|The long-time progressive makes a pitch for the disenfranchised Right.
Ralph Nader recently accepted Pat Buchanan's invitation to sit down with us
and explain why his third-party presidential bid ought to appeal to
conservatives disaffected with George W. Bush. We think readers will be
interested in the reflections of a man who has been a major figure in
American public life for 40 yearsand who now finds himself that rarest of
birds, a conviction politician.
Pat Buchanan: Let me start off with foreign policyIraq and the Middle
East. You have seen the polls indicating widespread contempt for the United
States abroad. Why do they hate us?
Ralph Nader: First of all, we have been supporting despots, dictators, and
oligarchs in all those states for a variety of purposes. We supported
Saddam Hussein. He was our anti-Communist dictator until 1990. It's also
cultural; they see corporate culture as abandoning the restraints on
personal behavior dictated by their religion and culture. Our corporate
pornography and anything-goes values are profoundly offensive to them.
The other thing is that we are supporting the Israeli military regime with
billions of dollars and ignoring both the Israeli peace movement, which is
very substantial, and the Palestinian peace movement. They see a
nuclear-armed Israel that could wipe out the Middle East in a weekend if it
They think that we are on their backs, in their house, undermining their
desire to overthrow their own tyrants.
PB: Then you would say it is not only Bush who is at fault, but Clinton and
Bush and Reagan, all the way back?
RN: The subservience of our congressional and White House puppets to
Israeli military policy has been consistent. Until '91, any dictator who
was anti-Communist was our ally.
PB: You used the term "congressional puppets." Did John Kerry show himself
to be a congressional puppet when he voted to give the president a blank
check to go to war?
RN: They're almost all puppets. There are two sets: Congressional puppets
and White House puppets. When the chief puppeteer comes to Washington, the
PB: Why do both sets of puppets, support the Sharon/Likud policies in the
Middle East rather than the peace movement candidates and leaders in Israel?
RN: That is a good question because the peace movement is broad indeed.
They just put 120,000 people in a square in Tel Aviv. They are composed of
former government ministers, existing and former members of the Knesset,
former generals, former combat veterans, former heads of internal security,
people from all backgrounds. It is not any fringe movement.
The answer to your question is that instead of focusing on how to bring a
peaceful settlement, both parties concede their independent judgment to the
pro-Israeli lobbies in this country because they perceive them as
determining the margin in some state elections and as sources of funding.
They don't appear to agree with Tom Friedman, who wrote that memorable
phrase, "Ariel Sharon has Arafat under house arrest in Ramallah and Bush
under house arrest in the Oval Office."
Virtually no member of Congress can say that, and so we come to this
paradoxical conclusion that there is far more freedom in Israel to discuss
this than there is in the United States, which is providing billions of
dollars in economic and military assistance.
PB: Let me move on to Iraq. You were opposed to the war, and it now appears
that it has become sort of a bloody stalemate. You said you would bring
troops out of Iraq within six months. What if the country collapses and
becomes a haven for terrorists? Would you send American troops back in to
clean it up?
RN: Under my proposal there would be an international peacekeeping force,
and the withdrawal would be a smart withdrawal during which there are
internationally supervised elections. We would have both military and
corporate withdrawal because the Iraqi people see the corporations are
beginning to take over their economy, including their oil resources. And we
would continue humanitarian assistance until the Iraqi people get on their
feet. We would bring to the forefront during the election autonomies for
Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites. So this would not be like a withdrawal in
Vietnam where we just barely got out with the helicopters.
TAC: You often mention corporations. What is the theory behind this or what
are the alternatives to corporate economic power? I presume you are not
talking about state ownership or socialism, or perhaps you are ?
RN: Well, that is what representative government is for, to counteract the
excesses of the monied interests, as Thomas Jefferson said. Because big
business realizes that the main countervailing force against their excesses
and abuses is government, their goal has been to take over the government,
and they do this with money and politics. They do it by putting their top
officials at the Pentagon, Treasury, and Federal Reserve, and they do it by
providing job opportunities to retiring members of Congress. They have law
firms that draft legislation and think-tanks that provide ready-made
speeches. They also do it by threatening to leave the country. The quickest
way to bring a member of Congress to his or her knees is by shifting
Concentrated corporate power violates many principles of capitalism. For
example, under capitalism, owners control their property. Under
multinational corporations, the shareholders don't control their
corporation. Under capitalism, if you can't make the market respond, you
sink. Under big business, you don't go bankrupt; you go to Washington for a
bailout. Under capitalism, there is supposed to be freedom of contract.
When was the last time you negotiated a contract with banks or auto
dealers? They are all fine-print contracts. The law of contracts has been
wiped out for 99 percent of contracts that ordinary consumers sign on to.
Capitalism is supposed to be based on law and order. Corporations get away
with corporate crime, fraud, and abuse. And finally, capitalism is premised
on a level playing field; the most meritorious is supposed to win. Tell
that to a small inventor or a small business up against McDonald's or a
software programmer up against Microsoft.
Giant multinational corporations have no allegiance to any country or
community other than to control them or abandon them. So what we have now
is the merger of big business and big government to further subsidize costs
or eliminate risks or guarantee profits by our government.
PB: Let's move to immigration. We stop 1.5 million illegal aliens on our
borders each year. One million still get through. There are currently 8-14
million illegal aliens in the United States. The president is mandated
under the Constitution to defend the States against foreign invasion, and
this certainly seems to constitute that.
RN: As long as our foreign policy supports dictators and oligarchs, you are
going to have desperate people moving north over the border.
Part of the problem involves NAFTA. The flood of cheap corn into Mexico has
dispossessed over a million Mexican farmers, and, with their families, they
either go to the slums or, in their desperation, head north.
In addition, I don't think the United States should be in the business of
brain-draining skilled talent, especially in the Third World, because we
are importing in the best engineers, scientists, software people, doctors,
entrepreneurs who should be in their countries, building their own
countries. We are driving the talent to these shores
PB: How do we defend these shores?
RN: I don't believe in giving visas to software people from the Third World
when we have got all kinds of unemployed software people here.
Let's get down to the manual labor. This is the reason the Wall Street
Journal is for an open-borders policy: they want a cheap-wage policy. There
are two ways to deal with that. One is to raise the minimum wage to the
purchasing-power level of 1968$8 an hourand then, in another year, raise
it to $10 an hour because the economy since 1968 has doubled in production
PB: Say we went to $10 an hour minimum wage. It is 50 cents an hour in
Mexico. Why wouldn't that cause not 1.5 million, but 3 million to head
straight north where they could be making 20 times what they can make
minimum wage in Mexico?
RN: Because 14 million Americans are unemployed or part-time employed who
want full employment or have given up looking for jobs. The more the
minimum wage goes up, the more they will do so-called work that Americans
won't do. They are not going to do it at $5.15 an hour and have another
used car, another insurance policy, another repair bill to get to work, but
they are much more likely to do it at $10 an hour.
The second is to enforce the law against employers. It is hard to blame
desperately poor people who want to feed their families and are willing to
work their heads off. You have to start with Washington and Wall Street.
PB: Should illegal aliens be entitled to social-welfare benefits, even
though they are not citizens and broke into the country?
RN: I think they should be given all the fair-labor standards and all the
rights and benefits of American workers, and if this country doesn't like
that, maybe they will do something about the immigration laws.
PB: Should they be entitled to get driver's licenses?
RN: Yes, in order to reduce hazards on the highway. If you have people who
are driving illegally, there are going to be more crashes, and more people
are going to be killed.
PB: The Democrats have picked up on Bush's amnesty idea and have proposed
an amnesty for illegals who have been in the country for five years and who
have shown that they have jobs and can support themselves. Would you
support the Democratic proposal?
RN: This is very difficult because you are giving a green light to cross
the border illegally. I don't like the idea of legalization because then
the question is how do you prevent the next wave and the next? I like the
idea of giving workers and childrenthey are working, they are having their
taxes withheld, they are performing a valuable service, even though they
are illegally hereof giving them the same benefits of any other workers.
If that produces enough outrage to raise the immigration issue to a high
level of visibility for public debate, that would be a good thing.
PB: The U.S. population nowprimarily due to immigrants and their children
coming inis estimated to grow to over 400 million by mid-century. Would
that have an adverse impact on the environment?
RN: We don't have the absorptive capacity for that many people. Over 32
million came in, in the '90s, which is the highest in American history.
PB: What would you do about it?
RN: We have to control our immigration. We have to limit the number of
people who come into this country illegally.
PB: What level of legal immigration do you think we should have per year?
RN: First of all, we have to say what is the impact on African-Americans
and Hispanic Americans in this country in terms of wages of our present
stance on immigration? It is a wage-depressing policy, which is why the
Chambers of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, Tyson
Foods, and the Wall Street Journal like it. The AFL-CIO has no objection to
it because they think they can organize the illegal workers
PB: They switched.
RN: because they have been so inept at organizing other workers. There is
hardly a more complex issue, except on the outside of the issue, the
foreign policy, the NAFTA
PB: I was going to ask you about NAFTA and the WTO
RN: Sovereignty shredding, you know. The decisions are now in Geneva,
bypassing our courts, our regulatory agencies, our legislatures.
PB: I find it amazing that Congress sits there and they get an order from
the WTO, and they capitulate. What happened to bristling conservative
defiance, "don't tread on me" patriotism? I think the problem is that a lot
of these guys in CongressI think some of them are basically good guys. But
I went up there and was asking about some issue, and they would say things
like, "I don't even know what it is about. My boss tells me ?"
RN: Did you hear about my challenge to Senator Hank Brown?
We put a challenge out before WTO was voted in 1995 because we went all
over Capitol Hill and had never found any Member of Congress or a staffer
who had ever read the proposal. So I said, "I'll give $10,000 to the
favorite charity of any Member of Congress who will sign an affidavit that
he or she has read the WTO agreement and will answer 10 questions in public."
The deadline passed. Nobody. So I extended it a week. A quarter to 5:00 on
Friday, the phone rings in our office. It is Hank Brown, and he said, "I
don't want the $10,000 to charity, but I will take you up on it. How much
time do I have?" I said, "Take a month." So he reserves the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee for the interrogation.
It gets better. The press is all there, and in the witness chair is Hank
Brown. We have 12 questions, and he answers every one. They weren't all
simple either. It was really impressive. And I said, "Thank you very much.
That was really commendable," and we start to get up and he says, "Wait. I
have something to say." He says, "You know, I am a free trader, and I voted
for NAFTA, but after reading the WTO agreement, I was so appalled by the
anti-democratic provisions that I am going to vote against it and urge
everyone else to."
The next day, almost no press. It shows you the bias against anybody who
challenges those multinational systems of autocratic governance that we
call "trade agreements." And he didn't convince one extra senator.
Once when I testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, I had to
say some nice things at the beginning, "Mr. Chairman, distinguished Members
of the House Ways and Means Committee, it is indeed a pleasure to testify
before a committee of Congress that has read this proposed trade
agreement," and the chair looks up and says, "What makes you think we did?"
Let's put it this way: it is impossible to exaggerate the dereliction of
diligence in the Congress.
PB: Can we move on to taxes? Reagan cut the top tax rate from 70 percent to
28 percent in terms of personal income taxes. Clinton raised it to 39.6.
Bush has cut it back to 35 percent. What do you think is the maximum
income-tax rate that should be imposed on wage earners?
RN: Zero under $100,000. Now you got to ask me how I am going to make
PB: What is the rate above $100,000? What is the top rate?
RN: Then you have a graduated rate. Thirty-five percent, in that range, for
the top rate. It comes down to the loopholes. When it was 70 percent, did
you ever meet anybody who paid 70 percent?
Now, where would I make it up? This is where the creativity comes in. I
would move the incidence of taxation, first, from work to wealth. So I
would keep the estate tax, number one.
PB: You restore the estate tax to 55 percent?
RN: That is a little extreme.
PB: That is where Bush has it, 55, and he is cutting it down gradually to
zero. What do you think it should be?
RN: Again, 35 percent.
PB: Would this be on all estates?
RN: No. Estates above $10 million.
PB: Ralph, you are not going to raise much money with this tax.
RN: There will still be a tax on smaller estates. I think all estates over,
say, $500,000 should pay some tax. The estate tax as a whole raises about
$32 billion a year, but the thing is the loopholes. Buffett, as an example,
won't pay because all of it is going to his foundation.
I think we should have a very modest wealth tax. I agree with the founder
of the Price Club, who thinks it should be 1 percent.
PB: One percent of your wealth each year would be turned over to the
RN: Right. Then the third shift is why don't we tax things we like the
least? We should tax polluters. We should tax gambling. We should tax the
addictive industries that are costing us so much and luring the young into
alcoholism and tobacco and drugs. And we should tax, above all, stock and
PB: A short-term capital gains tax?
RN: Like a sales tax. If you go to a store and buy furniture, you pay 6, 7,
or whatever percent. You buy 1,000 shares of General Motors, you don't pay
anything. So what we are doing is taxing food and clothing but not the
purchase of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and currency speculation. A
quarter-of-a-cent tax will produce hundreds of billions of dollars a year
because of the volatility. You remember the days when 3 million shares on
the New York Stock Exchange was a big day? Now it is 1.5 billion shares.
The point is this: work should be taxed the least. Then you move to wealth,
and then you move to things we do not like. And you will have more than
enough to replace the taxes of under $100,000 income and to provide for
universal health insurance and decent public transit and to repair the
PB: So you have got a $500 billion deficit now, and the early baby-boomer
retirements start in 2008, and by 2012, the whole Clinton-and-Bush
generation gets Medicare and Medicaid. These are the biggest payers into
these so-called trust funds. They are also going to be the biggest drawers
out, and 77 million of them retire in 2030. So how do you balance that budget?
RN: You repeal Bush's two tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Then you get out of
Iraq, and you cut the waste and the shenanigans out of the military
contracting. That would more than take care of the deficit.
PB: You bring the troops home from Europe and Korea and the Balkans?
RN: We are presently defending prosperous nations like Japan, Germany, and
England, who are perfectly capable of defending themselves against
PB: Let me move to the social issues. Would you have voted against or in
favor of the ban on partial-birth abortion?
RN: I believe in choice. I don't think government should tell women to have
children or not to have children. I am also against feticide. If doctors
think it is a fetus, that should be banned. It is a medical decision.
PB: Between the woman and her doctor
RN: And whoever else, family, clergy.
PB: Should homosexuals have the same right in law to form marriages and
receive marriage licenses from the state as men and women?
RN: Yes, and if you had that, you wouldn't have to use the word "marriage."
The reason "gay marriage" is used is because state laws connect certain
benefits with that word. As a lesbian leader was quoted saying in the New
York Times a few weeks ago, the issue is not the word "marriage." The word
PB: Let's go to politics. If you had not been in the race in 2000, who
would have won?
RN: That requires me to be a retrospective clairvoyant. If I wasn't in a
race, would the Democrats have gone all-out to get out the vote in certain
states because they were worried about the percentages I was drawing? And
if I was not in the race, would Gore have made populist statements day
after day"I am for the people, not the powerful"which polls showed
brought him more votes than if he went to Lieberman's semantic route?
Having said that, exit polls showed 25 percent of my votes would have gone
to Bush, 38 percent would have gone to Gore, and the rest would have stayed
home and not voted. A month and a half ago, a poll came from New Hampshire
that showed that 8 percent were for me: 9 percent Republicans, 11 percent
independents, 4 percent Democrats.
PB: If you hurt Bush more than Gore, why are the Democrats trying to keep
you off the ballot?
RN: Because they will forever think that my progressive policies will take
more Democrat votes and independent votes than they will take from the
PB: If you got 15 percent of the vote this time, who do you think would be
the next president of the United States?
RN: I don't know how it would break.
PB: Let me ask you about your ballot position because it was around this
time that we were wrapping up getting on the ballot in all 50 states. How
many ballots are you on right now?
RN: None yet, but we'll be on more than 43 states, which is the number we
had last time. We want to get on them all. The problem is, we haven't
concentrated on the easy states.
TAC: Is there any circumstance in which you can come to an arrangement with
Kerry campaign not to run?
RN: The time to drop out is before you drop in. You cannot build a national
campaign and get tens of thousands of volunteers working their hearts out
and then in October feed the cynicism of American politics by cutting some
sort of deal. The answer is no.
PB: What are the reasons a conservative should vote for Ralph Nader?
RN: Well, largely
PB: Rather than Kerry.
RN: I'm not expecting conservatives to change their minds on certain issues
that we disagree on, but if we look at the issues where we have common
positions, they reach a level of gravity that would lead conservatives to
stop being taken for granted by the corporate Republicans and send them a
message by voting for my independent candidacy.
Here are the issues. One, conservatives are furious with the Bush regime
because of the fantastic deficits as far as the eye can see. That was a
betrayal of Bush's positions, and it was a reversal of what Bush found when
he came to Washington.
Conservatives are very upset about their tax dollars going to corporate
welfare kings because that undermines market competition and is a wasted
use of their taxes.
Conservatives are upset about the sovereignty-shredding WTO and NAFTA. I
wish they had helped us more when we tried to stop them in Congress
because, with a modest conservative push, we would have defeated NAFTA
because it was narrowly passed. If there was no NAFTA, there wouldn't have
been a WTO.
Conservatives are also very upset with a self-styled conservative president
who is encouraging the shipment of whole industries and jobs to a despotic
Communist regime in China. That is what I mean by the distinction between
corporate Republicans and conservative Republicans.
Next, conservatives, contrary to popular belief, believe in law and order
against corporate crime, fraud, and abuse, and they are not satisfied that
the Bush administration has done enough.
Conservatives are also upset about the Patriot Act, which they view as big
government, privacy-invading, snooping, and excessive surveillance. They
are not inaccurate in that respect.
And finally, two other things. They don't like "Leave No Child Behind"
because it is a stupidly conceived federal regulation of local school
systems through misguided and very fraudulent multiple-choice testing
And conservatives are aghast that a born-again Christian president has done
nothing about rampant corporate pornography and violence directed to
children and separating children from their parents and undermining
If you add all of those up, you should have a conservative rebellion
against the giant corporation in the White House masquerading as a human
being named George W. Bush. Just as progressives have been abandoned by the
corporate Democrats and told,"You got nowhere to go other than to stay home
or vote for the Democrats," this is the fate of the authentic conservatives
in the Republican Party.
I noticed this a long time ago, Pat. I once said to Bill Bennett, "Would
you agree that corporatism is on a collision course with conservative
values?" and he said yes.
The impact of giant corporations, commercialism, direct marketing to kids,
sidestepping parents, selling them junk food, selling them violence,
selling them sex and addictions, selling them the suspension of their
socialization processyears ago conservatives spoke out on that, but it was
never transformed into a political position. It was always an ethical,
religious value position. It is time to take it into the political arena.
PB: Well, it's a pleasure. Thank you very much for coming over, Ralph.
RN: Thank you very much.
June 21, 2004 issue
Copyright © 2004 The American Conservative