WASHINGTON — Legendary Arab American consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s remarks about Barack Obama’s campaign and race garnered wide media attention. Last week, the third party candidate said the Democratic nominee for president was not challenging the white power structure and was feeding off of “white guilt.”
On Wednesday, Nader told the Rocky Mountain News that the only difference between Obama and other potential Democratic candidates is his ancestry. Race, Nader said, may not make a difference. For the advocate in him, issues matter most. And Obama is leaving him wanting in that department.
Nader said, “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?”
After initial media reporting on his comments, Nader later added, he should “be more sensitive and determined to bring elevated visibility and concrete programs to deal with these issues.” Nader drew an analogy: “Wouldn’t a woman president be expected to be more responsive to women’s rights? It’s just more natural.”
He said that Obama’s campaign made a clear “tactical decision that he’s not going to campaign politically as Jesse Jackson did.”
“He wants to come across that he’s not politically threatening to the white power class and the liberal intelligentsia,” Nader claimed. “It’s been a brilliant tactic.”
This naturally received a cool response from Obama. At a press conference in Chicago, the candidate said Nader had missed “multiple speeches, town hall meetings” in which he addressed these issues.
He saw Nader’s remarks as an aim to shed light on himself. “Ralph Nader is trying to get attention. It’s a shame because if you look at his legacy in terms of consumer protection, it’s an extraordinary one.”
Harsher words came from an Obama aide. Robert Gibbs called Nader’s comments “reprehensible and basically delusional.”
Last February, Nader announced his third presidential candidacy on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He identifies as the third-party, anti-corporate candidate.
He was chastised by many Democrats as a spoiler after his campaign in 2000 won more votes than the difference in ballot counts between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida. His campaign in 2004 was met with vocal opposition by Democrats who again feared he would siphon votes from their candidate.
Nader claimed he would not run when a candidate willing to take on corporate power stepped up. He supported the campaign of John Edwards during the Democratic primaries. Edwards was never treated as a viable candidate by the media, even before the first primary elections, however.
Nader’s comments could be seen as fringe, as some people have seen his campaign. This is too simple a picture, however.
Nader’s words, if seen as comment on Obama’s positions and not race, may resonate with many activists and much of Obama’s core during the primaries.
There already are rumblings among many on the left about Obama’s general election posturing. A Wall Street Journal article cited Obama’s shift away from the left, especially on the issues of corporate taxes, telecommunications companies getting immunity for helping the government spy on consumers, Iraq and Israel.
Nader’s words also may matter for another reason. At the end of Bush era, the left in American politics cannot be ignored. Nader’s campaign in 2000 is an instrumental lesson. It showed the Democrats that the left end of the political spectrum matters. Nader showed them they cannot take it for granted.
As early polls show Obama with a considerable lead, his campaign may prefer to play it safe with more political centrism. Instead of talk of inspiring, he will treat the election as his to lose and resort to blandness and avoiding positions worthy of support from the left.
Though Nader may not have the support to “spoil” an election, Obama runs a risk by playing the center too close. He may give the left little reason to come out in November. These comments are Nader’s way of telling Obama not to forget that.