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Ralph Redux? | The Nation

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Ralph Redux?

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With a year to Election Day, Ralph Nader is quietly gearing up for his second serious bid for the presidency. Though he has been telling reporters that he won't make a decision about running until the end of the year, any day now he will announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, which will allow him to start raising money and hiring staff. A final decision to go ahead full throttle will probably wait until the winnowing of the Democratic primary field starts in February, as Nader genuinely likes progressive Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and has been supporting his underdog presidential bid.

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Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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In a recent interview, Nader rejected any suggestion that a 2004 run would be hobbled by the legacy of 2000, a startlingly stubborn assertion given how many people, including Democratic Party leaders, grassroots activists, labor and environmental honchos, and liberal pundits, blame him for costing Al Gore the election. He insists that voters he meets rarely raise the issue. In response, he tells people to read Jeffrey Toobin's Too Close to Call, which demonstrates in precise detail how Gore and his top advisers made a series of dumb and defeatist choices during the Florida recount showdown, spoiling their chances for a full and accurate vote tally.

With a combination of irritation and amusement, Nader has watched Howard Dean adopt the style, if not the substance, of his 2000 campaign, no doubt aware that a Dean nomination would seriously hamper his ability to gain traction next spring and summer. While he recognizes that many Dean supporters may well have been Naderites in 2000, he calls Dean a "middle of the road" Democrat too friendly to corporate demands, and dismisses progressive enthusiasm for Dean's candidacy with this metaphor: "Everybody is starved. If you have a garden and if it rains, you're not excited, but if you're in the desert and it rains, you're delirious. But you know what rain in the desert produces? A mirage." Repeating an old refrain, he says it doesn't even matter if Dean is for real: "He can't deliver--he can be George McGovern on steroids, but when he gets into the corporate prison called the White House, he can't deliver."

Given how Nader talks about the "corporate Democrats" and their failure to fight President Bush on everything from tax cuts and the Patriot Act to Enron and the Iraq war, the die seems cast for a rerun of his 2000 campaign--except for one critical wrinkle. This time, there's real opposition to his running coming from within the Green Party, and the prospect of an internal primary battle that may hinder or conceivably block Nader from receiving the party's nomination or push him into running as an independent.

"I don't think Ralph Nader should run again," says Elizabeth Horton Sheff, one of the party's slowly increasing number of African-American elected officials. Sheff, the majority leader of the Hartford, Connecticut, city council, adds, "Our message of grassroots inclusion did not get through with this candidate. His appeal is not broad enough to reach my community." (Indeed, Nader only got 1 percent of the African-American vote in 2000, compared with his 3 percent overall. Even in Democratic strongholds like Washington, DC, where Nader reached 5 percent, he only got one in one hundred black votes.) Arguing that Nader reaches mainly progressive and middle-class whites, Sheff insists that the party doesn't even need a presidential candidate, concluding, "We should run someone only if they have a proven track record appealing to a cross section of America."

Larry Barnett, a Green who is the former mayor of Sonoma, California, and a current member of its city council, calls any presidential bid "an ego-centered exercise in futility." He asserts that the party is making steady inroads in local electoral politics that can eventually sustain more serious campaigns for higher office. "In the meantime, wasting its time in races that are unwinnable only detracts from its message, its long-term goals and current accomplishments," he says. Art Goodtimes, a county commissioner in San Miguel, Colorado, who was elected as a Democrat in 1996, switched to Green in 1998 and won re-election with 69 percent of the vote in 2000, strongly agrees: "If we're serious about advancing a national candidate, we have to begin to win at the local levels in numbers far exceeding the mere 175 or so local officials currently calling themselves Green."

Other concerns are being raised by well-known Green activists who want the party to present a united front against Bush's re-election. At the party's national committee meeting in Washington this July, John Rensenbrink, one of its founders, spoke to me with pained intensity as he, to all effects, denounced Nader, whom he had vociferously backed in 2000, for toying with a 2004 run.

"People...are very focused on stopping the right-wing cabal that has taken over the country. Therefore, the focus has to be on defeating Bush. Beyond that, the Green Party needs to project a sense of urgency around saving the country, saving the Constitution, saving the planet." Rensenbrink, the co-editor of Green Horizon Quarterly (www.green-horizon.org), a new and lively independent Green journal, added with a sigh, "There's a concern that we'll be deflected from that message because of the baggage Ralph Nader has from 2000. I doubt he can get over 1 percent of the vote. He'll have to spend a lot of time dealing with the 'spoiler' question, unfairly, but that's where it is. I'd add to that that he doesn't want to be a Green, he runs with his coterie rather than party organizers, he doesn't involve local Green leaders and he doesn't get the racial issue. I fear if Nader runs, he'll drag down every other Green in this country. I love him, but this is sheer practical politics."

Harsh words, but they're matched by Robert McChesney, co-editor of Monthly Review, member of Nader's Citizen Works' Corporate Reform Commission, president of the professors' council of the US Campus Greens since 2001 and a leading media democracy activist. "I don't think Ralph should run," he e-mailed me a few weeks ago. "It would be bad for him personally; I doubt he would get half the number of votes he got in 2000. And it would be bad for the Greens.... Core elements of progressive constituencies, exactly the groups that the Greens need to build upon, will revolt with open contempt--far worse than 2000--to anything that helps keep Bush in office." McChesney concludes, "Running a presidential candidate in 2004 for the Greens is probably a quantum leap off a cliff. It is the Greens' Jonestown."

This dispute has been roiling Green Party ranks for some time [see Ronnie Dugger, "Ralph, Don't Run," December 2, 2002]. In May, Rensenbrink and Tom Sevigny (then one of the party's five national co-chairs) circulated a memo proposing that the Greens run a vigorous, "home-grown" candidate for President, not Nader. This candidate would run with the intention of supporting the Democratic ticket if the race was very close, concentrating on "safe" states where Bush or a Democrat would be very likely to win and thus a Green effort would pose little risk of helping Bush. (Only seventeen states are generally considered to be "in play.") Greens would focus on a handful of Congressional races, with Nader running for Senate from Connecticut, his home state.

This proposal prompted a strong counterstatement circulated by Ben Manski, a youthful firebrand who was Nader's Midwest field coordinator in 2000 and has been a party co-chair since 2001. Manski's manifesto, titled "2004 in Perspective: Green & Growing," rapidly gained the endorsement of more than 160 party activists, including at least ten elected officials. It starts with a restatement of the party's hopes to effect the political transformation of America. Recalling the corporate free-trade inclinations of the Clinton/Gore years, bipartisan support for intervention and empire, and unaddressed issues like global warming, "Green & Growing" asserts that the party is ready to aim for and achieve "realistic" goals as a genuine opposition to both major parties. And the manifesto insists that the 2004 presidential race "is vital for the Greens":

It's the race which deals directly with national policy, and which defines for the voters the Greens as a real party.... A strong Green presidential ticket will provide voters with the means to confront the establishment parties for their disastrous economic, international, ecological, and social policies. A strong Green ticket will force the establishment to address the failures of the electoral system, and to choose between the implementation of reforms such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and the continued loss of votes to the Greens. A strong Green ticket will bring nonvoters into the arena of electoral politics, and thus strengthen the overall movement for democracy in the United States.

Dean Myerson, until October the Greens' national political coordinator and thus formally neutral in such arguments, disagrees--and, indeed, believes 2004 is the "most dangerous year" in the party's existence. "The best strategy to build the party," Myerson tells me, "is to not focus on states where we'll do poorly. Why should we hook ourselves to the Democrats' strategy and campaign against them? We should campaign in nonbattleground states and safe states. In medium-sized cities Nader will be on the front page--he'll actually get to talk about his issues and keep the focus there, not on his being a 'spoiler.'" Myerson insists that this is the year the party has to demonstrate its political maturity. "Many people just say to me, look at how the party grew in 2000; that's why we need to run again in '04. And I say, 'Lots of parties run presidential candidates and it doesn't help them grow.'"

Right now, the Green debate over 2004 breaks into three distinct camps. There are those, a definite minority, who don't want the party to run any presidential candidate at all. There is another group, also a distinct minority, that backs Nader as the party's best spokesman and wants him to run an unconditional national campaign, though their motivations run from hard-core oppositionism to wanting to maximize their leverage in the event the race is close. The third group wants some version of a "safe states" strategy, and holds all shades of opinion as to whether Nader is the best candidate for it.

Ross Mirkarimi, an investigator in the San Francisco district attorney's office, who ran Nader's 2000 California operation and has often functioned as the state party's media spokesperson, has perhaps the most nuanced view. "We can devise a campaign plan that can contribute to the unseating of Bush while building the Green Party," he argues, noting that "we may be shopping for popular votes while the Democrats are shopping for electoral votes." Choosing his words slowly, he insists, "Democrats need to drive carefully as to where Greens may go, and the Greens need to do the same thing. A mechanism may be needed, whether it's over the table or covert, a sort of red phone to avoid danger and exercise diplomacy" [see "The Democrat-Green Death Struggle," opposite]. Is Nader capable of playing such a flexible role? "Ralph alone is not capable of acting in this manner," Mirkarimi says. "Ralph and a team and the party together are capable of devising such a strategy." Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and the Greens' 2000 candidate for US Senate in California, agrees that it's hard to see Nader calibrating his message and strategy in this way on his own. "I worry about the reputation of the Greens," she told me. "I think we'd get less votes with Nader this time than last time." Benjamin wants the Greens to be players in the presidential election, but only if the overarching goal is beating Bush.

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.

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