Public Citizen No.1
In an interview in mid-November Nader continued to maintain that no final decision had been made. But according to both a senior Green activist who met with him at length last June and a former Nader's Raider still close to him, Nader is privately saying he will run. "I'm not using the word 'if' because I've heard him be definitive," says the first source. "It's not if but when. The question becomes what kind of campaign because it takes two to tango. During our meeting, we addressed some of the issues from '96: Is he going to run an active campaign, and will he work closely with the Greens on a daily basis? He said yes and yes." Two concrete indications of Nader's intent: He allowed the California Green Party to place his name on its March 2000 primary ballot (a decision that had to be made by this November), and he convinced Native American activist Winona LaDuke to again be his vice presidential candidate after she had announced that she didn't want to run again.
Nader's goal: to get at least 5 percent of the vote. That's the threshold third parties have to cross in order to receive a proportional share of public funding for the next presidential campaign. The $12.6 million coming to the Reform Party's presidential candidate for the 2000 general election was triggered by Ross Perot's 8 percent showing in 1996. If Nader and the Greens succeed, it would guarantee the Green Party millions in public funds for 2004, which would give a huge boost to lower-level Green candidates as well. It would also raise the party to the same level as the Reform Party in the national eye. And it's not an unrealistic goal, as he got just under 1 percent of the vote in 1996, when only one out of seven voters knew he was running.
Not waiting for a formal announcement, a core group--including Carol Miller, co-chair of the New Mexico Green Party and recent Congressional candidate; Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Alliance for Democracy; and Mike Feinstein, a Green member of the Santa Monica City Council--is already hard at work on an unauthorized basis, having formed a National Committee to Draft Ralph Nader for President, opened a bank account and set up a Web site at www.Nader2k.org to sign up volunteers and raise money. "What I want is to build a Green Party," says Miller. "I don't think we can guarantee that he is going to win a four-way race," she adds with a laugh, "but if Bush implodes, anything is possible. I want someone who knows how to build a movement--people's movements, citizens' movements, bringing in young people. That's worth a lot to me, to have something after the election."
Does this make any sense? It's always made a certain sense. Nader is one of the few progressives with enough public standing to enter the celebrity sweepstakes of presidential politics. And Ralph is to backbone what most politicians are to waffles. His message cuts across the simple labels of left and right, capable of reaching conservative home-schoolers anxious about rampant commercialism, small-business people angry about special privileges for big corporations, unionists upset about jobs disappearing overseas and anybody who knows someone whose life was saved by an airbag, as well as hard-core enviros, consumer activists and other progressives. He retains a strong following among seniors who have followed his whole career, and he still draws a respectable showing at his many campus speaking gigs. Two months ago I saw Nader speak to an active group of ex-Perotistas at the American Reform Party's national convention in Washington. At the end, they gave him a standing ovation, with several people chanting, "Run, Ralph, run!"
The time certainly seems ripe for an independent progressive-populist campaign. Three converging forces--the public's continuing dissatisfaction with the major parties, the growing power of disaffected citizens to band together quickly via the Internet and the twenty-four-hour-a-day need of our tabloidized media system for fresh stories to tell--have combined to boost third-party politics closer to the political mainstream. That, plus the unexpected election of Jesse Ventura as Minnesota governor last fall, has made the impossible seem possible. Polls show that anywhere between a third and a half of the public would like to see more choices on the ballot than just George W. Bush and Al Gore. And if all the reporting on Pat Buchanan's and Donald Trump's Reform Party moves is any indication, Nader is likely to draw a good deal of free media attention as well.
In addition, Buchanan's decision to seek the Reform Party's nomination may shake up the presidential election in an unexpected way. "The Reform Party's nomination of Buchanan would open up more space for a polar opposite, like Ralph, to get engaged," says Steve Cobble, the former political director of the Rainbow Coalition. First, if Buchanan is indeed the Reform nominee, siphoning hard-right votes away from the Republican candidate, it takes some of the edge off the argument that Nader would merely "spoil" the Democrats' presidential hopes. Second, an aggressive Nader-Green campaign could offer a clearheaded alternative to Buchanan's xenophobic populism. For while the two men may agree about who the villains are in the trade wars, they disagree about many of the solutions. Not only could Nader inject critically needed arguments into the national debate; his candidacy would inevitably put pressure on Gore's and Bradley's instinctive centrism.