Ralph Nader, who has made a career of openness in government and now has undertaken an admittedly quixotic presidential candidacy, is not filing personal financial disclosure forms required of most of those seeking the White House.
Nor is the legendary consumer crusader going to tell us who his contributors are or how much they give.
And forget about seeing his income tax forms. (Even though there is no requirement to release them, it has become politically de rigueur for national candidates to divulge their intimate IRS documents.)
“For 30 years I’ve been an advocate of privacy, and I like to practice what I preach,” Nader said. “Tax returns are a matter between the American people and the U.S. Treasury.”
How is it that this tireless advocate of accountability can keep such information from the electorate?
“Because this is not a jackpot-oriented candidacy,” Nader said. “This is not about going for numbers. You won’t find me campaigning with arms outstretched at crowds and rallies.”
It is not, really, even about winning.
He admits he is more catalyst than candidate. A prime Nader goal is to hold up a mirror to the campaigns of those other guys and show what a tawdry, money-drunk spectacle conventional runs for the White House really are.
To demonstrate how a campaign can spring from grass-roots support and eschew dependence on millions of dollars of contributions, Nader will seek no money, accept no money and spend virtually none on his quirky quest.
The unusual campaign financing techniques appear to be entirely legal, but they draw an ironic portrait of Nader, the longtime advocate for official accountability, as a presidential candidate unwilling to disclose campaign and personal finance information.
His candidacy has been orchestrated to stay below the $5,000 federal campaign spending limit that triggers detailed filings with the Federal Election Commission. By staying below the limit, Nader does not meet the federal definition of candidate--and thus is not obligated to make his campaign and personal finances public.
And Nader not only refuses to release his tax returns but also decries what he sees as hypocrisy on the part of some politicians who do.
"[A politician] says, ‘Look, I’ve released 10 years of tax returns.’ But it’s like exhibitionism. You [s.o.b.], why don’t you vote for people’s health and safety once in a while?” Nader said.
Nader’s nondisclosure approach has raised questions from electoral watchdogs who say that, at the least, it flies in the face of the spirit of the federal election laws.
“The public has a hunger for some level of information about a candidate’s personal finances,” said Bill Hogan at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. “If he doesn’t [disclose the information] it could become an issue very fast.”
Others express surprise that Nader, of all people, should find himself facing such questions.
“I can’t imagine another candidate more sensitive to the appearance and reality [of complying with federal regulations],” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Truth be told, though, many good-government advocates are not exactly losing sleep over the matter.
Said Miller: “Anyone who is a serious candidate should release such financial information. But I’m not sure he is a serious candidate.”
Nader supporters hope that his name will appear as a presidential candidate in as many as 40 states. But the ballot-placement is proceeding in an unorthodox manner.
In a handful of states, including California, he is running under the banner of the Green Party, a group of environmental activists. But Nader stresses that he won’t be campaigning as a Green Party candidate--and certainly will not accept money from them.
Indeed, once Nader decided to go along with the Greens’ offer last fall to make him their candidate, a carefully organized structure was devised to erect “walls” between the Greens, Nader and the Draft Nader for President Clearinghouse in Washington.
To stay below the $5,000 spending limit, Nader will make few, if any, campaign trips in the conventional sense. He has continued his routine of making speeches to university audiences--just as he has for 30 years.
True to his reputation for frugality, he tries to keep costs down.
“You can find cheap flights to California, and once you’re there you can sleep with friends or relatives. There is virtually no expense.”