March 28, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
He calls Washington, D.C., "corporate occupied territory," and says we're living under "corporate fascism." Ralph Nader continues to pound away at the same themes he did in the 1960s when he first took on the automobile industry, alleging intentional neglect of safety measures. Today, though, he has broadened his targets to include banks, credit card companies, binding arbitration clauses and, of course, his rival presidential candidates.
While he's universally regarded, and even revered, as the father of the consumer movement, Nader's presidential campaigns are roundly criticized by liberals as counterproductive, and even destructive. As part of Red Tape Chronicles' look at the consumer protection proposals of the presidential candidates, Nader agreed to sit down with me this week in Washington, D.C.
I was told to pick up Nader, quite literally, on the side of the road. Despite his public persona, he's a very private man and he works hard to keep the location of his Washington, D.C., home a secret. So I met him on Connecticut Avenue, on the sidewalk in front of a French restaurant a few miles from the NBC bureau where we conducted our interview.
It seems paranoid until you consider that Nader was the victim of aggressive spying by General Motors in the 1960s (the firm eventually apologized),then it's not so hard to understand. Nader has enemies.
Nader seems most angry and obstinate when he talks about what he sees as government's failure to protect its citizens from abuses by corporate America. He laid out conditions for dropping out of the race and supporting Democratic Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or even Republican Sen. John McCain. But his furrowed brow suggested that he considers that eventuality highly unlikely, and his defiant tone indicated he's not ready to abandon his third-party campaign any time soon.
I didn't want to talk politics with him, however. I wanted to hear his views on the state of consumer protection. Given the thousands of rabid complaints received every month by the Red Tape Chronicles, and the helplessness many people express, had his movement failed? If so, what went wrong? He addresses those questions in the video atop this post.
Armed with pamphlets
He sat down in my car with an armful of pamphlets he'd produced on confusing credit card statements, computer-generated overcharges, mysterious "processing charges," indecipherable bills, and so on. In one series, called "Buyer's Market," he described finding an undisclosed 50 percent surcharge on his hotel bills and surprise bank fees for dipping below a minimum balance. The pamphlets, in which he calls for "truth in billing" legislation, were published in 1986 and 1987.
The issues raised every week in the Red Tape Chronicles, he lets me know, are hardly new. He also gently scolds me for not knowing about some consumer advocates who've been fighting for health care reform and other consumer protection issues for decades -- a bit the way a grandfather might scold a grandchild for not knowing about Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle.
Scolding is among Nader's best skills; as the quadrennial third-party presidential candidate, Nader might be considered America's scolder-in-chief. But if he seems angry while talking politics, he softens considerably when the discussion turns to students and education.
"It's a lot of fun!" he says of teaching students about grocery store tricks like placing junk food at eye level in checkout stands. "Students as consumers, it relates their outside of school activity … (to) the classroom. It's really interesting."
But he laments that schools spend far too much time teaching basic computer skills, and far too little time explaining about credit card interest rates, credit scores, mortgages and providing students with skills that would prepare them to be smarter consumers.
"There is a huge imbalance between computer skills to get a job and zero consumer skills," he said.
Of course, you can't talk to Ralph Nader without talking politics and, in truth, that's largely why he consented to our conversation. Last month, he announced his candidacy on NBC's "Meet the Press." But getting other media coverage is a struggle.
His pet subject
Earlier this week, I summarized the consumer protection proposals from the three major presidential candidates. Only McCain's campaign made a campaign official available for an on-the-record interview. But Nader jumped at the chance to speak about his pet subject.
As a presidential candidate, Nader has become a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party. His third-party presidential efforts have drawn votes primarily from Democratic candidates, most significantly in the 2000 election. Many Democrats blame him for George W. Bush's victory. But Nader never gives an inch when asked about this subject, replying that he has constitutional right to run for president. When I asked if he had "bit off his nose to spite his face," as my mother would say -- effectively hurting his own cause through his stubbornness -- he answered that many important new ideas, such as abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, rose to public consciousness through third-party candidates.
During the 2004 campaign, Nader said he met with Democratic Sen. John Kerry and showed him a list of 20 consumer protection issues. If Kerry picked three to champion, Nader promised to support him. That never happened.
In our interview Nader said he would make the same offer to Clinton, Obama or McCain.
"There are two ways to succeed," he said. "One is to beat them by getting more votes. … The second is to have them take our issues and run with them," he said. But he didn't seem optimistic. And while he generally has more positive things to say about Obama than Clinton, he called both "corporate Democrats" and stated that neither was a champion of the consumer.
Both Clinton and Obama have published statements and proposals describing their plans for new consumer protections, which were discussed in Tuesday's column. On Thursday, Obama discussed financial reforms with CNBC, including expanded oversight of lending institutions.
What happened to the consumer movement?
Nader and I talked a bit more about the presidential campaign, as described in more depth on our political blog, First Read, by producer Andy Merten. But I was much more interested in Nader's take on consumer protection issues. Chiefly, I wanted to know why the consumer movement he helped start in the 1960s seems to have faded, or at least stalled.
In the main video atop this story, you'll see his answers – he blames the dismantling of consumer protection agencies, abandonment of consumer education in schools, and American idol to name a few.
But the conversation ranged far and wide. As a victim of spying, Nader has a unique -- and troubling -- perspective on the state of American privacy (see video). Private lawsuits, he said, are the only tool left to restore privacy.
He has fond memories of an appearance on "Sesame Street" as the "neighborhood consumer advocate." In every community in America, he said, there are mini-experts who act informally as advocates for friends and neighbors. They are "influencers," he said, who help keep their communities from getting ripped off, and he whimsically imagines getting them all together some day in Yankee Stadium. (see video)
Finally he sees community organizing as the critical element to reviving consumer rights. He discussed ways for consumers to "band together and become powerful entities" that would "revolutionize consumer protection." (see video)
If you'd like to see a bit more discussion on Nader's alleged role as "spoiler," click here to watch his sit-down interview with Newsweek's Howard Fineman.