20 Questions with Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader has been a candidate in the last three presidential campaigns, but he’s looking to pass the mantle in 2012. That doesn’t mean he’s set to retire, he said in an interview with The Hill. These days his consumer advocacy has him trying to convince Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), whom he calls “the singular most perfect tyrant in the contemporary Senate,” to support a bus-safety bill.

Are you going to run for president in 2012?

I’m looking for someone else to do the progressive candidacy. I’ve done it three times officially, and I’ve got a list of people to see if they’re willing to raise the banner for progressive people. That’s where I am right now in April. 

Who’s on that list?

I’m in the process of compiling it, but [former Texas Agriculture Commissioner] Jim Hightower would be one. William Ryder, who’s a public intellectual who can handle all these issues, would be two. And there are names that I’m not going to give right now because I haven’t let them know. Some former university presidents and some successful CEOs who have retired.

What’s the most difficult thing about running for president?

Just getting on the ballot. There are so many restrictive ballot laws, so many harassments of our petitioners on the streets, so many throwing out of signatures for arbitrary reasons. We lost thousands of signatures in Pennsylvania because they said they weren’t registered to vote. You don’t have to be registered to vote to sign the petition, you have to be an eligible voter.

By the time you finish this arduous task of getting on the ballot, it’s Labor Day. You’ve drained your resources; you’ve drained your personnel. Then you run the risk of getting excluded from the debates.

What are some of the most important things you’ve learned in your presidential bids?

What we’ve learned is we have to have one federal ballot access law for candidates running for office. Instead we have 50, plus the District of Columbia. 

Last month you called for President Obama to be impeached. That’s not something that people throw around lightly. What was the reaction you got? Do you stand by it?

The way I phrased it — and by the way, the Founding Fathers didn’t think impeachment was a big deal … It was basically, fire the president. It’s equivalent to a recall, firing the incumbent governor.

What I said was if the people who thought Bush should be impeached for unconstitutional wars of aggression, for arbitrary surveillance of many people, for extraordinary rendition, for state secrets, for signing statements for Guantánamo, for torture and for gross violations of international law — where’s the international law that allows us to go into Libya? If those are impeachable offenses, Obama’s done the same thing, give or take.

Would you ever run for Congress?

No.

Why not?

Because I’m a full-time citizen advocate, and when the doors start closing … I had to go into the political arena to encourage others to act. If you run for a lesser office [than the presidency], you don’t get the visibility — such as you get.

So it’s basically trying to find another way to open the doors, because the doors are open for corporate lobbyists but not for civic advocates.

I read recently that you’ve been doing some lobbying in the Senate on the bus-safety bill that was introduced last month. What approach are you taking to discussing this issue with lawmakers?

You take the approach that recent events have shown that the [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] budget is too tiny.

The standards in Serbia and China for motorbuses are stronger than in the U.S. That crash in Manhattan — it galvanized effort on Capitol Hill.

What do you think are the chances of this bill passing? Didn’t Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) hold it up in the last Congress?

I couldn’t budge the singular most perfect tyrant in the contemporary Senate … Tom Coburn. One guy blocked this entire effort, which the House, 99 senators, Obama and hundreds of safety groups around the country supported.

It’s very hard to reach him. I know Obama and Michelle are social friends with Coburn and his wife. I just wrote the president; he might have some influence.

Who are your allies in Congress?

[Reps.] Ed Markey [D-Mass.], Henry Waxman [D-Calif.], Dennis Kucinich [D-Ohio], Lynn Woolsey [D-Calif.].

In the Senate, we have a few. People like Sherrod Brown [D-Ohio], Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.], Dick Blumenthal [D-Conn.], Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] on some issues. 

For prison reform we have [Sen.] Jim Webb [D-Va.]. There are very few senators who are supportive across the board the way Sen. [Howard] Metzenbaum [D-Ohio] was.

And your enemies?

Passive and active, most of them. They just don’t care about these issues … I would voluntarily say that for about 15 percent of the Congress, maybe closer to 10 with the last election. It’s a corporate Congress.

If you could change one thing about Congress, what would it be?

Change the Senate rules — the filibuster. Change the finance system to public financing. I’d go even further — I’d go for proportional representation, but that would require a major constitutional revision.

You’ve fought against nuclear energy in the past. What do you think about what’s going on right now in Japan?

A gigantic wake-up call to the U.S. and a tragedy that just keeps on cycling in larger and larger circles; the children, the milk, the workers, the ocean, the air. It just gets bigger and bigger. That’s what’s going to happen in this country if we have a nuclear meltdown.

Do you ever think of retiring?

I don’t know the meaning of the word, except in the automotive industry — ya know, to retread. What do you want me to do, retire, go to Malibu and watch radioactive whales?

How would you characterize your level of celebrity? Do people stop you on the streets? Do you sign autographs?

I sometimes sign books at airport bookstores, and it’s just amazing the memories people have. “I remember when you wore army boots and when you testified [before] the Senate.” “My father had a Corvair and he sold it after your book came out.” “My brother was interning with you 30 years ago.” “I was at the Madison Square Garden rally.” It’s almost like I would expect a couple of dogs and a cat to say, “I remember when you came out against contaminated pet food.”

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at kkitto@thehill.com.