a price to see George W. Bush and his supporters take over the national government. You don't want to see that. You don't want to see that, Jim.

JIM HIGHTOWER: That is the argument that has been made throughout history. You just wait. Sit back, don't challenge King George III. You suffragists, you abolitionists, you populists, you laborites, don't push. We'll get to you later. I'm tired of pie in the sky when we die.

GWEN IFILL: Can I jump back in for a second. Mr. Hightower, do you think there's a chance that Ralph Nader could surprise the nation the way that Jesse Ventura did in Paul Wellstone's home state of Minnesota?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, certainly if he had been allowed into the presidential debates rather than being shut out and done so rudely and physically by this private entity that's corporate funded - that controls the debates, controlled under the two parties. I believe he definitely would have. But even without that, Nader is going to surprise people. It is going to be more than the 4 percent or 5 percent that he's showing right now, because people are looking for something they can be for. They're looking for some integrity in the political process, and that's why Ralph is doing well. It's not about him. It's about the people themselves.

GWEN IFILL: Flip side of that, Senator, is people will suddenly wake up on November 6 and have a different change of heart and realize they're going to vote for Al Gore after all. How much can you count on that?

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: Well, you can't count on that. The Vice President has to earn their support. And again, Ralph has introduced a lot of important perspectives into the political dialogue. But, you know, Jim talks about history. The other argument I've heard is, it doesn't make any difference. Then if you get George W. Bush in and you turn the clock back on a lot of issues that are important to people's lives, the most vulnerable citizens in this country, then people will get out, galvanize and make things better. I don't want to take that chance for our country. I really don't want to take that chance for our country. And I do believe that a lot of Ralph supporters come Election Day in the battleground states, they will vote for Vice President Gore, because they understand this.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Paul Wellstone and Jim Hightower, thank you both very much.

Copyright 2000 MacNeil-Lehrer Productions