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.
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."