Nader and the Politics of Fear
Mention his name in the House Democratic caucus and Ralph Nader draws spontaneous boos. Among party regulars, many assume that the anger and the regrets lingering from Election 2000 effectively put an end to the "Nader moment." Every right turn by George W. Bush reminds people that Nader's Green Party vote of 2.7 percent deprived Albert Gore of a clean victory. Even some erstwhile supporters are grumbling about Nader's postelection silence, depicting a weird recluse who's not even talking to old friends. Representative Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, had a different idea. He invited Nader in for a friendly chat in early February and began by congratulating him for running "a terrific campaign." According to Nader, Gephardt was especially impressed by the superrallies the Green campaign organized in city after city, filling large arenas with enthusiastic young people who paid $10 or $20 to cheer Nader's dense litany of progressive policy issues. Nobody is paying to hear us talk about policy, Gephardt observed.
Under the circumstances, it seems wiser to talk than to shun. The Democratic Party is now in the full wilderness--complete minority status for the first time since the early 1950s--and this fallen condition opens space for a different, more fractious kind of party politics. Where are the Democrats? "Castaways," said Representative Dennis Kucinich, new chair of the Progressive Caucus. "We're back on the island, learning to make fires.... What happened for the last eight years was the Democrats exchanged principles for polling data."
As the minority party, Democrats are likely to experience the pressures of inside-outside politics--unscripted and unstable--in which numerous irregular voices claim the right to clash with the elected establishment over the party's direction and core beliefs. Democratic senators got a first taste when their frontline constituencies mobilized against John Ashcroft for Attorney General. They coaxed or bludgeoned forty-two Democrats into voting against their former colleague (none of the senators dreaming of a future presidential candidacy dared to vote for him). At a Washington conference on February 28, the Campaign for America's Future launches its blueprint for progressive ideas and action, "The Next Agenda," which describes leading-edge strategies for achieving universal healthcare, sustainable economics and other forward-looking goals (reminiscent of the Heritage Foundation's long-established guidebook for conservative thinking). Inside Congress, the Progressive Caucus and the Black Caucus agitate for stronger principles and stiffer backbones.
Nader and the Greens, though outsiders, are among the more distant elements of the grassroots who intend to exert influence--supportive or threatening--toward restoration of a more substantial Democratic Party. Nader told Gephardt he expects Greens to run as many as eighty Congressional candidates in 2002, nearly twice their list this past year. Some of these, he said, will be challenging comfortable Republicans like Representatives Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, the House leaders who are used to enjoying a free ride in Texas. "At least, it will send them a message from back home when they think it's a lifetime job," Nader explained to him. But, of course, Greens will also target Gephardt's own Democrats. "We didn't talk about that," Nader said. "He understood, though, that this is about party-building. To build a party, you're not going to help the other guy win." Gephardt's office confirmed the meeting, but declined to discuss content.
Nader and the Greens are a problem for Democrats, but might also be a useful asset--a force for stoking popular resistance to the party's rightward drift, drawing new voters and energy into the electoral process, test-marketing advanced issues Democrats are still afraid to touch, perhaps even encouraging party discipline. "I told him I'm going to continue to help build the Green Party," Nader said, "and, where there are no Green candidates running, the spillover vote is likely to help the Democratic candidate, and the Democrats ought to recognize that." In 2000, the Green vote was decisive in defeating at least one Democratic House candidate in Michigan and dangerously close in one or two other districts. On the other hand, the Green turnout clearly helped elect Maria Cantwell to the Senate from Washington State and probably saved a couple of House Democrats in very close California races. Nader directed his personal fire at several right-wing Republicans, who lost. He also thinks Green voters helped Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow defeat hard-right incumbent Spencer Abraham (now Bush's Energy Secretary) and could have helped more if the Dems had pointed them to the most promising contests. Nader and Gephardt talked about the missed opportunities last year. It would be helpful, the two agreed, to consult more closely in the future.
If the cozy talk rankles those many Democrats who loathe Nader, they should consider the possibility that it reflects their new condition. A minority party, utterly without governing power, finds itself scolded by unrepentant outsiders and can't blithely turn them away, if it wishes to grow. Five-term Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who won as a party outsider herself, observed: "My ability to get elected has always relied on nontraditional people--bringing new people, new supporters in the process--so every new voter the Green Party attracts is a potential new voter for me. The whole idea of progressives, I thought, was to have more people participating, not fewer. I absolutely understand the frustration of young people who feel alienated from a Democratic Party that looks like a Republican Party, especially that feeds at the same trough."
If Democrats manage to win back the House and Senate in '02 (a good bet if a severe recession unfolds), they might brush aside such critics. But, if not, Democrats will have to learn how to think like a minority--taking bigger risks because they have nothing to lose. When the Republican Party endured in this wilderness, its ideological reconstruction was a long and very nasty affair. The energetic outsiders were true-blue conservatives who assailed the old guard and occasionally defeated their incumbents in primaries or as third-party challengers. The uncompromising right-wing ideologues were relentless and harsh, regarded in GOP circles as the "frothers" and "ankle-biters," but they had real impact in pulling the party rightward. Think of Ralph Nader as a vigorous new ankle-biter from the left.
Nader compares the Greens' potential to the electoral leverage the Christian right exerts over the Republican Party. "The Democrats are just not used to dealing with any leverage from the left," he said. "They're used to saying to progressives: Shut up, you've got nowhere else to go." This comparison sounds a bit self-inflated (as insurgent leaders often sound) and certainly it's far ahead of present facts. The Greens are growing but lack anything close to the popular base assembled by the TV preachers and allied groups. Indeed, the Greens barely exist as an organized party, though Nader has great confidence that young people will develop a more muscular organization. The 900 college coordinators from his campaign are launching Campus Greens to continue the party recruiting and to build active chapters on campus (in truth, mobilized young people could take over large chunks of the Democratic Party where state and local organizations are moribund). Nader doesn't have a developed electoral strategy for '02, not yet anyway, but at this point even the major parties cannot think strategically until state-by-state redistricting determines which seats are safe, which are in play. Still, Nader did not disappear, as some believe, and by his count has held nine press conferences since the election, along with four Green Party fundraisers, and he makes the rounds of TV chat shows.
Nader could flop, of course, or fail to deliver on his expansive ambitions. If one were designing the leader for an insurgent third party, Nader would probably not be the model. He is not a political animal in terms of the human sensibilities successful pols usually exude--an acute empathy for how others are reacting to him, the neediness for personal affection. He has no real experience in electoral politics, aside from initiative campaigns. His singular strength of character--the tenacity to go it alone--is a bad fit with the everyday give-and-take of running campaigns or building a real organization.