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24 Feb 2008 19:25
The presidential forays of Ralph Nader, the United States’s leading consumer advocate who took on the powerful auto industry in the 1960s, have turned him into one of the most divisive figures in US politics.
His name alone is enough to send even the most mild-mannered Democrats into paroxysms of rage, still smarting from their defeat in 2000 when George Bush won the election by beating Al Gore in Florida by just 537 votes.
Standing as a Green party candidate, Nader took about 97 000 votes in the Sunshine State, angering Democrats who believed he had siphoned off key ballots from Gore.
Already on Sunday reaction was swift among Democrats to the news that Nader had thrown his hat into the ring to stand in the November election in his fifth tilt at the White House.
“We’re saddened but not surprised by Ralph Nader’s announcement,” said John Pearce, director of the website campaign RalphDontRun.com, which is backing Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.
“We continue to strongly believe that any third-party candidacy in the US two-party system has the inevitable effect of helping elect those most hostile to one’s agenda. In this case, that means helping elect Republicans.
We believe that would perpetuate a disaster for our country.”
Over the decades Nader has forged a reputation for tenacity and stubbornness in the face of overwhelming odds, and continues to push his message of working on behalf of the people against big corporate interests.
“There’s just too much power and wealth in too few hands, increasingly giant corporation hands that have no allegiance to our country or our communities other than to control them or to abandon them,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday as he announced he was running.
With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama still battling it out for the nomination, Democrats are likely to be seething at the news of a Nader distraction at this stage.
Nader denied, though, he was playing a spoiler role in the hard-fought campaign, saying that if the Democrats cannot win by a “landslide” this year, “they should just close down”.
Nader, who turns 74 on Wednesday, has long been a tough champion of consumer rights in the US. Unsafe at Any Speed. The book and his hard-headed investigations led to the country’s first car safety laws and he is credited with making seatbelts mandatory here.
After winning a lawsuit against General Motors, Nader ploughed the money into his consumer rights campaign.
In recent years, he has turned his sights on the country’s rigid two-party political system, taking on the White House to present voters with an alternative to the endless Democratic-Republican duet.
“One of our priorities is civil liberties and the candidates’ right to get on the ballot,” Nader said. “When 98% of people voted for the president in the Soviet Union, whose name was the only one on the ballot, everybody laughed. But in 90% of votes for the House of Representatives there is essentially only one candidate.”
Obama acknowledged on Sunday Nader was “a singular figure in American politics” and said the consumer advocate had reached out to his campaign. But he added: “My sense is that Mr Nader is somebody who, if you don’t listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks they’re not substantive.
“In many ways he is a heroic figure and I don’t mean to diminish him. But I do think there is a sense now that if somebody is not healing to the Ralph Nader agenda, that you must be lacking in some way.”
But Nader is hoping that his message—pressing for a fair living wage, for union rights, for healthcare for all and for an end to corporate fraud and bloated government spending—could find resonance.
Born on February 27 1934 in Winsted, Connecticut, the son of Lebanese immigrants, Nader studied at the universities of Princeton and Harvard before moving to Washington, where he lives in a modest apartment. He has never married.—Sapa-AFP
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