I knew I was going to interview him, but I wasn't sure exactly when—his people were supposed to call and set up a time. When the phone rang Monday afternoon, I assumed it was them.
"Hello, Andrew? This is Ralph Nader."
Well shit, there he was—gruff, grizzled, and ready to go.
Almost as surprising as the cold call was the news of Nader's presidential candidacy. Back in 2000, Nader pulled under three percent of the popular vote. After being blamed—fairly or not—for allowing Bush to slip into office, Nader found an even heavier rock dangling from his neck. In 2004 he received less than 500,000 votes, one-sixth of his previous total.
So what is going to be different this time around? Why is Ralph Nader running again?
"I'm not a quitter," he said. "Our agenda is the majoritarian agenda, the others are not the majoritarian agenda. In head-on polling, repeatedly, our positions are supported by the majority of the American people; theirs are not. A lot of [Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain's] are not at all."
Nader pointed me toward his 12 "On the Table" policies, which he says the other candidates do not consider. For example: "adopt single-payer national health insurance," "cut the huge, bloated, wasteful military budget," and "aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare." These are the same basic ideas of tough regulation and bottom up political involvement that Nader has been pushing throughout his long civic career.
But still, how will he run a viable campaign this time around?
"We're going to get on more ballots," he explained. "Last time Democrats filed 24 lawsuits in 18 states in a period of 12 weeks in 2004 with partisan judges and people like [Bill] Bradbury, the secretary of state. This time we're ready for 'em. They knocked us off of about 10 states that we will be on."
Still, the negative connotations of Nader's 2000 candidacy remain. Why not pass the torch to an up-and-coming politician with the same ideals?
"Be my guest," he said. "I'd like 20 candidates—the more the merrier. But nobody wants to step up. They don't like the grueling course that they have to go through. They like it where they are."
The assertion seems accurate, but also perhaps a refutation of the very politics Nader hopes to see—citizen awareness and involvement, and sacrifice.
Nader told me his top two priorities if he were elected would be establishing national single-payer insurance and getting out of Iraq—proposals that sounded a lot like what Democrats are pushing (a claim he strongly refuted).
Regarding health care, Nader says his plan is "completely different." He continued, "We replace the health-insurance industry completely with full Medicare... Democratic proposals don't even come close. They leave the present system in place—the waste, the inflated price, the corruption, the redundancy, the ripping off of the government's health care disbursements, drug prices, and so on."
Of course, Nader is realistic about his chances of actually becoming president, yet he resisted the idea that he might accomplish more as a high-profile private citizen and activist like Al Gore.
"You still need to get things done legislatively," he says. "You can quadruple public awareness before you overcome the power of Exxon Mobil on Capitol Hill."
On the other hand, participating in the race has purpose for Nader—even though he will likely never ascend those White House steps.
"There are a lot of reasons to campaign other than just votes," he explained. "You bring in a lot of young people into clean campaigning to get experience. You put a lot of reporters out of their slumber because they're so tired of the same old lingo day after day. You highlight the civil liberties issue of ballot access bigotry."
And so here he is, running in another lopsided presidential race with no practical chance of winning. Somehow though, Nader remains upbeat. He was personable and even funny at times.
"Notice the system," he said. "It allows the 60th seed in Wimbledon to have a chance, or the 60th rated college to have a change in basketball, or even allow the 15th least-good horse to have a chance, but not in the most important race at all."
The presidential media coverage, Nader believes, is totally out of hand. "It gets worse all the time. Look at the Pennsylvania mockery—the flag pin, the gaffe, the Bittergate—it's just absurd what's going on. If individuals behaved that way they'd be considered insane."
There are moments, however, when thoughts of Nader's impossibly long-shot candidacy melt away, thanks to the earnestness of his ideas and convictions.
He spoke of his hopes for the attendees at his upcoming Portland rally: "I want them to feel their power, the power that they have rationalized into futility—that you can't fight city hall. I want them to feel there are only 535 human beings in Congress, the most powerful branch under our constitution. The corporations have a lot of power and money but they don't have a single vote—it's you, in that auditorium at Benson High, that's got the votes, along with your friends and relatives and coworkers, one area of the country after another. If they don't feel that, nothing's going to happen."
Ralph Nader rally, Benson High School, 546 NE 12th, Tues May 13, 7:30 pm, $5-10 (sliding scale), 503-484-6626 or votenader.org/events