On Wednesday, Ralph Nader entered the campaign churn for the first time since he announced his run on Meet the Press four months ago.
This week’s appearance was not well received. “Unneeded at Any Speed” and “offensive,” said a Washington Post editorial. “Angry,” wrote Deborah Douglas of The Chicago Sun Times. “Nader is way out of line,” opined CNN commentator Roland Martin. “Lousy, reprehensible,” said Bob Herbert.
At issue were Nader’s invocations of race, in regards to Obama, in http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/jun/25/partial-transcript-ralph-naders-comments/?printer=1/>comments to Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. Among the most attention grabbing:
There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American. Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson?
Those words were widely repeated, and the News’s handy video guaranteed wide cable coverage. With the attention, Nader became the latest participant in our election drama to run aground on the rocks of race.
But, as is usually the case, those thoughts are plucked from a longer exchange with a reporter. Take a moment to read (or watch) Nader’s full comments, and you’ll see that there’s much that didn’t make it through the sensation filter, much of it typical Naderian rhetoric. Like this bit, which immediately followed the widely quoted and replayed segment excerpted above:
I think his main problem is that he censors himself. He knows exactly who has power, who has too much, who has too little, what needs to be done right down to the community level. But he has bought the advice that if you want to win the election, you better take it easy on the corporate abuses and do X, Y, Z. When I hear that I say, ‘Oh, I see. So he’s doing all this to win the election, and then he’ll be different.’
Well let’s see if it worked. Did it work for Mondale? Did it work for Dukakis? Did it work for Clinton? Yes, but only because of Perot. Did it work for Gore? Did it work for Kerry?
Disregard the charged language—ghettos?—and the racial reductionism in a later part of the interview (white guilt) if you can.
Nader’s point—and it’s one he’s been hammering since well before November 7, 2000, the day his third campaign drew 97,000 votes in Florida—is that Democrats who campaign on anything other than a full-throated anti-corporate populist message, those who “take it easy,” do so at their own peril.
So it was only a slight surprise that back in the primary, Nader spoke very kindly of John Edwards, whose loud advocacy for society’s poorest and whose attacks on corporate power contained rhetorical echoes of Ralph. (Note bene: Nader didn’t officially launch his own effort until the day Edwards folded his.)
Edwards’ prairie fire didn’t exactly spread, and when he left the race, conservative corners of the press were quick to offer a reason why. Mark Steyn, writing in the National Review, called him a “curiously unconvincing ‘angry populist.’” The Manchester Union Leader also tagged him as an “angry populist “ and claimed that he had “misread the mood of the public.”
Whether or not Edwards’ “anger” was his downfall (claiming any single factor for a campaign’s downfall makes me angry) it’s worth asking if the same route was open to other candidates. Like, say, Barack Obama. Survey says no.
In the wake of Reverend Wright’s video, and Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race, a chorus of media voices rose to explain how deadly it would be to Obama’s campaign if he came to be tagged as “angry,” like his former pastor.
“If Barack Obama did suddenly turn into the, you know, let’s call it the elephant in the room, the angry black man, that certainly wouldn’t go over well,” said Crystal McCrary Anthony on MSNBC.
Or, as Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said, “Anger is something he absolutely cannot afford, let’s face it. A black man cannot be seen as angry.”