The problem is that the Greens have no formal way to compel Nader to do anything he doesn't want to do. The party had little influence on his 2000 campaign strategy and hiring practices, a sore spot for many veteran Greens. Despite numerous requests, he never gave the national party his 2000 campaign donor list, claiming--incorrectly--that federal law prohibited such a contribution to the party. He only rented the list to the party three years after his run, when it was undoubtedly far less valuable. (In his defense, Nader always mentions the more than forty-four fundraisers he has attended on behalf of Green Party committees and candidates.)
But politics abhors a vacuum, and among the Greens this debate is generating support for an insurgent named David Cobb, the party's general counsel and a hardworking activist who helped found the Texas Green Party in 1999. On the issues, there is little to distinguish Cobb from Nader--indeed, he dates his own political awakening to a speech Nader gave in 1996. But in launching his admittedly longshot attempt to get the party's presidential nod, Cobb has made a series of pledges that stand as an implicit rebuke and challenge to Nader--promising to share his volunteer lists with local and state party chapters, to freely share his donor lists with the party's national committee and to coordinate his hiring of staff with party affiliates. He has also stated that he will withdraw from the race if either Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton is the Democratic nominee, that he will run hard to prevent the election of a "corporate conservative" like Joe Lieberman and that otherwise he will follow a "strategic-states plan" focusing on states that are not "in play."
Asked in early October about Cobb's candidacy, Nader's first response is that he won't have anything to say before he makes his own 2004 decision. But after I describe Cobb's positions on Kucinich, Sharpton, Lieberman and "strategic states," he scoffs. "It sounds to me like political schizophrenia. You either run or you don't. You don't say to people in some states that we're going to ignore you." He also argues that the party shouldn't impose any kind of strategic constraints on its candidates. "No candidate will want to be bound by [having to avoid battleground states] and be told by the party that we don't want you to go into, say, Wisconsin. Imagine the major parties having that kind of restriction." Told that the Greens will defer any such decision until the party's national convention next June in Milwaukee, Nader says, "This shouldn't be delayed until June. They're not being fair to their candidates. They should have a meeting and come out with a policy." Almost as an afterthought he adds, "Assuming they can enforce it on their candidates." Nader has not ruled out leaving the Green fold and running as an independent. Nor is it inconceivable that he would file against Bush in some Republican primaries, and then try to switch to an independent line for the fall.
"The top priority should be to defeat Bush," Nader insists. "Obviously, the Democrats are having trouble showing how they can do that." With palpable frustration, he cites the Democrats' failure to make more headway from the corporate scandals and their timidity in the face of Republican appeals to war fever and patriotism. Growing more animated, he declares, "The real issue for Democrats beating up on the Greens is, can the Democrats win without a third-party effort to launch the issues that the Democrats are too dense or cautious or too indentured to raise themselves, which they'll then pick up?" Arguing that some kinds of poison can make a body stronger, he insists, with a touch of his own schizophrenia, that a third-party push could cause the Democrats "to say and do things that would get them more votes than they would lose to the third-party candidate."
If Nader and the Greens sound like they're contradicting themselves, it's because they're trying to bridge two conflicting goals: the long-term need for an independent political force and the short-term imperative of defeating Bush. In my opinion, 2004 is not 2000 and the "Gush-Bore" similarities I once wrote about don't apply now. I love Ralph and respect his legendary accomplishments and example, but another Nader run as a Green or independent without an explicit and binding agreement to concentrate on safe states would be a terrible mistake. Apart from risking the re-election of Bush, it would only hurt Nader. Barring an unforeseen shift in the contours of next year's election, he would do far worse than the 2.7 million votes he got in 2000. This is not his year.
As for the Greens, as long as the two-party duopoly misrules America, third-party efforts will percolate and independent voters will proliferate. But that doesn't mean that a particular party like the Greens is fated to have a long life beyond the margins. If the party is to grow outside of the progressive venues where it already has a foothold, it has to control its strong taste for self-indulgent symbolic statements and focus on where its opportunities are greatest, in local races in the one-party cities and counties where many of America's most alienated and disenfranchised citizens live. Nader and the Greens made their point about Democratic decrepitude in 2000; now they should make their own demonstration of good judgment or face their own decline.