Eight years ago, Sally Soriano helped pull off one of Ralph Nader's end-of-the-campaign "super rallies" in Seattle. Thousands of people showed up, cheering and chanting as much for Nader's "politics of joy and justice" as for Eddie Vedder. When she remembers it, Soriano--now Ralph Nader's campaign manager--grins wider than Barack Obama. "It was unbelievable."
On Thursday, Soriano and the smallish staff of the Nader/Gonzalez campaign  walked into a much smaller event in the basement ballroom of Washington's Mayflower hotel. (Matt Gonzalez, a former Green Party member of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, is Nader's running mate this year.) A tiny but ambitious group called Free and Equal  had invited Nader and any other presidential candidate who was on enough state ballots to theoretically win the White House to a "real debate." Nader and Chuck Baldwin of the far-right Constitution Party  signed on; the other candidates passed. The man of the left who was filling arenas eight years ago took a night to face a C-Span 2 camera, several foreign news agencies, and ninety chairs for spectators. What happened between 2000 and now to make Nader's audience so small?
"It's the political climate," Soriano says. "It's been interesting how some of the people who were in the streets in Seattle, fighting against the WTO can convince themselves to vote for Kerry or Obama. They fall right in line."
It's one of the paradoxes of election 2008. If no one is happy with Congress, no one is happy with the president and voters grumble to pollsters about the two parties, it should be a breakout year for some political force. CNN's jowly populist Lou Dobbs spent most of the year fulminating about a third party that could challenge the Big Two on illegal immigration. Before he settled on his current path as a mayor-for-life of New York, Michael Bloomberg daydreamed about a third-party run. This summer, in a happy fluke, the Greens and the Libertarians both nominated former members of Congress from Georgia with sizable media profiles: Cynthia McKinney and Bob Barr.
There were big-media moments. In September, the four leading third-party candidates--Nader, Baldwin, McKinney and Barr--were invited to a press conference with Ron Paul at which the Republican iconoclast would introduce four principles they'd all agreed upon. Barr passed at the last minute, and an enraged Paul eventually just endorsed Baldwin. Multiple organizations tried to set up third-party debates, but none could get all the candidates on board. Before the Free and Equal debate kicked off, McKinney released a paranoid statement alleging that "one campaign...has selected the date of the debate, the structure of the debate, the venue of the debate [and] the moderator of the debate." (Free and Equal call this "completely false.") The Barr campaign slammed Free and Equal's haphazard scheduling. As millions of Americans were voting early and mailing in absentee ballots, the third-party candidates remained obscure.
Few in the audience of college students and candidate partisans knew or cared about this. "Did you pay for your ticket?" asked organizer Christopher Thrasher as people walked to his desk. "An e-mail mistakenly went out saying it was actually free, so we'll give you a refund over PayPal." At 9 pm, the candidates walked out to respectful silence, then applause. There were no opening statements. "The candidates are encouraged to engage each other in actual debate," said moderator Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter who's written books about the psychology of war and the "fascism" of right-wing religious America.
Nader didn't spend any time actually scrapping with Baldwin, a Baptist minister and radio host who defeated Alan Keyes for his party's nomination. Hedges's questions were better framed for the five-time candidate of the left. Asked why Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky had both endorsed Barack Obama, Nader called them misguided. "We know that Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky agree far more with the Nader/Gonzalez ticket, but they want to cast tactical votes." (Both men live in blue Massachusetts.) "People living in slam-dunk states for McCain or for Obama can vote Nader because it doesn't affect the least-worst outcome, which would be an Obama victory."
"Imagine that you're a first-century Christian," Baldwin said. "Do you vote for Nero or do you vote for Caligula?" The question of a spoiled vote was irrelevant for his voters, anyway. "I don't believe that John McCain can any more win this election than Bob Dole could win against Bill Clinton. If Christians and evangelicals want to waste a vote, they can vote for McCain."
Asked about the state-level chances for third parties--one of the ostensible reasons for Nader's 2000 run--the candidate attacked third-party politicians like Vermont gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina, who refused to appear with him. "He didn't want to alienate the Democrats," Nader groused. "You have people like Zinn and Chomsky supporting Obama, who is a warmonger." He lit into Obama for only spending twenty-five minutes in the West Bank during his summer visit to the Middle East, and for speaking before AIPAC. "I accuse Obama of anti-Semitism against the Arab people," said Nader. "They're both part of the Semitic people. It's time that people know that."
The candidates didn't disagree until Hedges asked the candidates about global warming and abortion. Baldwin asked Nader what he'd do to "secure our borders," and the candidate of the left became a symphony of me-toos. "We have to secure our country's borders for a lot of reasons," he said, citing the flow of drugs and "all kinds of illegal entries." He pledged to stop supporting dictators "who send these people north" and stop "brain-draining the Third World with HB-1 visas to enrich Cisco." Baldwin had little to add, so he pledged to "free Ramos and Compean ," the former border agents who've become a cause célèbre on the restrictionist right. "I would go to the prison personally and give them their freedom. I would give them back pay if they so desire it."
The debate ended abruptly, with the candidates frozen at their podiums, smiling. Nader broke the silence. "There's no corporate-sponsored green room!" With that the crowd milled around and Russian and Middle Eastern press ran to talk to the candidates. Christopher Thrasher was happy with the event, and still bristling at being rebuffed by McKinney and Barr.
"All of these candidates say they need media attention," he said. "Well, here's the media! Here's C-Span! I'm disappointed in how all of the third-party candidates have conducted their campaigns. They've squandered this moment."
Hedges, who expressed overall satisfaction with this event, had an explanation for why the left isn't paying attention. "A lot of people feel that Obama votes the way he votes and says the things he says because it's the only way he can get elected," said Hedges, who voted for Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary. "I think they're projecting a lot and misplacing a lot of hope in the same way they projected hope in the Democrats in 2006. They voted for Democrats to end the war, and they didn't end the war." As to why the right isn't looking past McCain, they're being told that Obama is "socialist" who must be stopped. "They're both fear-based campaigns."
There was no hurry to clear the room. Baldwin, who hasn't garnered much coverage despite the Ron Paul endorsement, beamed and talked to reporters. Nader and his entourage moved slowly towards Connecticut Avenue, talking to voters and signing autographs. Hedges, who plans to vote for Nader in two weeks, handed the candidate his cell phone to talk to his son, a college student who had just received his absentee ballot.
"If you're not a revolutionary when you're a freshman," said Nader into the phone, "you'll never survive as a sophomore!"