Ralph Nader has a genius for controversy. The man who made his reputation by badgering corporations on safety issues and consumer rights, and caused the Democrats heartburn by "stealing" votes from Al Gore in 2000, is at the center of another snarling fight -- this time over ballot access for his third presidential campaign. Once again Nader sees himself as the innocent victim of powerful forces, rather than the instigator of trouble.
In an e-mail message and follow-up phone interview from Alaska, where he was campaigning earlier this week, Nader said that "the Democratic and Republican parties are maliciously trying to entangle our campaign with their own desperate maneuvers. We want them to get off our back, leave us alone . . . and let us compete in an already rigged two-party system."
What triggered this blast from the Nader trumpet was the struggle over his effort to get his name on the Michigan presidential ballot. In 2000 he won 84,165 votes in Michigan, a 2 percent share that was not enough to tip the state to President Bush, who fell 217,000 votes short of Gore.
But hope springs eternal among the Republicans, so the state GOP announced last week that it had graciously collected 43,000 signatures to place Nader's name on the ballot as an independent. Nader had planned to run in Michigan as the candidate of the old Reform Party -- once the vehicle for Ross Perot and more recently the home of Pat Buchanan. But Michigan's Republican secretary of state said she could not certify him for the ballot until a dispute between rival factions, both claiming the Reform Party franchise for Michigan, is resolved.
Nader said that he had suspended his own signature gathering because he expected to be the Reform candidate and that he would accept help from Republicans rather than risk missing the Michigan campaign. Democrats promptly accused him of being a pawn for the Bush campaign and said that they would battle to keep him off the Michigan ballot.
When I asked Nader if he had any qualms about accepting this boost from the GOP, he said, "Ordinarily, I would reject such help," but not after what the Democrats had done to him in Arizona -- and what they are trying to do elsewhere.
In Arizona, carried by Bush last time but expected to be a battleground this year, the Democrats challenged Nader's ballot petitions, and his campaign supporters conceded, saying the expense of a court fight was more than they could afford. Nader says he was a victim of technicalities -- among them the omission of a county name on one sheet of signatures -- and blamed the whole thing on Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who has made no secret of his desire to keep Nader out of the race.
"There is a propensity for whining, carping and dirty tricks on the Democratic side that exceeds that of Republicans," Nader told me.
But how can the longtime liberal icon rationalize being the successor to right-winger Buchanan on the Reform Party ticket? "It's almost a pro forma thing," he said. "There was not a single quid pro quo." Besides, he said, "we agree on 80 percent of the issues," including the need to curb corporate power and end the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.
The reality, of course, is that once Nader split with the Green Party, whose candidate he was in both 1996 and 2000, he had to take his support wherever he could find it. He has struggled to find enough volunteers and to raise enough money to meet the filing requirements in state after state.
But there's also no question that the Democrats have set out to make life as difficult as possible for him. Even though Nader denies it, they believe that a high percentage of the votes he gets will come right out of John Kerry's hide. And they know that in 2000, when Gore lost Florida by an official 537 votes, Nader drew off more than 97,000. So the Democrats are for restricting democracy this year.
When it comes to hypocrisy, however, the prize has to go to the Republicans. The only reason Nader is a threat to Kerry, Michigan GOP spokesman Matt Davis told me, is that his candidacy "browns one side of Kerry's waffles. Having Nader there clarifies the issues that Kerry tries to straddle, whether it be gay marriage or outsourcing of jobs."
And that's why the Republicans collected signatures for Nader, I asked. "The motivation for our effort is to clarify the issues," he said.
Won't it help President Bush? "Yes, but it will really help Michigan voters, and that is why we did it," Davis said.
Could have fooled me.