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.”
That’s not the case in the world that we live in; there’s been party realignment. And as imperfect as the Democratic Party is, it’s the home of progressives, as well as with some reactionaries. It is the battleground for progressives. I don’t think we’re likely to get a third party—the system is rigged against it—and I (and this is my only reference to Ralph’s campaign) I didn’t see any third-party moment come out of that. I didn’t see any building of any alternative, and nor do I expect, and nor do I fault him for that. I think given the system that we have in this society, we have this two-party system, it’s probably going to remain that way certainly for the rest of my lifetime. And I think that the Democratic Party, at this point in our lives, is not only the agency for change, the place where we have to fight our battles, but also the differences between the two parties are substantial. And I am frightened to death of the direction that the Republican Party has taken. It’s captive of an unholy alliance between a greedy capitalism of an extreme sort that’s represented by Enron and Halliburton and people who don’t even have the vision of the Rockefellers, have a very short-term greed ... to line their pockets, take the money and run. And they’ve made an unholy alliance with the born-again Christian leadership that is deceiving their membership to what we used to call false consciousness about their class position, their economic interests, and so forth. And basically betraying poor whites, this was the Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon and it has been all together too effective.
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?
Scheer: Again, with all due respect, bro, I ... I think that it’s kind of a filibuster in a way. I think that you’re begging the real question about where we are at this moment in our history. Your critique of the Democrats is, first of all, I think you should continue doing it. I never wanted you to stop being a consumer activist attacking the corporations. As a columnist I think I have echoed every one of your criticisms. I think I wrote some of the stronger columns on the Financial Service Modification Act—on the Telecommunications Act. And by the way, Rocky [Anderson] pointed out the other day, [Bill] Richardson was awful as secretary of energy and he’s the one put who put Wen Ho Lee in jail, in solitary, for nine months. I think I wrote 35 columns on that subject. So I’m not opposed to criticizing Democrats, and certainly what I was saying is I don’t think The Nation magazine could stop criticizing even if they [Democrats] get back in power. In fact, that’s particularly when you should critique and up the ante and educate. And get the progressive caucus to be tougher and stronger. I think maybe Waxman wouldn’t have had as good a hearing as he had if Mary Tillman, the mother of Pat Tillman, hadn’t been out there, sharing out there, raising questions, and demanding it, and other hadn’t done it. So I’m not asking for people to just rally around the flag here. But I do want to recognize we’re in a particularly dangerous moment. And that is that the neoconservatives and the other ideologues and cynics aligned with them have done what George Washington warned us again. They put democracy against a national security state and foreign entanglements in a very dangerous moment. By the way, I consider it shameful that The Nation would have this cruise and not have one panel on the Iraq war. We are at war. You know. We are in a war that is sapping the treasury, will prevent us from pursuing a progressive agenda in the future, every time we try to get money for anything, we’ll hear about the trillion that had already been wasted. We know, as everyone from George Washington to Eisenhower warned us against, you cannot have this national security hysteria and foreign entanglements and still have a functioning representative democracy, still have civil liberties, still have the same society that this appeal to false patriotism, destroys freedom. We have models of that through human history. Also I think we’re in a particularly dangerous moment. And I think it’s a moment that we have to defeat this neoconservative vision, and allies, and the Pat Robertson camp, where now we have to defend Darwin—as well as the U.N. It seems to me that we should recognize that moment. And in this moment the only force that we have within the political system is the Democratic Party. For better or for worse. We have so few allies in the Republican Party, it’s almost just a waste of time to try to rally them. This is not the old GOP/Democratic arrangement that we used to have. The moderates have been destroyed in the GOP. And we do have a strong progressive base in the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean you rally around the flag, support everything that comes down, and so forth. But you do recognize first of all there is such a thing as the lesser evil, if that’s the way you want to think about it. But in addition to a lesser evil, we have some very strong progressive voices. And we should make them stronger. And so I’m speaking out of some sense of urgency that this is the most dangerous moment that I have ever experienced in the history of my life in this country. I have never been so frightened for the future of this country. And I think that if these people can continue this kind of reckless course, what they say creating facts, so you go invade Iran or you invent some other situation or some horrible terrorist attack. If that had been a primitive nuclear weapon in Manhattan we wouldn’t even be having this discussion now. Democracy is fragile. These are scary times. And I think that putting some adults into watching the store, which is how I see some of the better Democrats ... to me [Bill] Clinton looks pretty damn good. I would sleep a lot better if Clinton were president, I’m sorry. I’m not going to lie about it. The man had some sense of proportion—some sense of accountability. Well, let’s take the corporate world. If I had to choose between Bush 1, and that vision of capitalism, and Bush 2 ... to me there’s a world of difference. Bush 1 had at least some sense that there were other nations out there. Other people you have to worry about. That the EU has a role; that we don’t have all the answers; that we aren’t the center to everything; that diplomacy and trade matters. With George W we have a hard ideological edge in this administration. The Cheney/Rumsfeld axis: It’s very frightening. And so I would like to have some discussion here about how do we respond to the current situation. And I don’t think you respond to it accurately by saying, I forget what you said, it’s the, what did you say? The tower, what did you say it was?
Nader: Similarities tower over the dwindling real differences.
Scheer: It’s just not true. It’s just not true. The similarities do not tower over these differences; the differences are enormous. And that’s why it really mattered that Gore beat Bush in that election. It really mattered that Kerry wins. We can’t duck that issue.
Nader: First of all, let’s take an easy one, Bob. The Democrats have become very good at electing very bad Republicans. They can’t even win elections that they’ve won. They don’t go for the jugular when it’s a close election. They won in Florida. They bungled it before, during and after the election. Where were they when Katherine Harris was misidentifying tens of thousands of Floridians as ex-felons, and prohibiting from vote most of them would have been Democrats? Where were they when they lost a good share of the Democrats from Florida, a quarter of million voted for Bush in 2000. The point is they blew Ohio the same way. I mean, look. This is a party that cannot defend the country against the worst Republicans in American history. That’s where you start, that’s your premise.
Scheer: Ralph, please. Listen. Take the statement. Do you really think the similarities between George W. Bush and Al Gore tower over their differences? Do you really believe that? You really believe that?
Nader: Yes. Let me tell you why. They both pursue imperial foreign policies. They didn’t invade Iraq, even a [inaudible] wouldn’t have been that stupid. But they had the same militaristic foreign policy. They never challenged the military budget. They never challenged the imperial foreign policy. They were the same on so many issues all over the world. I mean, look, Clinton/Gore bombed Iraq over 25 times. Sometimes just to divert attention from the Lewinski affair, killing innocent civilians. They pushed the sanctions. They got the U.N., one of the few times they got the U.N. on their side, they got the U.N. to impose those sanctions which a task force of American physicians that went over again and again in the 1990s said cost 500,000 children’s lives. That’s a lot of lives. So let’s not sugarcoat. Clinton and Gore got through Congress, which Bush pointed to as he was beating the drums against Iraq, got a resolution through that toppling Saddam was a pillar of American foreign policy. So let’s sugarcoat it. The point is let’s say the Republicans are terrible. Let’s say the Democrats are bad. They both flunk. What’s our expectation level? Every four years, corporations gain more and more power over our government, more and more power over our elections. More and more power over the politics of the country. More and more power over all the things that we used to think are not for sale. Which is a sign of a democracy, that there should always be sanctuaries that are never for sale. It’s just a constant trajectory, and so I am asking you, how would you propose to strengthen the Democratic Party, let’s hear from you, so it can become what you would like it to beacon, and a battering ram, against the Republican Party. Another way of asking the question is, how do you separate the Democratic Party from the corporations?
Scheer: Well, first of all. I mean, I’m dumbfounded. I don’t think you have answered the question. I mean, do you really think that President Gore would have appointed the same Supreme Court. That President Gore would have invaded Iraq in response to 9/11, which had nothing to do with Iraq? Do you really think that President Gore would endorse torture? That he would—. I mean it’s just not true. It’s just simply untrue.
Nader: That’s fine.
Scheer: This is not Al Gore. You’re inventing.
Nader: That’s fine, but look at the bigger picture and the bigger issue.
Scheer: But that is the bigger picture, the bigger picture is Guantanamo. The bigger picture is the Supreme Court, Ralph, come on.
Nader: The bigger picture is an imperialistic, militaristic foreign policy that is eating the heart out of our federal budget and militarizing our entire country in its horizons. And the Democrats, the Henry Jackson Democrats and the Richard Perle Democrats. Remember they were all Democrats. There’s a whole tradition here. The other thing is, look at the whole tax system. Other than Bill Bradley in a modest change in ‘86, that tax system is an atrocity. It’s an atrocity in terms of perverse incentives, it’s an atrocity to this day, I’m sitting in Sen. Charles Grassley’s office, trying, and I got him to agree to support putting all government contracts, military contracts, leaseholds of natural resources, online. So everybody can look at them. Like the Halliburton contracts, and the Lockheed Martin contracts, and so on. As I’m going out, eh and his assistant says, can you imagine Kerry and [Sen. Chuck] Schumer at the hearing the other day? I said, “What do you mean?” He said we had a hearing to prohibit private equity moguls from using their 20 percent of whatever they gain from their investors, as capital gains, where they are paying 15 percent, and trying to get them to pay ordinary income. Because that’s what it is. It’s like a fee. Just ordinary income, which would be 33 percent. And Schumer and Kerry were very unsupportive of that. Kerry said that he didn’t like the idea that just one industry singled out. Singled out? This is a special privilege that even the regular investment companies haven’t developed. And Schumer didn’t like it because it came from the financial district. Here you have a conservative Republican from Iowa, for heaven’s sake, asking me “What’s with Schumer and Kerry?” I can give you hundreds of examples like that. Look what happened just two days ago. Fifty-billion-dollar loan guarantee was put [before the] Senate by [Pete] Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, and passed under a Democratic-controlled Senate. Fifty-billion-dollar loan guarantee for primarily new nuclear power plants. Twenty-five new nuclear power plants. The Democrats since January they have caved on, they’re caving on energy, they can’t even control Dingell. They’ve caved on the war. They’re about to cave on Leave No Child Left Behind—check Jonathan Kozol on that. They’re caving right and left. They’re not rolling back anything either that Bush, this horrible Bush, who’s more horrible—. I think Bush is more horrible than you do because I sweated it out two campaigns trying to develop a second front against Bush ... and giving the Democrats ways to do it. Itemized ways to do it, real radical stuff like support the minimum wage increase that’s on the ballot in Florida, John Kerry. Huh? That’s an easy one. And they only won by 72 percent he wouldn’t campaign on it— something that simple. So, what do I say to you, Bob? I want answers form you, how to strengthen, change, this Democratic Party? Give me your answers? Don’t keep saying of course there’s a difference. Yeah, there’s a difference on Social Security, there’s a difference on pro-choice, there’s a difference on gay and lesbian rights, there are these differences in the social sphere that are really important. But the trajectory that this country is hurling itself toward is a trajectory of concentrated power by fewer and fewer multinational corporations who have no allegiance to this country other than to control it or abandon it as they see fit. And they have taken over Washington. Tell us how we do it?
Scheer: I think you’re being a demagogue.
Nader: Why, because some people are clapping?
Scheer: I hesitate to say that, but I really want to say, I really don’t think you’re engaging the argument. So let me state it again. I have no objection, not only no objection, I applaud your role as a social critic, as I do my own. To answer your question specifically, yes, we must criticize the Democrats, we must up the ante, and I do it as a columnist. You do it as a lawyer, public interest lawyer. And that is our obligation, and that’s what The Nation should do. That is not at issue here. I think I was one of Clinton’s harshest critics when he was president about the very issues that you outlined.
Nader: It’s not an issue at all; why do you keep repeating yourself? What do we do? That’s the issue.
Scheer: First of all, we can be civil; this is supposed to be a conversation. And I would suggest that, in terms of our roles, social critics, we’re not talking about giving the Democrats a bye. I never advocated it; I don’t do it. And I’m not asking you to do that. I’m asking you to recognize that running an independent campaign, which I gather you’re still considering, that asking people to support an independent campaign, to suggest that the differences between the Democrats that are in Congress now and the leadership, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman and others, and the Republicans that the similarities tower over the differences, is just not true. It’s just wrong. It’s inaccurate. And I don’t think that’s educating people. That doesn’t mean you give them a bye. I’m all for putting pressure on Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi. But to not acknowledge the differences of their approach, or forget even their approach, the differences between what used to be moderate Republicans and the true ideologues, the fanatics that are actually running this government now, the Richard Perles, you know. I think it’s to miss this moment in history. I honestly do. And I think, so I will repeat. I think that we’re not talking about Ralph Nader or Robert Scheer or The Nation as social critics. We’re talking about how you organize politically. And you chose to run an independent campaign with no base, you didn’t build a party, you didn’t build an alternative. There is no third party; a third party did not come out of your campaigns. And you’re now considering even another campaign which will not produce a third party. And you, when you suggest that there is not profound difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, your claims are saying that we shouldn’t, therefore, put emphasis into struggling with these people. I would take the opposite position. I think we got better candidates running. If we find some moderates we should back them. But I do think that getting a progressive Democratic candidate now matters. I think people should be involved in these primaries. I’m not going to tell them whom to support, but I do think, for instance, if Al Gore would come into the campaign I would be quite enthusiastic in supporting him. I keep getting very enthusiastic about a Gore/[Barack] Obama ticket, for example. I think [John] Edwards has indicated a progressive agenda. I think Kucinich would be very strong if not electable. I think that there are good candidates out there. I think the people in this audience should figure out which ones they are going to support, and if they don’t like the ones that are they, encourage others to run. But I think the next election matters a great deal. I think it’s incredibly important to a Democrat—and hopefully a better one. But I don’t think we should be distracted from that. And I think you can hold these two ideas in your head at the same time. Be the social critic, up the ante, criticize them when they’re wrong. You know? I think that’s important to do. On the other hand, let’s not lose sight of the fact that there is this cabal in this country right now that has enormous power. And they are taking us down a very dangerous road. And let me just raise another question here. I don’t think all the corporations are the same. That’s a great slogan, you know. The fact is there’s a world of difference between a corporation that is willing to do business around the world, willing to observe certain laurels and so forth, and a corporation that wants to get wars in an old imperial matter so they can sell us a lot of equipment and junk that we don’t need. There are splits in what used to be considered the ruling class, OK. And I suggested before, there’s a rather important split between, say, the George Bush Sr. and the Iraq Study Group and their proposals, and why George [H.W.] Bush argued against capturing Baghdad. And the caution that he evidenced. And George W, who has the recklessness of the old imperial model, which we are now following. And I think to fail to understand that difference is to understand, fail to understand, the danger of the current moment. That our civil liberties, and you know it’s not true that things have somehow gotten, there’s all just murky. The fact is, things are far more dangerous in very specific ways, and you have not addressed that. One is the Supreme Court. We have a Supreme Court now thanks to these Republican appointees that has absolutely no concern of civil liberties, separation of powers, any kind of accountability. It’s out of control and gives the imperial president a blank check. That is not unimportant. And I don’t believe that a Democratic president would have had the same kind of Supreme Court. And I think to insist that that doesn’t matter is to deny reality.
Nader: OK. Let’s hold the Democratic Party up to an opposition role. What could they have stopped that they didn’t stop. They could have stopped the war. They could have stopped the tax cuts for the rich. They could have stopped any number of things, whether by filibuster, by raising the standard high and mobilizing public opinion when the polls were on their side on so many of these things, like tax cuts for the rich. He got through three of them. While he is building a huge deficit, he got through three of them. That’s never happened in the middle of hostilities in the American history. They always raised taxes, excess profit taxes, to pay for the war. The Democrats controlled the Senate when the first big tax cut came through in 2002. Where were they? They just didn’t have the guts to stop it. Let’s take the Supreme Court, Bob. I was up there lobbying against Bork, and it was a success; it was a great coalition. I was up there lobbying against [Justice Antonin] Scalia. And I would ask Al Gore, and I would ask Ted Kennedy, and Paul Sarbanes, all these great senators: “You’re going to vote for Scalia?” “Well, he’s going to win anyway.” But I said, “You know, I can’t find a senator, not one senator, to vote against Scalia.” And he wasn’t hiding his candle under a barrel during the testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Scalia was confirmed 98 to nothing. So then, in comes Thomas. And George Mitchell, the Democratic majority leader, sitting in his office, and we’re going in one senator’s office after another ... and it was really close. And of course Bush called Thomas the most qualified nominee that he could find and he was the heir to the seat of Thurgood Marshall. And so, we would go in one senator after another, say “Is Mitchell really twisting arms here? Is he using his power?” “No. he’s letting us decide. He’s not leading the way against Thomas.” And the vote was 52-48. Eleven Democratic senators crossed the aisle and voted for Thomas. So when we evaluate the Democrats in their oppositional role, what have they stopped? Now, the Democrats see nothing wrong with the anti-civil libertarian of knocking the third party, or independent candidates, off the ballot in the most vicious ways. You know, when you run for office, you’re running for free speech, petition, and assembly. And that doesn’t seem to bother a lot of liberal Democrats. They liked Buchanan running, didn’t they? But they didn’t want our voters to have a chance to vote for the candidates of their choice. Not by arguing with us, or having a better platform, no. But by maneuvering these state laws that the Republicans and Democrats have enacted, to get us off the ballot. In more than a few states. I don’t consider that a civil liberties position. That’s one of the last remaining areas of political bigotry that don’t raise the hackles of the ACLU. When you deny the right of candidates to be on the ballot by harassment and phony litigation and all these partisan state ballot access laws, you are denying millions of voters their choice. And so, let’s not put the Democrats on too high a pedestal. Let us agree that there’s a least worst operating here, there’s a lesser than two evils. The point is, at what point do we say that there is a breaking point. What is your breaking point, if you support the Democrats, Bob, what is your breaking point? Can you give me a hypothetical of behavior by the Democratic Party, or series of behaviors, where you’ll break with them and support an alternative candidate? Or an alternative party, regardless of their status in the polls because you believe in what they’re advancing? What is your breaking point?
Scheer: Well, I would say the breaking point right now would be a candidate [for president] who did not oppose the Iraq war. ... I would not vote for such a candidate. I would not support such a candidate. The breaking point for me, because I do consider the Iraq war and all it represents to be absolutely decisive, that if we have a candidate for the Democratic Party who does not break with that war, who does not promise to end it, and so forth. I would not vote for such a candidate, would not support such a candidate. That would be a breaking point, yes. I could list four or five other issues, if you’d like, but I think torture would be another one. You could go down the line. But I think that there is a different issue here and we should address it. You’re basically suggesting a kind of personal politics in a way. You’re saying that you are the litmus test. Because you’re not really talking, telling us how to build this third-party movement. If there was a viable, in any way, third-party movement now, that was an alternative. Then we could have that discussion. If there was a serious alternative that was emerging, that had come out of your campaign, that we could rally around, then one could say, “OK, that’s a way to go.” But it doesn’t exist. All that we have left after your two campaigns is Ralph Nader.
Nader: No, not at all.
Scheer: Yes. That’s all we have.
Nader: No, not at all.
Scheer: We don’t have a movement. There’s no Green movement. There’s not third-party movement. You didn’t build anything; you didn’t leave any legacy electorally. Electorally, you left it in all sorts of ways. But you have not provided a model of political action. You have not.
Nader: Bob, I’m really amazed that you are attacking me for not being omnipotent.
Scheer: No, I’m attacking you for not being a political organizer. Say in the tradition of Debbs, who would at least build a party, build the party; we had third-party candidates that haven’t been all that successful, but that have built. And I’m not singling you out. I didn’t want you to run. So I don’t hold you responsible. I don’t think we’re going to have a third party. But I’m just saying to discuss it as if it exists when It doesn’t exist, and now you’re even considering a third campaign. What could possibly come out of such a campaign?
Nader: You see you’re contradicting yourself. You say, on one hand the system is rigged against third parties. And then you said why aren’t you building a third party? You’re right. The system is rigged against the third party. It keeps third-party candidates even if the polls want them on national presidential debates off the presidential debates because the debate commission is a private corporation created in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic Party. They don’t want any competition. So the system is rigged in the ballot access; it’s rigged in a thousand ways. It’s rigged because most Americans are prisoners of a 220-year-old Electoral College, two-party, winner-take-all, system. And so they want to be for winners. So you can’t start from the small base and try to grow. Because even people who agree with you, and if you poll-tested our platform in 2000 and 2004, a very many of them had majority poll support. They want to be with the winner. People can say “I really like what you’re doing, and I’d like to vote for you, but I want to support a winner.” You get this in 40 states that were either slam-dunk Republican or Democrat. I’d be in Texas and people would say, ” I really like what you’re doing, but I don’t want Mr. Bush to win. And so I have to vote for John Kerry.” In Texas, you have to vote for John Kerry? Kerry never even campaigned in Texas. There were 40 states where people could have voted their conscience but the system is a prison. It is an imprisoning system. It makes people feel like there’s no chance for the little guy. There’s no chance for the underdog. And the two parties take advantage of that. And they collude in ways that, if they were in the marketplace, they’d be in trouble, as I said earlier, with the antitrust laws. So, what we have done in these campaigns is we’ve given people an opportunity to vote for what they believe in. We have gotten a lot of young people trained in political activity. You’ll hear from them as they go into politics. And take civic and political leadership positions. We kept the progressive agenda alive. I mean, how many four years do you go through before you have a whole new generation who can’t even argue for the estate tax, or progressive taxation, or Social security if you don’t keep that flame alive? And then we’re condemned because all good liberals and progressive like Robert Scheer say, well, “You’re just pie-in-the-sky stuff.” And you’re not building a movement. Let me tell you something, Mr. Scheer.
Nader: Let me tell you something.
Nader: When I see you on hustings ... when I see you on the hustings trying to build a movement. Or even in the hustings trying to cover a fledgling movement, which I did not see you on. Huh? Then, I will say that you’re putting your feet and your brain where your words are.
Scheer: OK, Ralph, I don’t want to get too personal, but, as you know, from a previous conversation, I did cover your speech at Santa Monica College and others, and I was appalled that you did not raise the question of welfare reform. And I felt that you were not raising issues of foreign policy. We have our own disagreements. But that’s not the point; I don’t want to make it so personal. I want to talk about— there are other heroes other than you in this society that I can get excited about. Now let me just take my own voting pattern. I’ve gotten to vote for Sheila Kuehl, for instance, our state senator, and she’s very aggressive on single-payer health plans. And maybe even giving Schwarzenegger a bit over, he’s at least accepted the idea that undocumented citizens and children have the right to health care, which is an improvement. The progressive Legislature that we do have in California, progressive leadership, has actually even brought this Republican governor ... they didn’t do it alone, the nurses, the firefighters, a lot of constituent groups put pressure on him. He went down in the polls because there was massive education; there was a distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats. I would say that the Democrats in California have represented a very solid progressive force. I get nowadays—you get to vote for a Henry Waxman. I mean, I haven’t voted for a stinker of a candidate in quite a long time, as a matter of fact. I even got to vote for Tom Hayden to be my state senator at one point. And so I think that there are plenty of people out there that have pursued the electoral process as Democrats, there are a few Republicans, who stand for something. OK. And some of them are not partisan like [Salt Lake City Mayor] Rocky Anderson, OK. And Tony Villaraigosa, our mayor in Los Angeles. There are role models out there. Ted Kennedy is a role model. OK. He has screwed up here or there. But I think Ted Kennedy has been an incredible senator. I’m enormously proud of him. He’s fought the fight right down the line. And I can’t accept the idea that there aren’t really good people out there that we can work with, that we can get behind, that we can recruit other good candidates and people to run, that young people should get involved. I know that my son, for example, after he worked in your campaign, which I think was a good experience, he did it over my objection, but he’s his own man. He went and worked for Kerry last time. I think he’s rather proud of that. I think he feels that we would have been better off if Kerry had won. And he went, in fact, to Nevada to campaign for him there, because he wasn’t needed in California. I just want to wonder what is the message we are sending, OK. If the message is we need to be critical, independent thinkers in the model of a Ralph Nader, I began what I said, I think you are one of the great human beings in the last hundred years, I really believe that. And a incredibly, incredibly useful critic, I don’t want Ralph Nader to stop being Ralph Nader. If there are other Ralph Naders, I want him to do that. And so forth. But what we are talking about is how are you effective politically as a candidate, that’s the issue here. And what I’m saying is that you did not provide a good model, and do not now provide a good model, of being an electoral candidate. That’s what we’re talking about, all right? And in that respect, I would like to see people… OK, don’t like the candidates out there, work for others, or support ... you know, if you think Kucinich is the only good one out there, then get behind him, for God’s sake. He’s running, you know. Support him. There are people out there. If you think Gore should run? Get him to run. If you think Hillary is selling out; challenge her. Challenge her by picketing her. Challenge her by denouncing her. Writing e-mails, whatever. The fact is we have a process underway, and I don’t want this to be yet another Nation discussion that marginalizes us and puts us outside what is really happening out there. We are in the midst of an election; we are in the midst of a battle with the Bush administration. I want us to win; I would like to see us with as strong candidates as possible. I would like to make our representatives in the Congress live up to the mandate of the last election. I would like them to do more—yes, OK. Put impeachment on the table. Let’s pressure them to do that, I’m not saying give up the fight. But goddamit, there’s a fight to be waged.
Nader: This is an aside. John Kerry wanted to send more troops to Iraq, he wanted victory, and he said in the first debate, “We wouldn’t have pulled out of Fallujah.” Two months later, Bush went into Fallujah, massive slaughter, which will someday be documented much more than it is now, of civilians. And he had the Democrat leaders give cover. They’re always giving cover for the Republicans. But you don’t want to waste this discussion as a decoy. We’re both decoying. The central issue is who is planning the future of our country. Systemically, year after year, day after day. Major corporations, and you have some nice corporate like Patagonia, Seventh Generation and Ben & Jerry’s, and so on. You know, I’m always talking about these groups because the way to improve the criticism of the big guys. But these corporations are planning our political future; they’re planning our electoral future. They plan our educational future. Corporatizing universities, Channel One and the lower grades. They’re planning our environmental future. They can get away with that. Fossil fuel, coal, more and more support on that, including more than a few Democrats. They’re planning our military budget and foreign policy future. They’re planning our genetic future, for heaven’s sake. They’ve patented thousands of human gene sequences. They’re planning everything. And Washington is corporate occupied territory. I keep emphasizing that if you have two or three passionate issues, you’re going to like the Democrats more than they deserve. If you like Social Security, although there are some Democrats that were fooling around with, you know, partial private funds and so forth, and investments. But if you like Social Security and pro-choice, if you like gay and lesbian rights, they look pretty good, the Democrats. If you are working on 30 or 40 major issues, the span from the destruction of any kind of rational priority of our federal budget due to the military drain and corporate welfare, if you have 30 to 40 issues like that, and you span department and agency after department agency, the similarities tower over the dwindling real differences that the Democrats are willing to go to the mat on. Were the Democrats willing to go to the mat against [Justices] Alito and Roberts? Well, they weren’t—they had far more power to stop them then they used, and it was pretty pathetic to watch the inevitability of the [John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito nominations. So, again, if we start with subordination of corporate power to the sovereignty of the people, with all that that means in terms of policy, like, you do not live in a society that tells you “pay or die” if you can’t afford health care. Eighteen thousand Americans die, every year, according to the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine. That’s six 9/11s. No talk about that. Sixty-five thousand people die from air pollution, EPA figures. Over 100,000 die from medical malpractice in hospitals. Harvard School of Public Health. All these forms of violence are shoved aside because of the terrorist focus in Iraq; that’s a form of violence. And 9/11 is a form of violence. But far more people are being killed by preventable conditions, that’s the key. Whether it’s terror, or whether it’s criminal activity by a coal mine, or whatever. Preventable conditions. And we’re not paying attention to it. And I’ve been to the Democrats again and again. Why aren’t you doing something about all these massive fatalities? And they’re sitting there, even when they control the Congress; the Democratic Party today is not the Democratic Party of the 1960s and the 1970s. There is a convergence, or realignment, and the realignment is that both parties are getting worse every four years, and if we are so taken by the least-worst option, and we become a least-worst voter, we’re telling the least-worst party, the Democrats, that they can take us for granted and if they can take us for granted, they’re going to take us. And that’s the mistake that progressives are making. It is so freaked out by the Republicans that if they make no functional demands on the Democrats in an election year. The anti-war people virtually shut down the anti-war movement except a few demonstrations. They didn’t want to embarrass Kerry; you notice how many rallies there were in ‘03 and how few there were in ‘04? And I’ll end with this and let you have your say. But we analyzed 19 pro-Kerry Web sites in 2004. On their Web site, these were labor, women’s rights, poverty, consumer, civil rights, etc. Not one of those 19 was making demands on Kerry. Now why? Well, they didn’t want to embarrass him, and let him have his own campaign, and you know ... whatever. They didn’t want to make the demands. Frederick Douglass, a great abolitionist, in the pre-Civil War period, once said, “Power can seize nothing without a demand.” And if you didn’t make Kerry better, you ended up making Kerry worse. You ended up with the Kerry that waffled, that was ambiguous, that didn’t have bright lines that people liked between two major candidates, himself and George W. Bush. Now, if you’re going to go for the least worst, if you’re going to be practical, if you can realize the system is rigged against third parties, then it is incumbent upon all liberals and progressives to condition their support for these candidates based on the impassioned commitments that they have to a certain course of justice that they think that the Democratic nominee is not pursuing. Look at the ravaging of our inner cities by merchant crime, going all the way to Wall Street: predatory lending, enormous interest rates on payday loans, and so forth. And you’ll see that except for Edwards, and he’s not as specific as he should be on this, but they’re not making this an issue. We’re talking about tens of millions of people who are constantly ravaged in their housing, in the rip-offs that are going on, and dirty food products that are going into the ghettos, ripping off their meager savings, etc. And not having municipal services go into their communities, because they are into more affluent communities, and there’s no position here by the Democrats. So what I’m left with is making demands on them; if you want to vote for them, make demands for them. Don’t give them a free ride, because they will take you for granted.
Scheer: You know, first of all, I don’t even know who these Democrats are that you’re talking about. There seems to be—John Kerry, for instance. I remember Kerry as a guy who did more on the fighting the Vietnam War than either of us. And we were both around. I don’t recall that he was insensitive to that issue.
Nader: Did I say that?
Nader: What are you going back there for?
Scheer: I’m going to finish now without being interrupted. I think that there’s a demonization that goes on here that anybody who gets elected to the office, if they’re a Democrat they stop being a complex human being, they stop having a conscience, and that’s not the way I see Teddy Kennedy. I see Teddy Kennedy as an incredible person who has fought the good fight on a number of these issues that you’ve mentioned, certainly the rights of labor, consistently. Immigrant rights, right down the line. A lot of—Ed Markey, has fought these issues year after year. Henry Waxman, who I mentioned. There’s a long list of these people; they work these issues, they don’t become the enemy because they get elected as Democrats. They don’t become saints because they run as Green candidates. We are dealing with people out there, some of who have been chosen who try to be elected representatives who do a damn good job. They don’t automatically sell out. I think it matters that Nancy Pelosi when she got in did not put Jane Harman when she get into a committee. Jane Harman was owned by the defense industry; you mentioned the defense industry. She’s the one who fought for the stealth bomber and fighter. Nancy Pelosi pointedly would not appoint her to be chair of the committee. Even though the rules would have suggested that. Dennis Kucinich did get a committee appointment chairmanship. Henry Waxman has one of the most important appointments. I know Nancy Pelosi for many years; I consider her an admirable person. I think she is fighting the good fight; I can disagree with her when she doesn’t push this issue or that issue. I’m not the majority. I’m not trying to herd those cats. I’m not trying to develop a coalition. I’m not retrying to get the Senate to have a majority take a position. It’s a different obligation than being a columnist. Or being an agitator, one kind of another, which we both are. Fine, I’m not for lessening the pressure, but I will not demonize any one who manages to get elected, win office, you know. [Rep.] Barbara Lee, as I mentioned before, she did vote against the war, in fact, in one point, she cast the only courageous vote. I think she served—take Barbara Boxer. One of my senators; I’m not proud as my other senator. But I’m thrilled that I have a Democratic senator who has been as consistent as Barbara Boxer on the issues that I care about. So what I’m trying to suggest is there’s room to operate in this electoral system within the two-party system which we are saddled with—it’s not going to change anytime in our lifetime, or anyone else on the boat for that matter. And I think we have to talk about how we can work with it. And all I’m trying to suggest, without getting too personal, is that we don’t need a third Nader campaign, we don’t need another third-party campaign, we have to get serious about figuring out which candidates we want to support, how to put pressure on those who are not playing a good role. How to unify behind those that have a chance and can advance an agenda. Because we are heading into an electoral season which is incredible important to the future of this country. A lot is at stake. Now I do want to address this corporate question. I think there are splits within these corporate circles. I think, for instance, Microsoft, which doesn’t make that much money off the defense industry. Gates’ father has been, along with [Warren] Buffett, two of the major voices arguing in favor of the inheritance tax. I think if you look at the work of the Gates Foundation it has done a lot to try to deal with some of the impact of medical questions and environmental questions that you are talking about. There are capitalists who favor trade and believe in it. And will even accept some conditions on it who recognize that a policy of old-fashioned imperialism and militarism makes it more difficult for them to do business around the world. In fact, what I argue is that the ideological bent of the neocons and the Bush administration is a betrayal of capitalism. I think it’s a betrayal of rational corporate activity. These people are following a model which the Germans, the French, the Spanish and the English all abandoned because it was not cost-effective. It is not cost-effective to try to control the oil wells in Iraq and have to protect the pipelines. The Chinese under communist leadership are being far more effective as capitalists signing up long-term contracts. There are splits in these ruling circles, there is enlightened capitalism, difficult as it need be to accept, and there’s primitive capitalism. Enron, Halliburton are primitive capitalism. They are taking us down a very dangerous road, and they happened to control the White House. There are more rational voices in the corporate sector. So I don’t see this as “OK, move to socialism.” It’s not going to happen. What we have to talk about is how can we put adults back in watching the store. How can we make this more rational? How can we prevent this country from wasting its treasure, wasting its young people, and getting all of the world pissed off with us, hating our country? That’s not good for capitalism, that’s not good for the country, not good for security. It may not be radical to say this, but if we had an Eisenhower running, whether he was a Democrat or Republican, I would be pretty excited right now. And let me say something else. I don’t agree that the Democratic Party is worse than it was in the ‘60s. I think it is considerably better. I think the Democratic Party learned the lessons, many during the Vietnam War, including Bill Clinton, can I say. Bill Clinton, for all of his failings, did not invade Iraq. He didn’t. And Bill Clinton did not appoint Alito to the Supreme Court. You ducked the Supreme Court question, but, rather, consistently tonight. You can blame the Democrats for not having [fought] hard enough, and so forth. But if we had a Democratic president, if Gore had won, we wouldn’t have had to face these choices.
Nader: So why don’t we?
Scheer: I’ll tell you why. Because it shouldn’t have even been that close. People should have been more aware of how dangerous the Republicans were at that time. And you did not play a good role when you said that their similarities outweighed their differences; you were deceiving the American public.
Nader: First of all, you’re a genius at making our agreements appear like disagreements. How many times have I told you that there’s a progressive wing to the party; I named some of the same ones, and you keep going over the same ground, all the time. The point is, it is quite clear that the Democrats should have been landsliding the Republicans every two years, every four years, and the reasons why they’re not are reasons that liberals and progressives have not faced up to. And that is they have told the nominees that there’s nowhere for them to go; therefore, they can be taken for granted. That’s why Kerry thought he had the anti-war vote in 2004, because anti-war, many of the anti-war people conveyed one way or the other, that there was nowhere for them to go. So what happened? What happened is that Kerry got a nice editorial in the Wall Street Journal, praising him for his hawkish position on Iraq in the first debate, etc. Let’s just look at it from a tug-of-war point of view. You have the liberals and progressives here and they have filled my ear over the years with their criticisms of the Democrats. Constantly. They would goad me to run on a third-party platform in the ‘70s and ‘80s and so forth. And you have the liberals and progressives here, you have the Democratic nominees here, and you have the corporate 24/7 lobbyists here and their power. They are pulling on both Republican and Democrats to get in there more and more and more in their grasp. Now, if the liberals and progressives have this, “Gee, the Democrats have done good things, and they’re not all that bad, and don’t challenge from the outside, and push them the way the Anti-Slavery Party did, and the way the Women’s Right to Vote Party did, and the Labor Party, and the People’s Party in the 19th century.” I hope you’re glad that some voters didn’t go for the least worst between the Whigs and the Democrats on the issue of slavery and voted for the Anti-Slavery Party or the Women’s Right to Vote Party. You’ve got all these liberals and progressives; they’re letting it happen. They have watched while the corporate Democrats have taken control of this party over the years. They have let it slide more and more toward the corporate positions of the Democrats, department by department and agency by agency. If you want to pursue what you want to pursue, Robert, you have to hold the liberal and progressive wing of the party up to higher standards. They’ve got to be tougher, because if they are constantly freaked out by how bad the Republicans are, therefore don’t criticize the nominee, don’t make the demands of the nominee of a condition of support in the Democratic Party, every four years both parties will get worse. The least-worst voting mentality has no endgame. There is no endgame because there is no breaking point, because forever and ever in the future, one party will not be as a bad as the other party. But both of them become worse every four years unless you change that level of urgency. Now that shouldn’t upset you.
Scheer: That doesn’t upset me at all, Ralph, and you know this is not an accurate representation of my view. I’m certainly for criticizing Democrats; I hope you’ve read some of my columns over the years. I wrote books on this. As I said before, I was probably Clinton’s strongest critic on the Financial Services Modernization Act, on telecommunications.
Nader: I’m not talking about you.
Scheer: Well, second, I don’t represent a group that thinks you never criticize Democrats, and I’m not opposed to criticizing even progressive Democrats. And I do it all the time. That’s our role. That’s our job. We’re talking about something different, and you don’t want to talk about it. Which is whether we should have a third-party candidacy whether it is useful. Whether it is a pox on both their houses, or, as I have suggested, for better or for worse, I am suggesting that there’s room to operate, there’s opportunity here to organize, short of a third party. That there are good candidates and bad candidates within the Democratic Party. There are primaries that we can get behind these candidates. For example the deal breaker, I think people in this room should make it very clear that they would not accept Hillary Clinton as a candidate if she continues to her current position supporting the war. I have written columns saying that. I have said, I’m on the record as saying, I will not vote for Hillary Clinton if she has the position that she has now. I have said it. I’ll even vote for Ralph Nader, I’ll even write in Ralph Nader, if Hillary Clinton is the candidate and she still takes the current position on the war. But that’s difference from saying there isn’t room to organize, to operate, that there are not good candidates out there are. And I think we need, and I think that as far as The Nation, I started by talking about the Weekly Standard publications of that sort, I think they would have destroyed their own—National Review, what have you. They would have destroyed their own strength by attacking the Republican Party in the way that people around The Nation consistently attack the Democratic Party. That doesn’t mean they silenced their critics. They state their case. But they say, “OK, these are the people we are trying to work with and organize” and so forth. The Washington Times, I know I’m on a [radio] show called “Left, Right and Center.” The editor of the [Washington Times] editorial page is the right. He has his criticisms of the Bush administration, but he hasn’t broken with it. He’s trying to work with these people. That’s his party. My view is that we, on the left, have got to stop playing at being effective and critical and so forth, and recognize the seriousness of the moment. Seriousness of the moment. And that we have some choices here. This election matters. So instead of saying, a pox on both their houses, which is basically what your argument is that the similarities tower over the differences. No, they don’t. So if it’s Edwards who excites you, or Obama, or Kucinich, get out and work for them. Make this primary matter. But that’s where political organizing and activity has to take place in the next year and a half. And people should not sit on their hands and take them out and applaud when they hear the most radical statement.
Nader: OK, before we go to the audience, let me just offer a defense of third parties. In American history they were the first ones who put forth the great social justice movements. We know that in the 19th century; we know that with Eugene Debbs, Norman Thomas, etc. I don’t believe in a two-party elected dictatorship. I don’t believe in a two-party duopoly. I don’t believe in a two-party that controls a gateway to tens of millions of people by controlling a debate commission of their own creation. I believe in a multiparty, competitive democracy. That’s the only way we are going to get new ideas to get an airing. That’s the only way we are going to get new agendas to get an airing. That’s the only way we are going to get new human energies coming in. We have a system where it’s a one-party system for most congressional districts due to gerrymandering. Ninety-three percent of all House districts are Democratic or Republican. It’s not a contest. The left people are left with one candidate, the incumbent. It’s getting worse and worse and worse in that way as they carve up the districts depending on who controls the state government, Democrats or Republicans. I find it appalling that someone as promising as Obama is talking about leaving all options on the table against Iran. We know what that code word meant. He just said that we should pursue these terrorists right into Pakistan if [Pervez] Musharraf doesn’t do it; the U.S. military will do it. Doe he have any idea of the consequences of that? To even Bush’s buddy Musharraf in terms of a revolutionary move? And this is Obama. And Edwards? What’s Edwards got to say about the Palestinian/Israeli issue? Has he put forth the kind of constructive program that over half of the Israelis and Palestinians want in a bold way? He hasn’t done that. He hasn’t challenged the military budget. Have you heard Hillary Clinton or Obama or Edwards or Richardson challenge the military budget which is eating the heart out of the necessities of the American people by taking huge middle-class tax dollars and shoveling them into the arms industry and into the corporate welfare kings and etc.? Let’s have a little higher expectation level here, and a higher urgency level. Everything that Robert said should be done, but it’s not enough. I played this game 20 years. The least-worst game. Reagan, [Jimmy] Carter—that was a choice. But then I went for Mondale, [Michael] Dukakis, on and on, the least worst. They shut us down. They shut all these citizen groups down. We couldn’t get hearings from the Democrats when they controlled Congress. We couldn’t get agency petitions on serious health and safety matters like hazardous drugs and contaminated food, and unsafe cars. They shut down the government. On citizen groups all over Washington. Not just ours. At what point is your breaking point? That’s the key. And to have a breaking point transform itself into an alternative option so people are sick of the two parties, and sick of waiting and waiting, can go and voice themselves on another part of the ballot? What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a competitive democracy? What’s wrong with freedom of speech inside the electoral arena—like The Nation. They love my freedom of speech outside the electoral arena when I write an article or I make a speech. But when I went inside the electoral arena and exercised my right for free speech and assembly, etc. They had a full-page editorial, “Don’t run.” Let me tell you something, I will never say to anybody “Don’t run” any more than I would say to anybody “Don’t speak.” I would say, “If you run I would oppose you; if you run I don’t think it’s a wise idea.” When we opposed [Joe] Lieberman in the [Ned] Lamont race in Connecticut, and it looked like Lamont was going to beat him in the primary, a reporter calls me up and says, “Are you going to tell Lieberman not to run as an independent? You’ve been opposed to him?” I said, “I would never tell Lieberman not to run as an independent. I would say he can run however he wants and whatever way he wants and I’ll oppose him. But I would never say don’t run.” There’s a political bigotry operating here that represents itself in these terrible state ballot acts, obstruction laws that are so obstructive in so many ways that even a [Michael] Bloomberg can get on the Oregon ballot and meet all the Republicans, and the secretary of state of Oregon can change the rules after the deadline and knock him off the ballot. This is exactly what happened to the Nader/[Peter Miguel] Camejo campaign and it was upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. This is what’s going on. So, let’s have multiple strategies. You have one strategy. To get to where you want the country to go. But, let’s have multiple strategies. It isn’t that the Democrats have been right on their strategies; they keep losing. They lose to Gingrich. They lose the House. They lose the Senate. To the most craven Republicans who have ever crawled up Capitol Hill. That requires introspection; that requires an internal reevaluation, and I’m sorry we don’t, let’s go to the floor. I mean, is it OK to go to the audience?
Nader: Why did the Democrats get IRV? Right? Who knows IRV? Instant-runoff voting. So if people voted for me in 2000, their second was Gore, and their third was whoever. And none of the major candidates got a majority win, IRV, instant-runoff voting, triggers that voter for Gore. So, if they want to get rid of the third-party harassment, oh boy, harassment, they can go with IRV. But they haven’t. Only Howard Dean supports IRV.
Questioner: You’re talking about needing to change things. I think that now, if we wanted to change things right now, if the way things are as dangerous, say, as they are because the Republicans got into power the way they did, then it would be more divisive than not, and I think that this is not the time to look for a third party or another way because we need as may people behind us in order to change the country the way it needs to be changed now. And I think that more, there are enough Republicans now who are against the state of affairs now, that they can vote for, sorry, I’m very nervous, I don’t speak very much, but I feel very strongly for this particular thing. And I think we need to make sure that we do everything to get rid of the Republicans and rid of all the horrible things. And then, when we get in, then we can change the things that need changing.
Nader: But it hasn’t been working for the Democrats. If you don’t push the Democrats to take more progressive positions, they are not going to get the number of votes. It may surprise some of you that the Democratic exit poling in 2000 had 25 percent of the Nader/[Winona] LaDuke votes would have gone to Bush - 40 percent to Gore. And the rest would have stayed home. And if the Democrats would have picked up on some of the rather traditional positions of the Green Party, like full Medicare and living wage, they would have won the election. And as a matter of fact, I think Gore did win the election. I was speaking to him some time ago and he doesn’t get into this blame/spoiler bet. He believes, as I do, and probably you do, Bob, that he won it in Florida, and that it was stolen from him from Tallahassee to the Supreme Court before, during and after Election Day. But, having said that, the studies on the dynamics before Election Day showed that every time Gore went out after the insurance, drug and oil companies, his polls went up a bit. And it also showed that had Nader/LaDuke not been in the campaign, Gore would have gotten fewer votes. Does that sound counterintuitive? Let me refer you to professor Solon Simmons’ analysis. It’s on our Web site, which we have kept open for exactly this purpose. VoteNader.org. And you will see the analysis. It was not conducted on Election Day. It’s the dynamics between the candidates. Just to give you a hypothetical. Let’s say, Democrats picked up living wage and got 50,000 more votes in Florida but they still lost by 527. But they picked it up from the Greens. Do you blame the Greens for the fact that they still lost by 527 because the Greens got 90,000 votes, only 15 percent of which were net Gore votes? I mean—it just doesn’t work that way.
Scheer: Since you’ve made—. I don’t want this to be all about whether Ralph should run or not. But I do think that there is something that we can agree on. I think the Democrats would be stronger if they took stronger positions on these issues. I have no doubt that Kerry lost the election when that question was posed, knowing what you know now, would you have been against the war? When he gave the wrong answer instead of saying “Heck no, you lied to the Senate. You lied to the American people. You’re a liar. And of course I wouldn’t have voted for it.” He would have won the election. So I agree with Ralph that the Democrats have a better chance of doing what this woman asked that they defeat the GOP if they take a principled position on these questions. I certainly agree with that. And I don’t think that a candidate, whether it’s Hillary or anyone else, who waffles on the war at this late date, can win the election. I don’t believe that. And so I do think that it’s not a question that I’ve asked some of the Democrats to be purists; it’s saying that the reason you won in the midterm election is because people thought you would be stronger on these issues. And so clearly the message we ought to be sending to these candidates: We will reject you because the American people will reject you if you don’t come out clearly on the key issues of the war, torture, and I can go down the list.
Questioner: Bob, you had spoken about your concern about this cabal in Washington. And right now, let’s take a look at what this cabal is doing. They’re rattling the saber about war on Iran. They’re trying to manufacture consent for another war. And what are the Democrats doing? They’re making the same mistake that they did with the war on Iraq. They’re going along with it. You have Hillary Clinton, you have Obama, you have Edwards, all saying that all options are on the table. When that military is talking about using military weapons— military bunker busters—this is really dangerous. As progressives, we’re going to vote for one of these Democrats who will make another war possible? I can’t see it.
Scheer: By the way, Obama has been criticized here. I thought Obama opened up some important distance between himself and Hillary when he said that he would negotiate within the whole list of people. And that certainly suggested to me the right way to go. I think to me he has been quite strong of the war recently. Edwards has been, I think, very clear. Kucinich, who doesn’t get mentioned here a lot, but if we want a protest person to raise the issues now, Kucinich has been unequivocal on these issues and is certainly deserving of our support. Let me just say something about Kucinich as an example. Kucinich was the mayor of Cleveland and he got defeated because the corporations went after him on public power. He wouldn’t sell the municipal public power plant. And the only reason why he came back into politics—I happened to interview him and all that, and I have known him ever since—the only reason why he got back in is because he was shown to be right. The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer said that. Now Dennis came in and everybody thinks Dennis represents Greenwich Village or something. Dennis represents a district that has sent Martin Hoke to Congress, and he was Newt Gingrich’s right-hand guy. And Dennis has made himself credible in getting 70-75 percent of the vote in a district that had sent this very conservative guy [Hoke] to Congress. So Dennis is an example of a guy who may not play well on television and so forth, but Dennis is an example of a guy who can go out and talk to ordinary Americans and present a pro-peace, pro-human rights position. I think that there are Democratic models, and I think Barbara Boxer’s victory—and people didn’t notice it. Barbara Boxer won again in California; in fact she was Red-baited, peace-baited, everything else, she stuck to her guns, she did not cave in. And she won. Handsomely. So I think that the answer to your question is, yes, we should demand to know why Democratic candidates sound like war candidates. And if they continue to do that, we don’t support them. That should be made very clear. Just as the right-wing has made very clear in their party that they will not support people who break with them on their key issues. They will not support people who are pro-choice, for example. Which is their right. So I think that a deal breaker for Democrats right now is you have to be against imperialism as evidenced by the Iraq war and ending it. You have to be for a living wage, and substantially raising the minimum wage. You have to be for incorporated human rights and labor rights and environmental concerns into international trade negotiations. You have to be for extending health care to something approximating single-payer health care. So I think you can have a bill of rights for Democrats that people in this room should adhere to and demand that a candidate accords to. And if, in fact, they don’t accord to that, you can vote against them, or write in Nader on the next election. It is your right, and it is, in fact, the smart thing to do. All I’m saying is we have a lot of room to operate in now. We have some good candidates, and we should be putting pressure on them to be better.
Questioner: I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 because I lived in New York. If I had lived in New Jersey I would have not, because it was closer. But the problem being, of course, is the Electoral College. Which makes instant run-off elections impossible unless the Electoral College is eliminated. We do not have a third-party system that allows for third parties. It would be great if we did, so we could have what we had in France last week, we had run-offs. So third parties could express their views and get heard. But, without that, the pragmatic seems to be to only ways to find a platform within the Democratic Party and make it a non-lobbying party—less of a non-lobbying party. And it seems that you could, right now, be one of those nine candidates right now vying for the Democratic combination, and it would offer a traditional platform for you.
Scheer: There was a question to you, Ralph.
Nader: Again, it’s what Greg Kafoury said in the movie “An Unreasonable Man,” you don’t go past February, if you do the primaries. Besides, the kind of compromises that they force people to make, including Dennis Kucinich, say, they forced him to make, totally intolerable to anyone who believes in freedom of the mind. They told Dennis to shut up, put his hand up in favor of Kerry, and they wouldn’t give him a comma change on the Democratic platform. He wanted certain things that were any old Democratic Party would have accepted when they were developing the Democratic platform in 2004. And they gave him nothing. He was a loyal Democrat; went through all the rules in the primaries. They gave him nothing. Not even an antipoverty platform. So, that’s part from other reasons. Go ahead.
Nader: See what happens when you have a little disagreement, it’s wonderful.
Questioner: My name is Len Lebransky, Milwaukee, Wis. My remarks are directed to Ralph Nader. There are writings so I can be more concise. Ralph, you played a very good role as a social critic. But your candidacy in 2000 brought us a mean-spirited idiot for president. A lunatic for vice president, who is also a fascist, and the Iraq war, and a Supreme Court that is the worst in our history.
Nader: I’ll repeat it. Go ahead.
Nader: OK. Basically he thinks that our campaign in 2000 brought all of the horrors of the Bush administration. That’s roughly the summary. And, you know, let me go through it again and again. There’s nothing that has kept the Democratic Party from picking up living wage, full Medicare, etc. and landsliding Bush. No. 2—the Democratic Party stopped criticizing Bush’s record in Texas after April 2000. Just like the Democratic Party convention told every speaker not to criticize President Bush for a week in 2004, they had the nation’s media on them and they didn’t criticize President Bush. And then when the Republicans met in New York, they ripped the hell out of Kerry. So that’s one. Why don’t you ask why the Democrats don’t pick up old-fashioned Democratic issues that used to beat the Republicans again and again as FDR and Harry Truman, etc., did. No. 2, why don’t you spend a little time that the thieves stole the election from Al Gore. And No. 3, just look at the analysis of how the pressure to push Gore to take a few more progressive positions, at least rhetorically, got them more votes than they would have got otherwise. Let me put it again. I have seen no scholarly analysis of the dynamics between Republican, Democrat, and Green Party in 2000 that concludes that we cost a net number of votes for Gore. No analysis. All the analyses has been the other way. Check out these studies, Solomon Simmons and others. There was even an AP poll, I’m told, two days after the election that eliminated the Nader/LaDuke ticket and had it between Bush and Gore, and Bush won. So, you just can’t look at the numbers at Election Day. You got to look before, during and after Election Day on how this enormously elaborate strategy by the Republicans stole the election from the Democrats. So focus on the thieves, focus on the Electoral College, push for instant runoff voting, and you’ve got a much more fertile, diverse and competitive democracy.
Scheer: So I’m told we have to leave the room, but I just want to throw me two cents in here and end on a constructive note. Repeat what I said before. Ralph Nader has been one of the great citizens in this country’s history. And I don’t think he cost Gore or Kerry the election. I agree with that analysis, I think that they shot themselves in the foot. And I think they should have run a more vigorous, progressive campaign. In Gore’s case, no one has mentioned it, but he distanced himself from Clinton, who was enormously popular, and he failed to carry his own home state. And if you can’t carry your own home state, you haven’t done something right in that connection. So I agree with Ralph that he should not be held responsible for the state of the country, in any negative way. I think he has been an incredibly useful person, I’m not being condescending here—this is heartfelt. I think he’s a great person. And I do think he has the right to run. ...
Zuade Kaufman / Truthdig (left) and Carolyn Kaster / AP photo