Outside every Ralph Nader event, two political groups compete for attention: the LaRouche Youth Movement (LYM) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The LaRouchies pass out their anti-Dick Cheney pamphlet "Children of Satan," and the ISO members distribute The Socialist Worker. And, as with many on the far left, the LYM and the ISO find themselves at odds over Nader. As I walk into a theater on the campus of San Francisco State University to hear the independent presidential candidate speak, I find myself two steps behind his running mate, Peter Camejo, the longtime California Green Party activist. The LaRouchies immediately recognize him. "Camejo, you're a sellout!" one yells as the candidate ducks into the building. "You're throwing the election to George Bush and Dick Cheney!" One young LYM member stuffs a piece of paper in my hand--a "report" titled "LaRouche Youth Expose Naderites as Fascists"--and explains that LaRouche has endorsed John Kerry. His cultlike followers, who were omnipresent during the Democratic primaries, regularly disrupting public events, have now devoted themselves to making sure Nader doesn't tilt the election to Bush. Granted, the LaRouchies are crazy and argue that "the Nader operation is a left-synarchist fascist operation in support of the very same genocidal program as the Cheney-Bush regime," but they also explain to impressionable young voters at Nader events that it is a "lie that there is no difference between Kerry and Bush." As scary as it may be, on the Nader campaign trail, the LaRouchies are the voice of reason.
They don't always need to do much convincing. Inside the theater, Alex Schamaus, the local leader of Students for Nader, is trying to add to the dozen members in his local chapter. He holds a clipboard above his head and yells to the students filing into their seats: "Students for Nader sign-up list!" It's slow going. Schamaus has collected five names this afternoon, but most students ignore him. "Most of the people who come here today are going to vote for Kerry but are just interested in seeing Nader," he admits. "Hopefully, on the way out, a lot more people will want to sign up."
Inside the event, there is a similar sense of skepticism. A student tells Nader that "it's not responsible to pull troops out" of Iraq, and a member of the audience yells that Nader "doesn't care about the Iraqi people." A young man, concerned about a reinstatement of the draft, asks Nader if he doesn't think it's imperative that Bush be defeated. "It seems like Kerry is the one who won't get my ass blown up," he says. Later, another student tells Nader at a book signing, "I would support you, but you took money from the Republicans." By the time the LaRouchies disrupt the event--with hecklers shouting "you're lying!" and two kids wearing giant Bush and Cheney masks screaming "Vote for Nader"--it seems a good portion of the audience is on their side.
I attend another Nader talk in Berkeley that same day and am surprised to find that, like every other candidate, his events are all the same. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. The show starts with a string of speeches by local third-party candidates and a few single-issue activists. Nader has become a remarkably lonely man on the left. His old liberal friends, sprinkled throughout organizations like Public Citizen, have disassociated themselves from him. Pop radicals like Michael Moore, who championed Nader in 2000, have become sudden experts in electoral college math and now beg him to drop out of the race. Most surprising, and most infuriating to Nader, what might be called the radical left establishment has also abandoned him. More than 70 of his most influential supporters and advisers from 2000--people like Noam Chomsky, Studs Terkel, Cornel West, and Howard Zinn--have signed a letter advising progressives to vote for Kerry in closely contested states. Nader bitterly mentions the manifesto in every speech, saying his ex-allies have "lost their nerve." Here in California, Nader's isolation has thrown him into the arms of the ISO, which sponsors his events in the state and seems to protect him from the LaRouchies and others angry about his candidacy. After his speech in San Francisco, one young man approaches Nader and yells, "Hey, Ralph, you remind me of George Bush!" Nader's handler from the ISO calls over two cops, and the heckler is removed.
Besides the Socialists, the folks willing to share the stage with Nader fall into two categories. The first are hopeless third-party candidates delighted to speak to more than a roomful of people. For example, the Peace and Freedom Party senatorial candidate launches an attack on, of all people, Senator Barbara Boxer for not being sufficiently liberal. The Green Party challenger to entrenched incumbent Representative Tom Lantos, who represents part of San Francisco, is also happy to share the stage with Nader. She calls Lantos "an old warmonger" and says, "Mister Lantos is popularly known as the representative from Tel Aviv."
That's the kind of line that strikes a chord at Nader events. The other groups that have glommed onto Nader's independent bid are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. At both events I attend, some of the biggest applause is for local activists who excoriate Bush and Kerry for their Middle East policies. What's troubling is that, for some of these folks, the backlash against the war in Iraq has taken on anti-Semitic overtones. In Berkeley, a man named Joe Webb passes out literature explaining that "the Neoconservatives and the 'Jewish Lobby' (AIPAC) have planned the Iraq war for many years" and that the story is untold because "most of the US media, and particularly the commanding heights, are Jewish owned." During the Q&A session, Webb ruminates about Jewish financing of the two parties and asks Nader to expand on his recent comment that Ariel Sharon is Bush's puppeteer.
After battling past LaRouchies and Socialists and listening to half an hour of fringe candidates talk about everything from the "edible schoolyard concept" to how Kerry "is not quite as fanatical as Bush on abortion," when Nader does finally speak, he can sound downright conservative. In fact, if you listen closely, the heart of Nader's stump speech is ... a call for parents to spend more time with their kids. That's right, more than national health insurance, a living wage, the war, or the Patriot Act--all publicized as Nader's major issues--what really has Nader worked up these days is what he calls "the commercialization of childhood." He is most passionate when talking about the conflict between the marketplace and traditional values. "Corporations did not directly market to three-, four-, five-, seven-, nine-year-olds," he rails. "They did not deliberately, in their marketing strategies--premeditated--separate parents from their children and undermine parental authority and teach children how to nag their parents. They did not put in children's minds at a very impressionable age violence as a solution to human problems and junk food that was going to hurt their health across the whole spectrum of their diet.... Corporations now have children far more waking hours than parents do." Nader is also upset about corporate influence on tax policy and the electoral system, but, then again, so are lots of Democrats, including John Kerry and John Edwards. Every candidate has one issue that drives them over the edge. For Nader, it's the corporatization of kids. Listening to him speak, I start to think that Bush might be reelected because Ralph Nader is pissed off at the invention of the 'tween market.
Despite the fact that he is registering barely 1 percent in national polls, Nader is indeed perfectly positioned to cost Kerry the election. Consider Kerry's current road to 270 electoral votes. The number of true toss-up states has dwindled to eleven: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Nader is on the ballot in all of these states but Pennsylvania and Ohio, where his access is still the subject of litigation. Each of these states is close enough that Nader could make the difference, and the damage he could do to Kerry becomes more obvious when one looks at the combination of states Kerry is likely to need for victory. Assuming Bush wins Florida and Kerry wins Pennsylvania, Kerry must then win Ohio and some combination of three to five of the remaining eight small toss-up states. These eight states have two things in common: in each, the race is almost a dead heat, and, in each, Nader is polling between one and four points. In other words, Nader is doing best in the most closely contested states. For instance, an early October Gallup poll of registered voters in New Mexico showed Bush beating Kerry 47 to 46 percent, with Nader at 3 percent. An American Research Group poll in New Hampshire showed Bush and Kerry tied at 47 percent, with Nader at 1 percent. In Colorado, Gallup shows Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent, with Nader at 2 percent. As pollster John Zogby noted in a recent analysis of his own numbers, "There is ... no doubt that Ralph Nader is hurting Kerry."
In his pitch to students in San Francisco and Berkeley, Nader talks about the importance of organizing and getting involved in the political process. He notes that politicians only respond when people are mobilized. "It's very important for the rumble of the people to come back," he says. It is a bizarre statement in the context of liberal politics in 2004. On the left, there probably has not been as much energy and organization since the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s. Bush has helped create the foundation for an entire New Left counter-establishment. From Moveon.org to the Howard Dean campaign to the liberal blogosphere to Air America radio to new think tanks sprouting up around Washington, D.C., an entire new network of exactly the kind of activists that Nader has long praised is suddenly being born. Their singular goal is to defeat Bush. At 70, Nader's last great act as a public citizen might be to scuttle all their work. Not even the LaRouchies are that irresponsible.
Ryan Lizza is a senior editor at TNR.
By Ryan Lizza