May 25, 2013
Robert Scheer Debates Ralph Nader
Posted on Nov 5, 2007
Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer goes head to head with progressive icon Ralph Nader, who denies the charge that he has been a spoiler and challenges the value of the Democratic Party.
Special thanks to The Nation.
Editor’s note: The following exchange, transcribed here, is from a debate between Scheer and Nader aboard The Nation cruise in late July 2007.
Click here to listen to the debate.
Robert Scheer: I’m not interested in personalizing this in any way; however, we do have very serious disagreements as far as I can figure out. And I’d like to express them. I want to say by way of preface that I ran as an independent candidate once for the Senate in California with the Peace and Freedom Party, a disastrous event in which I marginalized myself even beyond my normal place. I also ran as a Democrat in the Oakland/Berkeley area in 1966 and I was thrilled with that performance. I got almost 46 percent of the vote, and I convinced Ron Dellums to run four years later. We captured the seat, and Barbara Lee is our congresswoman from that district. I bring that up because I do think that it is possible to work with the Democratic Party. I think one can have positive results, and I’m very proud of my own foray into electoral politics. And I think that the parties have changed since that time. I think we have had party realignment; I think we would be naive not to acknowledge that. This is not the Tweedledee-Tweedledum when Eisenhower was running against Stevenson, as Izzy Stone would say, correctly. One of the bravest things I ever did was wear an “I Like Ike” button in the Bronx when I was a kid. And I would still stand behind that. I think [Dwight] Eisenhower was a better president than [Adlai] Stevenson would have been, certainly was a far better president than [Harry] Truman. And there was a time when there were Republican moderates and it was possible to say, you know, “vote for one rather than the other, or talk about a third alternative when they were so much the same that one couldn’t choose.”
And so I look at the GOP as the enemy camp, and I think that what they’ve done is truly frightening. And for the life of me, I cannot imagine, as was suggested, that there was not a big difference between George W. Bush and [Al] Gore. The last time around I voted for Gore and I was very happy to have voted for him. And I don’t think Gore would have gotten us into the Iraq war, and I don’t think he would have given us the Supreme Court that we have. And nor do I think [John] Kerry would. And so I was very proud to vote for Kerry, even though I think he blew the election and so forth, that’s another matter. So my own view is that we have had party realignment, that the Democratic Party is the place where we have to struggle, and I would close my introductory remarks by ... just comparing the figure of a Newt Gingrich and a Nancy Pelosi. To my mind, that’s an enormous difference. And for whatever defects one may have, I just don’t see how, why, one would blur that difference. And I’m thrilled that Henry Waxman is playing a leading role in the House. And Henry Waxman would not be playing that role were it not for the Democrats’ victory in the last election, and I disagree with something Ralph said that the reality of the only thing we’ve gotten is the minimum wage. And by the way it is not insignificant. But we, in fact, have a Congress now, not doing everything I would like it to, that’s the way it works; I know I’m not in charge. But the fact is that they’re raising the questions. These hearings [earlier this year] on the [Pat] Tillman case were incredible. Waxman is a bird dog on these issues; he’s not alone. And we are getting some accountability.
And finally, I want to say something about the role of people in this room and of The Nation. I disagree with what [Richard] Dreyfus just said before in an otherwise wonderful presentation. I don’t think the left is out of touch, but sometimes it works like it wants to be. And I think of The Nation and I say, let’s take the Weekly Standard. The Weekly Standard did not marginalize itself. When Bush came in, The Weekly Standard said, “OK, we’re now going to be the conscience of this administration. We’re going to help guide this administration. We’re going to work within; we’re going to rally our forces.” And they’ve been enormously effective, as have the New York conservatives. The Nation is right now the leading progressive organization in this country. Not just a news organization; it’s the leading institution in the United States on the left. No question. And it seems to me that moving into this next period, particularly, I would like to see the Democrats win, and I would like to see The Nation, and people in this room, take a responsible attitude towards that shift in power. And not marginalize themselves. And not raise every extreme demand. And not throw rocks at our allies because they don’t fulfill our total agenda. I think that’s destructive, childish politics, and I don’t think it works. And it doesn’t mean you have to give up your issues; it doesn’t mean you betray your soul. But it means that you work effectively with your allies and you try to educate those who don’t see it your own way, and you become a serious force within American politics. And I’d like to see the resurgence of that kind of left in the future.
Ralph Nader: Well, I think one of the main differences ... with Robert [is] in frame of reference and sense of urgency. You can always point out half a dozen issues that the Democrats are far better than the Republicans. And my phrase in 2000 was the similarities between the two parties tower over the dwindling, the real differences they are willing to fight over. And let’s measure it. Granted there are about 50-60 good progressives in Congress, and they’re all Democrats for the most part ...we’ll get to those in a minute. But take every department and agency. The evaluation of the Democratic Party is as the Democratic Party. It’s not, “Gee, Henry Waxman is terrific.” He is. “[Rep. Edward] Markey is pretty good.” He is. [Rep. John] Dingell is horrible on energy and auto safety, on fuel efficiency, etc. But the general stand as an opposition party, the general stand, tell me what difference there is in terms of the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior, the Food and Drug Administration, the Auto Safety Agency, the FAA, the Department of Defense budget. We have to go on and on? There isn’t a single department or agency in the government that isn’t overwhelmingly dominated by corporate power; the only challenger that could be around would be the Democratic Party. The Department of Labor is not controlled by the labor unions, who are the main prop for the Democratic Party—is their main support. They think that at least when [Bill] Clinton was president he would have liberated the Department of Labor and OSHA from corporate control? Instead, he strengthened the grip. OSHA in eight years did not issue, under Clinton, one chemical control standard that that government should have issued. Not one; it was the only eight-year period in OSHA since we got it through Congress in 1970 where that occurred. We’re dealing with 58,000 dead Americans, work-related diseases, every year. Even OSHA, Department of Labor, even those, look at the secretaries of labor under Clinton and see whether they made any statements about repealing the corrosive labor laws that have crushed the expansion of unionism in our country. Or have they made any ringing declarations about controlling the massive, silent violence of occupational disease and trauma? So even there they couldn’t come through.
We should always remember that when the Republicans get worse and worse, we tend to get amnesia about the Democrats, if not a little nostalgia. It was Clinton who signed into law the agro-business act, concentrated further power in the hands of fewer agro business giants in 1996. He signed the Telecommunications Act, which all good liberals know was a concentrating factor on the media in fewer and fewer hands. And he signed into law what Bob Rubin wanted him to sign into law, the so-called Financial [Services] Modernization Act, which was breaking down the separation of investment from the Glasspiegel Act, which separated investment from commerce and allowed more city, court, corporations, more concentration of the financial resources in fewer and fewer gigantic multinational financial institutions. Dr. Sidney Wolf, who monitored the FDA for years and years, said under Clinton was the worse he’s ever seen. The Food and Drug Administration, there wasn’t a single safety standard of any significance issued in eight years for automobiles. We go on and on. One of my favorites is, starting in the early ‘70s we asked the FAA to put a regulation in to strengthen cockpit doors and door latches because of the hijacks from Cuba. And year after year, under Democratic and Republican, they refused to do that. And then 9/11 came along. One can go on and on, the macro-Democratic Party is a shade of what it was. Almost everything I proposed in 2000 and 2004, and you can look at it on the record, would have been adopted or aggressively pursued by the FDR/Harry Truman Democratic Party. But not later.
Now let’s take the progressives. There’s a Progressive Caucus that’s now up to 72 or so members. But when it was around 50 or 55, and this was before 2000, we tried to get it activated. You know, a real hard minority in the House can achieve quite a bit. Look what the Southerners did blocking the civil rights laws, for example—just a handful of them in strategic places. So we had, we drafted 10 statutes virtually costing taxpayers nothing, but they shifted power from the few to the many. They made it easier for labor, for consumers to organize, they changed some campaign rules, etc. And we gave it, every one of them, one at a time, and weeks went by. We never heard. We called them up. Bernie, Bernie Sanders? Why don’t you at least put an amendment in the hoppers? So people around the country can say, “It was HR 28” and rally around it. It never had a chance. It won’t have a chance. Dennis [Kucinich], even you, why don’t you put these in the hopper so we can have an agenda, a progressive agenda that will get us some visibility and you can go on talk shows. Well, even he didn’t put them in. So I had a meeting with the chair of the Democratic National Committee. I had a nice lunch and proceeded to go through these one after another. I call them a pro-democracy agenda. And he took notes, and it was really great. And at the end of the lunch, I gave him a little paperback just for a joke; it was called “Dogs Are More Intelligent Than Republicans.” It was a humorous little piece properly pictured and so on. It was just a fun book. So a week went by, two weeks, he said he would give it to the research committee at the DNC. Well, that’s fine, three or four weeks go by, didn’t hear about all these proposals. Finally get a call from the Democratic National Committee research unit. They said, “By the way, you know that book “Dogs Are More Intelligent Than Republicans?” Can we have more copies?” So I sent them a couple boxes worth. Well, this continued again after 2000. They still didn’t put anything in. So what is this progressive all about? So I wrote an article for The Nation about two years ago: “Ten Ways to Reform Corporations.” 1, 2, 3, 4. And I get copies and I send it to everyone in the Progressive Caucus. And not a single reply. This is a dead-in-the-water operation. And this is the cream of the crop.
So what do you do with something like that? Well, Dennis now has an investigative subcommittee, and he’s really doing some good things like tax-funded sports stadiums, he’s investigating those things. While clinics, schools, public transit, libraries crumble, Washington, D.C., is building a $650-million stadium for the Washington Nationals baseball team, with tax dollars. It’s sort of an insane priority. So you try to go to stage two. You say, look, there are certain functional requisites for a just and humane society. And if you list them all, like full health insurance for everybody, a tax system that doesn’t burden those who are less able to pay, a system where a foreign policy that advances peace in the world instead of Bush’s aggression and sells arms, a lot of labor standards to be improved, a living wage, a right of collective bargaining, on and on. If you list all those, you find that it’s corporations that are really saying “no, no no.” You know, it’s the McDonalds and Burger King [saying no] to living wage, and Wal-Mart. And it’s the HMOs [saying no] to universal health care, and on and on. So you really detail it this way, and you say, this is the main menu here. That’s what politics has to focus on, is corporate power, because corporate power is commercializing everything in our life. And when everything is for sale, corporations are going to win. And if childhood is for sale, if education is for sale, if just about everything in our society that never used to be for sale, the corporations are going to win because they have the most money to buy. And so you make it very, very concrete and try to work with the Democratic Party. Sometime in 1984 we hired 12 experienced people to go around the country showing how much better [Walter] Mondale was than [Ronald] Reagan. And we never got any resonance from Mondale’s campaign even though we had the best materials, we had gone on Larry King and gotten 15,000 orders for our booklets and so on. And one day, we learned that the doctors of the Center for Disease Control had finished a study showing 250,000 American workers went to work everyday and are exposed to cancerous environments. Carcinogens, particulates, the whole works. And they ask the Reagan administration for about a million or two million dollars to send registered letters and encourage all these workers to go to their doctors and get a checkup. And Reagan turned them down. And so, we went to the Mondale people, the highest level. And said, “What a perfect issue right in the middle of the campaign. You can go to Pittsburgh, have a big workers rally, and point to Washington and say that these people didn’t even have the decency after using your tax dollars to document the hazardous workplace that you are going to every day to just warn you, never mind shutting down the workplace or regulating it.” And the answer was, “Well, we can’t do that because Mr. Mondale’s platform says ‘no more new spending.’ ” So we had a press conference a week later; it was packed. It was all over the country, the news, the second day the reporters came in with, went to a foundry here, or a factory there, so it was a second-day story. The New York Times had a lead editorial. And the Democrats still wouldn’t make an issue of that. So, in response to Bob, let’s go with his proposal. Let’s see if we can really improve the Democratic Party leading with the progressives, and try to give them all the things that they can use against the Republican Party. But when a party is so essentially decayed, so indentured to corporate money, so indentured to the Democratic Leadership Council and Al From. ... And so indentured to candidates like Clinton and Gore who were high up in the Democratic Leadership Council. I’m open to ideas, what do you say, bro?
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