Ralph Nader -- legendary consumer advocate, accused spoiler in the 2000 presidential campaign -- is not, to state it mildly, terribly popular among Democrats, who still hold the election of George W. Bush against him.
So the idea, announced Monday, that he is seeking to recruit a slate of liberal stalwarts to mount a primary challenge against President Obama in 2012 is likely to elicit a response -- at least among some in the party -- ranging somewhere between eye-rolling and teeth-gnashing.
Nader seems not terribly concerned. His response to the 2000 controversy (a tie in Florida, hanging chads, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision stopping the recount and putting Bush in the White House) was to run for president again in 2004 and 2008.
Still, Nader insists the purpose of his latest electoral effort is not to deny Obama the Democratic nomination, or undermine his chances in the general election against whomever the Republicans put up against the president.
"Just the opposite," Nader said, speaking via telephone from Washington shortly after the recruitment effort was made public. "If [Obama's] smart, he'll welcome it, because nothing's worse than an incumbent president slipping in the polls, being constantly on the defensive, being accused by supporters of having no backbone and running an unenthusiastically received campaign. That's a prescription for defeat.
"He's got a lack of enthusiasm with his base," Nader continued. "If he goes through a one-year presidential campaign with mind-numbing repetition, responding to crazed Republican positions, he is not going to activate his base. He will be put on the defensive, just the way he is now."
To launch their insurgency effort, Nader and his allies released a scathing "Dear Colleague" letter sent to more than 150 potential sympathizers, accusing Obama of turning his back on his liberal base and its progressive agenda.
A partial bill of particulars, from a summary press release, includes "his decision to bail out Wall Street's most profitable firms while failing to push for effective prosecution of the criminal behavior that triggered the recession, escalating the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan while simultaneously engaging in a unilateral war in Libya, his decision to extend the Bush era tax cuts, and his acquiescence to Republican extortion during the recent debt ceiling negotiations."
Signatories include a number of luminaries of the left (and some familiar Obama critics), among them academic Cornel West, writer Gore Vidal, actor Peter Coyote and singer Michelle Shocked.
Nader said details of a potential primary challenge, such as the names and number of candidates and where they would be fielded, remain to be worked out. He acknowledged that some fast-approaching filing deadlines mean organizers "will have to move quickly."
As for his own plans, Nader did not rule out another independent run for president in the fall of 2012, though he called the prospect "very unlikely."
"I don't have an ax to grind here," Nader said. "I'm not maneuvering for anything. I'm not a registered Democrat. I just want, as a citizen, to have a rigorous debate on all the matters we've worked on for decades: consumers affairs, environmental protection, new taxes, new ideas, new excitement."
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama's reelection effort, said the campaign had no comment.