Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is speaking today in the Michigan Union Ballroom at 1 p.m. To preview his visit, The Michigan Daily interviewed Nader Friday evening.
The Michigan Daily: What are the most pressing issues for college-aged people in this election?
Ralph Nader: The first is the outsourcing of jobs … When any software can be exported, any job can be exported — it’s no longer just blue-collar jobs. So down in Georgia Tech (University), for example, the word is that the freshmen are wondering whether they should go into engineering, because they know that Indian and Chinese engineers can do just as good a job for a tenth of the pay. In fact, there’s a study down there; they’re trying to evaluate the future of engineering education.
The second is the military draft. Already the White House is feeling out the Republicans in the Congress about a post-election military draft. Everybody knows that the troops are very, very spread thin. Forty percent of the U.S. Army is tied up and tied down in Iraq. And 40 percent of the troops in Iraq are guardsmen and reservists. So you can see, that kind of dependency means it’s stretched pretty thin. And they’re either going to have to begin corporatizing more and more of the military operations by privatized contracts, or they’re going to have to bring back the draft.
And the third is rising tuition. And the fourth is the failed war on drugs.
TMD: OK. With state appropriations declining severely over the past few decades, how can public universities get the revenue they need while keeping tuition low?
RN: I think that requires, first of all, a reordering of the federal budget priorities. When you have half of the total federal budget operating expenditures going to the military … you’re going to be starving the education sector. So you’ve got to develop an intermodal argument; you’ve got to say less military, more education. And in Michigan, for example, you have to do the same, because they’re giving a lot of tax escapes. Look at the GM plant in Detroit — a big tax subsidy from the state … You total all that up, you’ve got a lot of tax escapes that are not paying their fair share of revenue. That’s the second.
And the third is — this is very subtle, and someday maybe The Michigan Daily will look into this … When you have large research universities, like the University of Michigan, they start competing for corporate contracts, and they start more laboratories and so on. And there is some indication that there’s a cross-subsidization, that tuition is beginning to pay for these kinds of corporate, joint corporate-university interplay. To find that out, we have to go into the most complex, arcane and secretive budget, which is the university budget. They give you summaries and so on, but they’re very very secretive. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get a look at it.
RN: Yeah, so that’s my answer. I mean, overall what we should do is, public universities should move toward lower and lower tuitions until we have it like high school. Australia and New Zealand, for years — you go to the university in Sydney, I don’t know what it is now, but ten years ago you paid about $150 in student fees, and that was it.
TMD: You’ve said your first priority this year is defeating President Bush, while in 2000 you said there were few major differences between Bush and Gore that Gore was willing to fight on.
TMD: Is Kerry a significantly better candidate than Gore, or is there another reason for your change in priorities?
RN: No, Bush is significantly worse, which is different from saying that Kerry is significantly better. Because what we’re saying is that Kerry is bad, the Democrats are bad, Bush and the Republicans are worse. Anyway, you always go after the incumbent when the incumbent doesn’t perform.
TMD: Is there anything about John Kerry that you think sets him far apart from Bush?
RN: Yeah, in the following areas. He’s not as bad on Social Security, Medicare, civil justice, choice and separation of church and state. On the other hand, he is going for a big military budget, he supports the Patriot Act, he supports the Iraq war. He’s the same on Treasury policy, Federal Reserve policy. He talks differently on environment and consumers, but his record isn’t very good on them. He is, after all, one of the biggest recipients of corporate money in the Senate over 18 years. He surrounds himself with some of the worst corporate lobbyists, and they answer to lobbying operations representing pretty crazy corporations. That’s why he’s not doing the right things to win.
He doesn’t have a dynamic African-American inner circle. He”s not actively registering 9 million African-Americans voters who, 90 percent of them, vote for him, especially in the key states. And he’s not putting forward the really vote-getting issues, like living wage … Health care, now, he’s got a cockamamie scheme that preserves waste … You know, this is 2004. In 1949, Truman went for health care for all. It’s about time.
And again, you have to distinguish between the deeds and the rhetoric. He talks about taxes, et cetera, but he’s voted for his share of corporate tax escapes. Terrible on the failed war on drugs; he’s one of the architects of the Columbia-South America chemical warfare.
Above all, he refuses to believe that a democracy requires a constant shift of power from corporations to labor, consumers, small taxpayers. They’re being stripped of control.
TMD: You”ve said you will help Kerry in this election, though, by attacking Bush on another front. Does that strategy include avoiding swing states like Florida, as the Green Party is advocating this year?
RN: No, because that’s not my top priority. My top priority is getting as many votes as possible. But a collateral benefit would be taking Bush apart in ways Kerry won’t or can”t — Kerry’s too indentured to his financiers to do so. And then you can pick it up.
He blew Labor Day badly. I mean, Labor Day is the great day to draw a bright line between Democrats and Republicans historically. And Bush made it easy, because he ignored Labor Day. Whereas Kerry should have gone, you know, coast to coast on the issues of pensions being looted by corporate criminals, on the issue of living wage, the issue of better rights to form unions by repealing the Taft-Hartley act and on the issue of occupational health and safety. Had he gone on those four issues, full out, there would have been legs to that. People would have started saying, well, maybe this candidate, maybe this party really does speak for labor.
I mean, look. The Democrats are losing 38 percent of the union members to Republicans in recent elections. So they’re inept. They’re inept, they’re decadent and they don’t know what to — what they have to do to win. And they’ve been losing for 10 years to the worst of the Republicans, at the local, state and national level. And they’re basically telling us, ‘Hold on, we’re going to win this time doing the same thing.’ And I don’t trust them for that.
TMD: If you’re not worried about taking Kerry votes in swing states, then why do you seem to have no campaign structure in Florida?
RN: Why I don’t have — oh, no, we’re being challenged on the ballot in Florida.
TMD: Well, you’re being challenged in a lot of states. But according to your website you still have no campaign coordinator in Florida; in California you have three statewide campaign coordinators and 33 local coordinators.
RN: Yeah, in Florida, because it’s the last state we’re trying to get on. And we had 12 Democratic lawyers today challenging us in court in Tallahassee. So that’s what we’ve been absorbed by. Once we get on it, we can put it in place.
TMD: So it has nothing to do with Florida being seen as such a close state?
RN: Close states, not-close states, that’s not the way we campaign. We campaign in all the states. I’ve already campaigned in 48 states.
TMD: You’ve advocated overhauling the election system to implement instant-runoff voting, which could give independent and third-party candidates a better chance at winning elections. How can that come about while the two major parties are in power?
RN: Yeah. Well, Howard Dean supports it, John McCain supports it, so that’s a start. But the DNC and RNC are not interested. They’re much more interested in trying to erect barriers to third-party candidates in state statutes … intimidate them, and flush them out with phony lawsuits. Instead of saying, well, let’s deal with the runoff, let’s put the runoff in place.
It’s part of their arrogant determination to control the voters, to say voters belong to the two parties. Even though they’re redistricting most of America to one-party-dominated districts. You don’t even have two parties in most house congressional districts.
TMD: A lot of progressive Democrats, who agree with you on most issues, say you would be a more effective agent for change from the inside — that is, as a Paul Wellstone figure, who gets elected to the Senate as a Democrat while remaining to the left of his colleagues on most issues.
TMD: Is there a place for people like you in the major parties?
RN: There’s a place for people like Wellstone, but I’m — I’m basically a builder of citizen groups, and I prefer to be a citizen advocate… Hope A, that the progressive Democrats will become stronger by taking some of our issues and pushing them and showing that they’re successful vote-getting issues, for major parties at least — it’s very hard for minor candidates to work the system … so it’s a sort of demonstration effect, emulation effect.
If you look at our website carefully, you’ll see that there is an agenda inquiry for the common good that we sent to the Democrats and Republicans late in October. There are 25 subject areas. Those are the areas — most of them are vote-getting areas. Some of them are not; it’s just the right thing to do. But most of them are vote-getting issues, and they — the Democrats have not picked them up. They’ve blocked themselves in on health care with that cockamamie plan, they’ve blocked themselves in on a living wage with this — ridiculous — seven dollars an hour by 2007. That’s Kerry’s plan. That’s less that the minimum wage in 1968, adjusted for inflation, by a buck and a quarter.
So I think the Democrats, liberal Democrats, have got to look at themselves and basically say — Look, if it’s anybody but Bush, leave Kerry alone, make no demands on Kerry, it’s a prescription for defeat. Because if you don’t pull Kerry in the direction of people issues, corporations are going to pull him more and more in the direction of their issues and Republican ones. Therefore, he loses. And if you don’t make Kerry better on these issues, the vote-getting issues, Kerry will be made worse by his financiers, his corporate consultants who surround him, et cetera. It’s a very interesting pattern of obliviousness by otherwise intelligent people on the left. They don’t understand that by not pulling Kerry, which means making demands on him — by simply saying, look, I’ll vote for a bag of cement, just get rid of Bush — they are laying the grounds for the further deterioration and further defeat of the Democratic Party.
TMD: Are there any Democrats or Republicans in office today whom you admire?
RN: Yeah, there are a few. I mean, Henry Waxman, Ed Markey, Bernie Sanders, Senator Feingold on most issues, Ted Kennedy is very good. Lautenberg’s pretty good, Corzine’s pretty good — for rich people. (Laughs) But by and large, I would say about 15 percent of the Congress I would vote for. That’s an all-time low.
TMD: Would Howard Dean have been a better candidate than Kerry?
RN: That’s hard to say. Right now I would say yes. I wouldn’t have said yes four months ago. Because as a practical strategy, Kerry squandered his experience and allowed them to put him on the defense and distort it, and blur it, and take attention away from Bush’s draft-dodging.
TMD: Squandered how — you think that he should have played up his protesting?
RN: Well, he shouldn’t have played up Vietnam that much. He should have other people do it, you know, have other people allude to the contrast between him and the other, by — by harping on it, and constantly saying it, and featuring it in his acceptance speech, he set himself up.
So I suppose Dean — Dean has a temper, and you know, you really get in trouble if your temper flares in a presidential campaign, so I don’t know if he would be better. I think he would have motivated the Democrats more. Because it’s very hard to find people who are against Bush who are enthusiastic about Kerry.
TMD: He’s not very substantially more liberal than Kerry.
RN: That’s right. But he was, in the primary, he turned into a populist.
TMD: OK, let’s go over some of the other candidates’ proposals. Kerry’s plan for higher education includes paying four years of college tuition for students who give two years of national service.
RN: I don’t know if it’s completely paid, is it?
TMD: Yeah, well, that’s the plan.
RN: Yeah, he pays the whole tuition. Well, it depends what national service is. (Laughs) Could be the draft.
TMD: Well, it’s supposed to be working in schools, parks, that sort of thing.
RN: The other question is, how well does it pay. So it is, in principle, it’s something worth considering, yeah.
TMD: Obviously neither major candidate is proposing anything as sweeping as universal health care, but there are some fairly stark differences in Bush’s and Kerry’s health-care proposals. What’s your take on both candidates’ plans?
RN: They both have a common infirmity, and that is they don’t replace the health-insurance industry … but full Medicare coverage, with a free choice of doctors and hospitals, and replacing the insurance industry, because it wouldn’t be necessary anymore, would get rid of massive, truly massive administrative costs.
TMD: But if you had to choose between two, between the government paying for catastrophic health coverage and the tax credits for health savings accounts —
RN: Kerry’s is the least of the worst. But it’s way, way off. You look at our health-care proposals; you’ll see it on the web.
What year are you?
TMD: Second year.
RN: Where are you from?
TMD: Grosse Pointe. Near Detroit.
RN: Auto industry?
TMD: No, my parents are attorneys.
RN: (laughs) Everybody thinks the auto industry.
TMD: John Kerry has said he wants to cut the corporate tax rate five percent, from 35 percent to 33 and a quarter, to make U.S. companies more competitive. Do you see that working, or is that what you would call corporate welfare?
RN: It won’t work. Right now, as you’ll see in the book by David Kay Johnston, the New York Times tax reporter, global corporations can decide when, where and how much they’re going to pay in taxes. And under which national jurisdiction.
TMD: Michigan Democrats have filed a complaint with the FEC, arguing that the Republican Party’s effort to gather signatures for your campaign constitutes a contribution in excess of $5,000, which you did not report. What do you say to that charge?
RN: Well, we’re not — we didn’t solicit it. There’s no coordination. So — and the judge is effectively saying, ‘They’re yours, you have to take them.’ (Laughs) The thing is a real tangle — your parents would love this one. I mean, this one is the most complicated of all legal tangles.
TMD: Do you feel any hesitation or regret accepting petition signatures gathered by Republicans?
RN: Well, we’ve rejected them all. And then we find ourselves in this miasma in Michigan … in Michigan, we’re saying, look, we want to be the Reform Party candidate. And the judge looks at it, and he has sees two Reform parties, and he says, well, I can’t make a decision on which of these groups is the Reform Party. But, well, you have to make one, you have to look at the two and you have to decide … He punted it. And now it’s a tangle.