WASHINGTON — What's up with Ralph?
Ralph Nader, the consumer crusader who roiled the U.S. presidential campaigns in 2000, 2004 and 2008, is sitting this election out.
Or is he? As he prepared to speak to a rally last week at Lafayette Park across from the White House, Nader, talking to a McClatchy reporter, stopped short of saying "no" to another campaign.
"Very unlikely," he said of the chances he will run again.
But this is a re-energized Nader who, after watching the emerging Occupy Wall Street movement take off this fall, is reaching out to the young crowds of protesters, who echo his cries of "corporate greed" and "oligarchy."
And it's enough to make him hedge about his electoral prospects. "It's hard to say if the Occupy movement would make it different," he said.
Nader, 77, is several generations removed from many — though not all — of the new breed of activists. But he generates excitement and requests for photos and seemed to revel in the attention Thursday during two public appearances.
At midday in Lafayette Park, he spoke to 1,500 mostly older activists at an event seeking a Wall Street tax on stock transactions.
"He's my hero," gushed Chicago nurses Mary Jabala and Terri Collins at the same time as they jostled for a photo.
At Washington's downtown Freedom Plaza later that afternoon, Nader praised the Occupy protesters as double-decker tourist buses paused behind him to take in the scene, with some riders snapping pictures.
"Most movements start from a sense of injustice," he said. The Occupy movement, he said, "is about the whole injustice in the country."
Nader plans to go to New York City, the hub of the Occupy movement, to talk to the protesters there before Thanksgiving — "I have a standing invitation" — and has walked down the few blocks from his office to a D.C. encampment to talk to the occupiers.
Is Nader a source of inspiration to this new movement after his years of fighting corporations? "I wouldn't say he was inspiring me," said a protester who would only give his name as Rusty, wearing a cloth covering his mouth that said "Jail Oakland P.D.," a reference to the Oakland, Calif., police crackdown on Occupy protesters.
Rusty, 25, said he was an out-of-work mechanic from Colorado and has been living for four weeks in an Occupy D.C. encampment, which Nader visited. And he wasn't totally immune to the Nader effect.
"It's really cool he came down," said Rusty, who lists his issues as tax reform and the separation of money from elections, or, as he called it, "the state."
The public financing of elections has been a Nader tenet for years, as has statehood for D.C. — which he recently advocated at another recent rally.
Nader admires a lot about the Occupy forces, from the decentralized movement, with sites in communities across the country, and that "it has no specific program."
"Keep it at the level of general injustice," he told a crowd of several hundred at Freedom Plaza. Some of the issues: Medicare for all, corporate crime, "getting out of wars of oppression," and taxing speculation on Wall Street.
"There is nothing more powerful than controlled indignation rooted in morality and ethics," he said.
Nader made his name in the 1960s as a consumer advocate fighting for auto safety and was, initially, a reluctant politician who was cajoled into running as the Green Party presidential candidate in 2000. He's widely viewed as the "spoiler" who drew votes from Democrat Al Gore, costing him the election — which Nader disputes. He ran as an independent in 2004 and 2008.
And he has a feel for harnessing the power of the Occupy forces. On Thursday, he suggested that the activists turn their attention to Congress and start by staging events encircling the district offices of representatives and senators.
"Now it's time to move to another stage," he said. "And then you'll start seeing a little bit of sweating on Capitol Hill."
It's not exactly clear what direction the Occupy movement will take, or what course Nader himself will take.
In September, he joined forces with Cornel West, a Princeton University professor and progressive agitator, in a public letter to distinguished Americans calling on them to step forward and challenge President Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
However, he told McClatchy that the effort was now effectively dead, despite fielding what he said was a "pretty good slate" of candidates, because the New Hampshire primary filing deadline was moved up to Oct. 28.
Nader, who looks remarkably the same as he did when he first became a public figure and still lives on $30,000 a year, could possibly be cajoled into another run, say longtime associates. But for now he's doing what he's always done — support citizen agitation and hawk a book.
This month his 16th book, "Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism," will be released.
"He's looking for the strategic and tactical advantage in the current situation," said Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "This should be grist for his mill. You'd think he'd capture some of the energy of that movement for his causes."
Nader said he's still doing lots of social activism, and in an earlier conversation he referred a reporter to his website. The surprised reporter asked Nader, famous for never using a computer, whether he has changed his ways. "As I'm speaking to you, I'm leaning on my old Underwood typewriter," he said.
His young aides post his writings and keep up his Facebook page.
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