Public Citizen No.1
Finally, there is a pragmatic logic to a serious Nader candidacy that could even appeal to some Democrats--at least the Congressional branch of the party. A strong progressive-populist campaign can reach very effectively into the growing ranks of nonvoters, who are disproportionately lower on the socioeconomic ladder, and bring them back to the polls. That is the lesson of victories like Paul Wellstone's in 1990 and 1996, Bernie Sanders's in 1990, and even last year's Washington State initiative to raise the minimum wage to the highest level in the country. In every case, voter turnout rose significantly.
Pollster John Zogby, who has built his reputation on figuring out who is likely to vote, says, "You will see an increase in those who call themselves liberal or progressive if there's a credible Green Party candidate [in the race]. For example, that was seen in New York with Ralph Nader in 1996." And once those voters are in the polling booth, they are likely to vote Democratic down-ballot. Indeed, Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has credited his narrow 1994 re-election to the turnout boost from the Greens' gubernatorial candidate, Roberto Mondragon, who got 10 percent of the vote that year. For these reasons, Congressional Democrats hoping to retake the House might think twice about attacking a Nader bid.
And yet, the first thing many people, including sympathetic activists, undoubtedly think when they hear that Nader is running for President is: not again. Especially after his failure to mount a real campaign in 1996. Nader himself does not dodge the charge. "More people might have voted for me last time but didn't know if I was running," he told me. "We weren't on the ballot in many states," he adds (twenty-two plus Washington, DC, to be precise). "And there wasn't a campaign." The implication: This time will be different.
For starters, there won't be any shyness about filing as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission or raising money. While several decisions have yet to be made--about whether to cap the size of contributions à la Jerry Brown's $100 limit in '92, or whether to make the effort to obtain matching funds during the primary period--sources close to Nader say they hope to "break through seven figures" easily, which would allow them to hire full-time regional organizers and assist with ballot access. A larger budget to pay for campaign ads is under consideration, though Nader is very concerned not to let the fundraising tail wag the dog. "I want to see volunteer-hour-raisers, not just money-raisers," he told me. He will also resist releasing his tax returns--a voluntary step not required by law--arguing that the FEC's financial disclosure forms are more than sufficient and that income taxes ought to remain private.
Not all Greens are united around Nader's emerging campaign. One criticism comes from those who question whether he is really their best messenger. They remember his telling columnist William Safire that he didn't want to get into "gonadal politics," and they complain that his anticorporate focus gives short shrift to other parts of the Green platform that affirm feminism and gay rights. According to Steve Schmidt, chairman of the Greens' platform committee, when the issue of his statement to Safire came up last June at a national meeting of Green state parties, Nader professed his commitment to the continuing struggle against discrimination and for civil rights. But "whether that satisfies some of the people who feel the Green candidate should go more into that issue remains to be seen," Schmidt says. "Some people think we should be an amalgam of single issues writ large. But the Green Party national platform, which Ralph is on record as strongly supporting, is comprehensive. I think Ralph is right to focus on the core of the platform--reviving civic democracy, a broad-based political movement built from the grassroots and citizen participation." Still, with Nader focusing mainly on topping 5 percent, it's likely he'll try to stick as much as possible to his civic versus corporate agenda in ways that some progressives will undoubtedly find alienating.
A second, more muted concern among some Greens is that Nader has waited too long to announce his candidacy, limiting the potential party-building effect of his running. "It's a huge missed opportunity," says one activist who worked very hard on the 1996 campaign but is sitting this one out. "The point is not Ralph or the presidential campaign; the point is to build the Green Party--to bring in new people. If you want to fundamentally change the landscape, you need people coming in earlier who will raise funds, hold meetings and learn skills so they will be in for the long haul. If he had announced two years before the election, we would have had a great opportunity to build a blossoming infrastructure. Instead, they're going to have to hire petitioners." On the other hand, people close to Nader point out that the Greens can still build their own locals with or without his official candidacy. In fact, while not a candidate, Nader has made several trips to help Green candidates get elected in locales ranging from New Jersey and Connecticut to California and New Mexico.
Yet the concern over what his late entry means for the Greens is just one symptom of a deeper complaint made by many veterans of progressive politics about working with Nader: He's a lone wolf, and he's never worked well in coalitions. "If you're on his side, you're in fine shape," says one top veteran of the antiglobalization movement. "If you decide to put less emphasis on the campaign, for whatever reason, but you still share his long-term goals, he can treat you like the enemy." This leader points to a serious break between Nader and the AFL-CIO over how hard to fight the GATT treaty and also questions whether Nader can bring together blue-collar whites with African-Americans. Still, pressed to say if Ralph should run or not, this person says yes. "We need a progressive running. If it's a choice between Ralph or nobody, a lot of us who have reservations on other fronts will say, Hooray! But if he doesn't run hard, that could become very dispiriting."
In the end, whether the emerging Nader campaign meets or exceeds expectations this time around depends entirely on Ralph. Even though grassroots volunteers can have a huge impact on the vitality of his campaign, only he can decide how hard to push which issues, how hard to fundraise, how integrated with party-building his effort will be. After all, campaigns--even unconventional, alternative campaigns--are still primarily driven from the center outward. And there is an inexorable logic pushing Nader further into the electoral arena. Thirty-five years after he essentially invented public-interest activism, his non-electoral endeavors are frequently blocked by corporate lobbying and trumped by big money's domination of politics. It makes sense for him, as he reaches the pinnacle of his career, to appeal directly to the same natural majority that he has indirectly championed for so long, and to use the leverage built into the federal election laws to launch one more institution of countervailing citizen power, the Green Party, into permanent orbit. The moment is his. And the chance won't come again.