The Spring of Ralph Nader's Discontent

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Ralph Nader answers questions during a news conference

In February, a few weeks after George W. Bush took office, liberal leaders gathered to plot strategy at the National Press Club in Washington. John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO was there, along with activists, think-tank bosses, and Congressmen like Barney Frank and Jesse Jackson, Jr. But one longtime mainstay of the American left was missing.

"Where’s Ralph?" asked someone in the audience. The reply from conference organizer Bob Borosage, head of the think tank Campaign for America’s Future, couldn’t have been more cutting. Ralph Nader, Borosage said, has nothing to offer Democrats. After all, Nader’s run for the White House is widely seen as having pulled enough votes from Al Gore to ensure Bush’s victory. Borosage called Nader’s campaign a "fool's errand"—and got heavy applause.

Hearing Raph Nader’s name used to drive corporate lobbyists crazy. Now it is the consumer advocate’s old friends who howl at its mention. Their rage is fired by a paradox: the champion of reform arguably gave birth to Dubya’s age of conservative reaction. That makes Nader a politician with a national following but few allies. He continues to draw sizeable crowds at colleges and conferences across the nation, delivering the populist spiel he ran on as the Green Party candidate. But Democratic Congressmen who worked with him to craft a generation of consumer and environmental law now close their doors to him. And some public interest groups won’t team up with Nader organizations against Bush appointees. "There’s tremendous anger at Ralph every time Bush does something bad," said one Washington-based environmentalist. Even a protege like New York City public advocate Mark Green, a Democratic candidate for mayor, has publicly distanced himself from Nader, since the connection would hurt him with donors and party kingpins who backed Gore.

"Nader went counter to everything we all thought he believed in," says Robert Habush, who as head of the American Trial Lawyers Association in the 1980s forged a decades-long alliance with Nader organizations. Trial lawyers defending victims of corporate negligence have gotten rich from juries educated by three decades of Nader’s consumer crusades. But that relationship has now ended. Bush wants to cap the damages juries can award to plaintiffs, cutting into lawyers' fees—and the lawyers blame Nader. Even though he no longer even sits on their boards, his old organizations are feeling the brunt of the lawyers' anger. Public Citizen, run by Nader proteges, raised $150,000 less than usual in December, much of it attributed to trial lawyer revenge, group officials tell TIME. A New York-based law firm that represents families of airplane crash victims withdrew a $10,000 pledge to the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Nader creation, despite Nader’s lack of direct involvement in the group. Says Lee Kreindler, one of the law firm's name partners, "We don’t want to do anything to advance Nader or anything he’s associated with. There are enough demagogues out there."

Nader’s mere presence at a meeting is enough to drive down attendance. When the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law hosted a conference last month, a dozen of the nation’s top practitioners stayed away because the keynote speaker was Nader. Michael Thorsness, a successful business trial lawyer, wrote a letter explaining his boycott. "Nader is the reason we have a sub-standard president," he explained to the center's director. "His ‘campaign’ was nothing more than an exercise in egomania and I, for one, will have no part of any proceeding in which he is involved."

This isn’t the first time Nader’s been alone. He came to prominence more than 35 years ago as lonely champion of auto safety regulations that Americans now take for granted. Nader concedes some of the attacks are "nasty," but claims not to take them personally. He sniffs that the left has grown soft, and says that people have "desperately low expectation levels from politicians, so they accept the least of the worst."

Despite Bush’s recent assaults on environmental protection, he insists that Gore would have been no better. The president killed tougher standards for arsenic in drinking water, but the Clinton-Gore team only approved them after the election to "set up" Bush, Nader says. And while Gore might have vetoed Congress’ repeal of job safety rules, he claims, the veto would have been overridden by conservatives in Congress. That’s far from certain. What is unequivocal is Nader’s newfound love of electoral politics. In next year’s Congressional elections, he hopes to field a slate of Green candidates in one- fifth of all Congressional races across the country, further complicating life for Democrats—and making old friends hate him all the more.