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Driven to distract
Ralph Nader on "viral liberals," the GOP's help in getting him on state ballots, and the impossibility of Democratic Party reform

On Friday, July 23, in a half-hour interview with the Phoenix, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader discussed John Kerry and George Bush, the situation in Iraq, the support he's received from prominent Republicans, the prospects of progressive Democrats, and the political choices he'd make differently if he could revisit the past. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Q: If the totally unexpected happened and you were elected president in November, what's the first thing you would do upon taking office?

A: The first thing I would do is establish a deadline for getting out of Iraq in a responsible way, ending the US military and corporate occupation, establish internationally supervised elections so the Iraqi people get their country back without a puppet government. The present situation is a magnet for insurgencies, for terrorism, picking off our troops, bleeding our billions of dollars, and generating more insecurity and violence in that area of the world that can flash back against us.

Q: When you say "getting out of Iraq in a responsible way"—what do you mean by a "responsible way"?

A: Six months, and as we get out the basis for the insurgency is weakened, because the nation of Iraqis will separate and distance themselves from the insurgents because they see they're getting their country back, light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, all they see is a permanent military and oil company occupation of their country, and as a result we're getting deeper and deeper, and it's bleeding us in so many ways.

Q: What do you see the primary objective of your candidacy being at this point? Is it highlighting the situation in Iraq? Is it shaking up the "two party duopoly?"

A: All these things. You see, a type of campaign that we have is a campaign that has multiple purposes, some of which are achieved in part. Other seeds are sown for the future. Other purposes are bringing new people into politics, young people into politics, more people to vote, pushing the agenda of the two parties, highlighting corporate crime and the necessity for a real crackdown, trillions of dollars [corporate criminals] have looted or drained. And again, letting people vote for things they can't vote for with the two parties. We give people the right -- the opportunity, rather -- to vote for health care for all, for a living family wage, for getting out of Iraq, for repealing the offensive parts of the Patriot Act, for renegotiating NAFTA and WTO, for a serious environmental drive for renewable energy, energy efficiency, organic agriculture, et cetera -- and for cutting the bloated, redundant military budget that is already taking one half of the federal government's operating expenditures. Now, you see, that's like a multiple referendum. And there's no way they can vote for those things by voting for Kerry or Bush. I'm just giving you a few. I could go into consumer protection, the criminal injustice act, the failed war on drugs, corporate prisons, on and on and on. These two parties operate on a very narrow spectrum of electioneering, because they're dialing for the same dollars, and those dollars are squeezing those parties into greater similarities than the differences that they're willing to fight over.

Q: Is it because they're dialing for the same dollars, or because they're both trying to woo the same undecided voters who they think will tip the balance one way or the other?

A: The similarities tower over the dwindling real differences that you're going to find. You know what the differences are. They're mostly social: abortion, school prayer, gay marriage, now the flag burning-desecration issue's coming up. In some states, it's where the Ten Commandments can be displayed. There's an endless list of those social issues that are now significant political issues because the Democrats, over the years, have abandoned economic issues. And that's created a vacuum.

Q: Isn't there --

A: Now, why are the two parties so similar? It's called protective imitation.

Q: Protective imitation?

A: Protective imitation. It's the old economic doctrine. You take an issue off the table, if you're Kerry, by being the same on the Iraq war. You take an issue off the table if you're Bush by this phony drug-benefit bill. And they're very good now at blurring their issues in order to take them off the table, in ways that the corporations who are their paymasters want done.

Q: Isn't there some sort of fundamental difference in the candidates' respective stances toward how we should engage the world? Doesn't Kerry fundamentally have a more humble, cooperative bent, whereas Bush has no aversion to an aggressive, unilateralist approach?

A: Kerry voted for the war. Kerry voted for the Patriot Act. Kerry voted for a lot of the things -- the whole military budget, which is about as unilateral a demonstration of us power as you can imagine. I mean, maybe Kerry would be more congenial with the UN. But right now it's words. We judge politicians by their deeds, and judging by his record -- his record does not reflect the present rhetoric.

Q: Did you ever consider seeking the Democratic nomination instead of running as an independent?

A: No.

Q: Why not?

A: You can't reform a garbage can when you're inside it. You can't clean a garbage can when you're inside it. There's no elbow room, as Dennis Kucinich has found out, for any internal reform. This party was capable once of internal reform. It is now so corporatized that it's incapable of internal reform.

Q: And do you see that as a lasting condition? Or can you imagine, in the future, the Democratic party again being capable of internal reform?

A: Only if the progressive wing becomes more like Dennis instead of more like lap dogs.

Q: Couldn't you have bolstered that, though? Helped bring that about if you also sought the Democratic nomination?

A: No, because -- let me tell you why. Dennis did it about as good as anybody could do it. Loyal Democrat, 30 years elected and reelected, representing a working-class background. He got his head handed to him last week on the [Democratic Party] platform committee. So he's the acid test.

Q: When Kucinich was talking about his decision to endorse Kerry, his words were: "John Kerry can win because there is a place within the Democratic Party for everyone, including those who may be thinking of supporting Ralph Nader. If there is room for me in the party and in the Kerry-Edwards campaign, there is certainly room for Ralph and his supporters." What do you think of that statement?

A: First of all, that's very adroit words by Dennis. He does want to get reelected this fall, and he does need the Democratic Party's support, so he's coming into the fold. But there are millions of Americans who aren't in that kind of bind who want to vote their conscience, and for once want to vote for candidates who have, are, and will support their finest interests.

Q: Do you think there's any chance that Kucinich's endorsement might draw some of your supporters into the Kerry camp?

A: Yeah, maybe. I mean, who knows? You would think Dennis would get a little bit of return for what he's doing.

Q: If someone asked you to describe Kerry and Bush in 200 words or less, what thumbnail sketch would you paint of each of them? Let's start with Kerry.

A: Three words charitably describe John Kerry. Hope springs eternal. And you can wait a long time.

Q: What do you mean by that? That's sort of like a Zen koan.

A: What I mean by that is that he has the knowledge and the potential to be a candidate for the people, instead of a candidate that sanctions the continual domination of our political economy by giant multinationals who have no allegiance to our country and community, other than to control them or abandon them as you see fit.

Q: That almost sounds like very measured optimism about the possibility of a Kerry presidency.

A: I don't think it's optimism. I think it is a reflection of how long we've been waiting for John Kerry to be as courageous a senator as he reportedly was in Vietnam. It's been 18 years, and we haven't seen much.

Q: Can you do George Bush in, if not three words, in a small number?

A: George Bush is a giant corporation disguised as a human being, residing in the White House to continue to deliver the US government to these same multinational corporations and institutionalize that corporate government in Washington, DC. He doesn't think for himself. He basically was selected by the Republican elders to run for president the way farmers would select a prize heifer for a country fair. In other words, he looks like a president, he can dress like a president, he struts like a president, and he can read his cue cards written by his corporate paymasters.

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Issue Date: July 26, 2004
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