Last year, Ken Cook, co-founder and president of the Environmental Working Group, received a letter from Ralph Nader asking his nonprofit organization to join with him in lobbying Congress on the pending Farm Bill. (Nader was advocating for an increase in the domestic production of hemp.) Cook had known Nader for more than 35 years and had collaborated with him on issues including air quality and pesticide use during the 1980s and '90s. At the bottom of the typed letter, Nader added a handwritten note: "Ken, let's work on this." Cook read the letter, then threw it in the trash.
"I didn't have any interest in working with Ralph Nader on something like that. It would be worse than worthless," Cook recalls. "He doesn't have any credibility or access to people we already have access to. In the public-interest community, he presumes to speak for progressives, and we're left behind cleaning up the shit."
It wasn't long ago that Nader still commanded broad support among the Democratic left. In 2000, Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon headlined a sold-out Nader rally at Madison Square Garden supporting his presidential campaign. Progressive groups embraced him, and he was a sought-after speaker on college campuses.
Al Gore's loss in 2000--and Nader's perceived role as a spoiler by angry Democrats--changed everything. Today, there seems to be an inverse relationship between Nader's political ambitions and his profile as a consumer advocate. Many of the very groups Nader founded, including Public Citizen and the Center for Study of Responsive Law (CSRL), have distanced themselves from his presidential run. Nader personally built the ideological infrastructure of the progressive Washington establishment. But, these days, it's among the Nader faithful that he's least welcome.
"The Democratic Party needs a lot of pushing and prodding and condemning the way Ralph seems to be doing," Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future and a Nader supporter until 2000, says, "but running as an independent candidate for the White House that draws potential voters away is the worst way to do that."
Nader's expulsion to the periphery of progressive circles is striking given that, over almost four decades, he served as the movement's activist core. Since he arrived in Washington in the early '60s, Nader has founded nearly three dozen nonprofit groups championing everything from auto safety to clean air. Progressives, buoyed by his success in winning landmark legislation on consumer issues, wanted him on the frontlines in Washington. Electoral politics seemed like a natural progression, but, initially, Nader shunned them. In the early days, "many of us urged him to be more political," says Hickey.
By the '90s, however, Nader had become increasingly disillusioned, perceiving the Democratic Party as ever more closely aligned with corporate interests. His 2000 campaign was energized by anger over this alliance and by progressives' parallel frustration with Al Gore's reluctance to run hard on liberal causes including the environment and trade. Running as a Green Party candidate, Nader won more than 2.5 million votes.
Then Florida happened, and former donors, angered by Nader's perceived role in Gore's loss and by Nader's pronouncement that there was no fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, stopped contributing to Nader-aligned nonprofits. Public Citizen, the most well-known of the Nader nonprofit consumer groups, lost 20 percent of its members and saw its donations drop by $1 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. Not long after the Florida recount, Public Citizen formally distanced itself from Nader in a fund-raising letter pointing out that the group was wholly independent from Nader's political activities.
This February, the director of the CSRL, John Richard, sent out a memo reminding staffers that the group was not to be involved in Nader's political activities. "Federal law prohibits organizations such as ours from becoming directly or indirectly involved in campaigns of political candidates," Richard wrote. "If anyone calls about Ralph's efforts in the electoral arena, you should clearly say that this office is not involved."
Citizen Works, a nonprofit advocacy group Nader founded in 2001, has been especially weakened by the decline in his public image. At its peak in 2003, Citizen Works had seven full-time staffers advocating for corporate reform in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. But, since then, Citizen Works has collapsed. According to tax filings, Citizen Works ran a $4,800 deficit in 2006. That same year, the group had to vacate its offices in Washington, D.C. and lay off its paid staff. "Due to budgetary constraints, we have recently decided it is more economically efficient to operate over the Internet," Citizen Works's president, Brian Conlon, tells me in an e-mail.
Theresa Amato, Nader's former 2004 campaign manager and a member of Citizen Works's board of directors, chalked up Citizen Works's troubles to the decline in public attention to corporate fraud and dismissed the idea that Nader's toxicity in the eyes of many progressives hurt the group's fund-raising. But Joan Claybrook, who has served as president of Public Citizen since 1982, puts the source of Citizen Works's trouble in Nader's lap: "Citizen Works was dependent on Ralph for fund-raising."
Nader's announcement of his decision to launch another quixotic campaign this year, made in February on "Meet the Press," reignited progressives' fears that he would tip a tightly contested election to the Republicans. "I told him it was a big mistake," Marcus Raskin, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, says. Amy Isaacs, the national director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), tells me that "there is no reason for him to run again, except his own ego."
Nader's third run for the presidency confounds many of his former allies in the progressive movement for its sheer implausibility. "His race this year will get no attention, attract few votes, and have no importance," Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America's Future, says. "It will be little more than an embarrassment to him and others." Even his close friends are disappointed in his decision. "I wish he didn't run," says James Love, the director of the Consumer Project on Technology, who has known Nader for 20 years.
Many of Nader's former allies have greeted the tepid response to Nader's presidential campaign with a mix of schadenfreude and relief. "There's been a few phone calls about the campaign," Claybrook tells me. "We refer those calls over to Ralph at the campaign office. I haven't seen any remarkable reaction, and I hope that I don't."
During Nader's previous run in the 2004 presidential race, Isaacs, of the ADA, set up a website called DamnedBigDifference.org to fight Nader's critiques that the Democrats and Republicans had grown indistinguishable from each other. This time around, she's less worried. "I really do think it's a pity he's spending his time and effort running for president," she says. "I don't have any patience for it." Still, she also says that his prospects for tipping the 2008 election to the Republicans don't alarm her as much these days, and she won't be ramping up her anti-Nader website again unless his candidacy appears potent--surely an unlikely possibility this season.
Gabriel Sheman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
By Gabriel Sherman