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Ralph Nader on Bernie Sanders’ Presidential Bid & His Unanswered Letters to the White House

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Since independent Senator Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy in April, polls in Iowa show support there for him has increased to 15 percent among Democrats, up from five percent in February. This compares to about 60 percent backing for former secretary of state, senator and first lady Hillary Clinton. Sanders is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history, yet he is going to run in the Democratic Party for the Democratic nomination. We discuss Sanders’ plans with former presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, author of the new book, “Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In the last few weeks, a new person has thrown his hat into the ring in the Democratic Party, and that is independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Since Sanders announced his candidacy in April, polls in Iowa show support there for him has increased [to] 15 percent among Democrats, up from 5 percent in February. This compares to about 60 percent backing for former secretary of state, senator and first lady Hillary Clinton. Senator Sanders is the longest-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history, yet he is going to run in the Democratic Party for the Democratic nomination. He says he’ll run as Democratic Socialist.

Well, Juan González and I recently discussed Sanders’ plans with former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who has new book out called Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015. We began by asking Ralph Nader, who ran several times as a third-party candidate, for his response to Sanders’ decision to make a bid for the Democratic nomination.

RALPH NADER: Well, that’s always been a dilemma he’s been deliberating for the last year or so. If he runs as an independent, he can go to November. If he runs as a registered Democrat, he’s done in April or May, assuming he doesn’t defeat Hillary Clinton or others, but he gets on the televised primaries. Where as an independent he could be marginalized, as a Democrat he’s going to get on quite a few debates and in the primary. But he will be asked—if not very soon, he will be asked, “Will you endorse the nominee of the Democratic Party if it’s Hillary Clinton?” And if he says no, he may be actually kept off the debates. The debates are controlled by a corporation, known as the Democratic Party. They kept Dennis Kucinich off some of the debates. It’s completely within their power to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Did you have any discussions with him about that choice? And did you give him any advice?

RALPH NADER: Bernie Sanders does not answer my calls. Fifteen years, he’s never answered a telephone call, never replied to a letter, never replied to a meeting that I wanted to go down and see him. I even had to write an article on this, called “Bernie, We Thought We Knew Ye!” One of the problems he’s going to face, other than his good graces in Vermont, is that he doesn’t have good political antennae. He doesn’t have political social graces. And he’s going to have to change that. A lot of his friends have told me that that’s a problem. But most progressive senators don’t really respond to any progressive group that tries to push him to do more than they want to do. I wrote nine letters to nine progressive senators, like Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and saying, “Look, you’re all lone rangers doing good things, but you’re going nowhere. So why don’t you get together into a caucus of nine, 10, 12 senators in the Senate and push a unified agenda on poverty, on labor, on the environment, on trade, on military policy? You might really get somewhere. At the least, you’ll raise these issues more prominently.” Not a single response. Called up, said, “Would they respond?” Not a single response. I did finally have to go down and meet with the general counsel for Senator Warren. But by and large, that’s the problem with the left. That’s the problem of progressives. They don’t link with one another. You never see Heritage Foundation or Cato or all these right-wing groups tolerate members of Congress treating them that way who are supposed to be on their side.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders tweeted on Thursday that he looked forward to debating Clinton on, quote, “the big issues: income inequality, climate change & getting big money out of politics.” Hillary Clinton had tweeted, in response to him announcing for presidency, the first formal Democratic candidate against her—she wrote, “I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America’s middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race.” Your response?

RALPH NADER: Well, he’s got a very good 12-point program, which I’m sure he’s going to talk about all over the country. And you can see what Hillary’s response and strategy is going to be. She is going to agree with him on a general basis, like, “Yes, we should have better wages for the American people.” She’s going to try to neutralize him. She’s going to try to, in effect, appear like she is going along with progressive policies. His counterstrategy has got to be very specific. “OK, Hillary Clinton, do you support a Wall Street transaction tax?” There are sales taxes on necessities of life all over the United States, 6 to 8 percent, but there’s not a penny sales tax if someone today buys a $100 billion worth or $100 million worth of ExxonMobil derivatives. Well, that will really get it specific. So he cannot allow her to generalize agreement with him to try to neutralize him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ralph, I wanted to ask you—you mentioned that all of these progressive senators don’t respond to your letters. Obviously, the presidents don’t respond to your letters. But one person did respond to one of your letters: Michelle Obama. Could you talk about that?

RALPH NADER: Yeah, this is a very important letter that I wrote. I wrote it actually three times. You read about President Obama going to Chambers of Commerce, going to business gatherings all over the country. But he’s never addressed the voluntary nonprofit sector, the groups that deal with charity, deal with children’s needs, environment, labor groups, religious groups, groups that are advocacy groups. And when Jimmy Carter was elected president, we gathered a thousand of these leaders, who have millions of members, like the National Council of Churches—they have a lot of members around the country—and labor unions, etc., in a hotel about two blocks from the White House. And it was a very successful meeting with Jimmy Carter, and it raised the profile of these groups.

So I wrote the letters to Barack Obama saying, “Why don’t you do that? It’s just two blocks away, logistically very easy. You walked across Lafayette Park to pay homage to the Chamber of Commerce. Why don’t you do that? It’s not only the right thing to do, but these nonprofit groups have a lot of employees. And if they get more visibility, more charitable contributions, they’re going to hire more people.” And I tried to appeal to him on the job basis. Well, he never answered. So I sent it over to Michelle’s office, and back came a letter basically saying, “Thank you for doing that, but he’s just too busy.” He’s just too busy to respond to the nonprofit voluntary sector of America that every day keeps his country going.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The former community organizer.

RALPH NADER: He’s just too busy. Pardon?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The former community organizer, now president.

RALPH NADER: Yes. Of all people, he should have recognized this. He’s also an expert in constitutional law, and he has violated the Constitution and federal statutes in terms of his drone warfare and other foreign policies right and left. You know what the lesson, Juan, is, that it really doesn’t matter. If the power structure persists, it doesn’t matter who’s in office. It doesn’t matter what ethnic, racial background. It doesn’t matter how much they know, how much they don’t know. They’re all molded by the corporate power structure that controls Washington from Wall Street, to use a symbolic tour.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ralph, I wanted to ask you about the issue of empire, which you mention that even progressives like Bernie Sanders doesn’t want to question. We have a president who was elected to office as a candidate of peace, of ending the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. He pulled the ground troops out, but he has expanded air wars in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Libya and in Syria. So, your assessment of this issue of how President Obama has done with the question of empire?

RALPH NADER: Well, he’s expanded it, and he’s basically broken every international law relating to national sovereignties. He’s broken some of the Geneva Conventions, all of which the U.S. is a signatory to, U.N. Charter. No wars are permitted under international law in the U.N. Charter, unless they’re for strictly defensive purposes. And obviously, we attacked Iraq. They never threatened us. And we’re attacking all kinds of other areas around the world.

What are we getting for it? We’re getting the massive proliferation of violent groups, offshoots and sub-offshoots of al-Qaeda. There are so many of these groups in Africa and Asia spreading, Southeast Asia, that the Pentagon is having trouble indexing them. But they have all this—kill list, of course, every Tuesday in the White House. And what people in this country don’t understand is that the drones may take a few dozen lives here and a few dozen lives there, but when you’re living—when millions of people in Asia and Africa are living under drones, they hear that whine 24 hours a day, it’s terror, it’s horror. They don’t know whether their homes are going to be blown up from this lightning bolt from the sky. And then we wonder why people are hating us and want to do us in.

And it’s only a matter of time. As we push these fighters to become more skilled, more bold, greater in numbers, it’s only a matter of time when the suicide belts are coming to this country. And our country is totally unable to withstand preservation of its civil liberties and democracy with these attacks. And the whole process of democratic processes, allocation of public budgets, will be completely turned upside down in this country with a couple violent terrorist attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, can—would you like to read one of your favorite letters that didn’t get a response in your new book, Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015? And again, if you can talk, in prefacing it, about why you actually think letters are important? What is this tradition of letters you’re talking about? Why is this the form that you feel is important to communicate with the president?

RALPH NADER: Well, because it’s totally under control of the citizenry to write what he or she believes elected officials should listen to. When I was a child, a youngster, I read the Adams-Jefferson letters, and I read the—later, I read the Holmes-Laski letters. And I liked the personal nature of it, the initiatory nature of it, the command of the writer. And I used letters years ago to make a lot of news. The press would look at a letter and say, “Does it say something important? Is it newsworthy? Who does it go to?” And when these letters were publicized in the press, members of Congress couldn’t ignore the issue. They often would have congressional hearings.

So now, what are we left with? A few giant media conglomerates dominating everything, a little Indymedia, Democracy Now!, Pacifica. What are we really left with for people to breathe and to have a voice? And so, that’s why I wanted President Bush and Obama to address large gatherings of citizen groups in Washington, make it easy for them, who represent the felt necessities of our time, whether it’s dealing with poverty, bigotry, whether it’s dealing with education, whether it’s dealing with environment, consumer protection, the integrity of government, integrity of elections. So, in one of the letters—I’ll read just an excerpt.

“[I]n 2009 and again in 2011 I wrote to urge you [President Obama] to address a large gathering, in a convenient Washington venue, for the leaders of nonprofit civic organizations with tens of millions of members throughout the United States. Not receiving a reply, I sent my request to … First Lady, Michelle Obama, whose assistant replied saying you were too busy.

“You were, however, not too busy to address many business groups and also to walk over to the oppositional U.S. Chamber of Commerce [across from the White House]. Well, it is the second term and such a civic gathering could be scheduled at your convenience.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ralph Nader, reading from a letter he wrote to President Obama. It’s one of the many letters he features in his new book called Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015. You can watch part one of the interview and the rest of his reading at democracynow.org.

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