Nader Spoils for a Fight

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Political activist Ralph Nader

Sticks and stones may break his bones but words will never hurt him. Ralph Nader has been called a lot of things, not the least of which is spoiler. If Al Gore had won even a few hundred of the 92,000 Florida votes Nader got as the Green Party candidate in 2000 Gore would be President today. This time around Nader is confident his candidacy won't harm the Democratic nominee's chances for success. And, even if he thought it would get in the Democrats' way, he'd still be running. The now-three-time candidate, who announced his 2008 long shot bid for the presidency this past weekend, spoke to TIME's Jay Newton-Small about why he's running this time and what he hopes to get out of it — certainly not the Oval Office.

TIME: Why now?
The signature-gathering season starts first, actually, in Texas in March 5th. In Texas they have a law that if you vote in a Texas primary you cannot sign anybody's petition to run for office. And then it's followed by Arizona, where you can't have anybody from any other state help you run for office because there's a requirement that you have to be a resident of Arizona to collect petitions to run for national office. There should be, by the way, one federal standard to petition to run for federal office; instead there are 50 and sometimes there are even county standards.

Sounds like you might have a hard time getting on the ballot in some states?
Of course... One of the missions of this campaign is to highlight these obstructions, these harassments of petitioners, the arbitrary disqualification of thousands of signatures unlawfully by partisan judges. The small-candidate situation in this country is similar to what minority voting rights 50-60 years ago had to face.

Are you worried about being a spoiler?
Now wait a minute, that is a politically bigoted word. The two parties have spoiled this country. They have spoiled the electoral process; I mean, look at Florida, look at Ohio. They have spoiled the political process, made it very difficult for candidates who can't raise the cash to move in and sustain themselves. They have spoiled our government. They're the spoilers.

But does your candidacy make it more difficult for a Democrat to win the White House?
No, I think they're going to win big. [Republican front-runner Arizona Senator John] McCain, if he is the nominee, given his statements and his position on Iraq... seems to be the candidate of permanent war and intervention. That is just not the popular position today: 70% of the people want out of Iraq, and even a January 2006 Zogby poll of soldiers found that 72% of the soldiers want out of Iraq within six to 12 months. If he continues with that position, draining the treasury, casualties, et cetera, then he won't be able to keep his electoral position at all.

What issues are being ignored?
The whole idea of freedom, diversity, choice inside the electoral arena is a major issue, especially as the overwhelming power of commercial money in our elections has drawn the two parties into more and more of a convergence in corporate power issues. And that's reflected in the issues that draw a bright line between my candidacy and that of McCain, [Illinois Senator Barack] Obama, [and New York Senator Hillary] Clinton. They're all against single payer [government health insurance]. They're all against a media crackdown of corporate crime, power and abuse. They're all against cutting the bloated wasteful military budget that your magazine has disclosed again and again. They're all against changing the course in the Middle East. They're all against open debates and new debate formats. They're all against impeaching [President George W.] Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney for their multiple high crimes and misdemeanors. And they're all against repealing the Taft Hartley anti-union law... One metaphor for [my] campaign could be the tugboat campaign, pushing candidates toward the harbor of the people and away from the harbor of giant corporations.

Which Democrat's platform most resembles your own?
They're very similar on the major issues... In a strange way McCain is actually tougher on military contracting fraud. Do you remember how he almost singlehandedly took on that Boeing $19 billion tanker contract boondoggle? The Democrat candidates aren't talking about military contractor fraud and their records are ones of looking the other way in the Senate. But Obama and Clinton, the reason why they're scrapping on personality issues, 'You used this word, you used that word,' is because they're so similar.

Are you looking beyond 2008?
We're also trying to get people to form Congress watchdog-type groups in state after state and focusing on their representatives and Senators — to take it from the election year '08 and moving it into '09 and to move these platforms, these issues into Congress. To make it a broader redirection of Congress as it truly represents the people has not been tried before... Any kind of social justice proposal has to be premised on a shift of power, and that's what happened with slavery and the women's right to vote and worker standards. It was all shift of power.

A lot of these sentiments are often voiced by Obama.
Talk, as they say, is cheap — what was he doing in the Senate? He couldn't dominate the Senate but he certainly could've laid it out in terms of his more specific proposals. That's what we have to get over with in campaigns. The word is not the deed. Fortunately I have a record full of deeds, so it's not just rhetoric.