After the election came the crucifixion. Before the Gore-Bush mess was settled–but as soon as it was apparent that Ralph Nader’s vote in Florida was greater than the gap between Al Gore and George Bush–pundits, editorial boards, political partisans and liberals pounced. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney called Nader’s campaign “reprehensible.” Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook declared, “The public-interest community is going to spend tens of millions of dollars a year for the next four years playing defense. I don’t think [Nader’s] going to build a Green Party any more than O.J.’s out there looking for a murderer.” Larry Marx, co-executive director of Wisconsin Citizen Action, complained that Nader “got tunnel vision and lost sight of progressive goals.” “I will not speak his name,” hissed Democratic spin man James Carville. “I’m going to shun him. And any good Democrat, any good progressive, ought to do the same thing.”
In addition to the demonization of a progressive icon–Nader himself–Nader’s campaign resulted in a sharpening of the sometimes blurry line between inside-the-duopoly progressives who try to nudge the Democratic Party to the left and nonestablishment progressives who eschew the party as part of the problem, not the potential solution. His candidacy hardened positions along this divide. It also diminished whatever opportunity he had to work with left-leaning Democrats in Washington. “He’s totally toast among Democrats,” says a senior Democratic Congressional aide. “There is deep animosity toward him among high-ranking Democrats in Congress. For now, the relationship is completely ruptured.” And with 2.7 million votes–3 percent of the vote–Nader fell far short of the magic mark of 5 percent, which would have qualified the Green Party for federal funding in the next presidential election.
So was it worth it? “Of course,” says an utterly undaunted Nader, who obviously relished the campaign experience. “Look what came out of this–the third-largest party. Tens of thousands of people were energized. It was a great burst. We can continue on and recruit more candidates in 2002. There will be a Green Party presence here [in Washington], which will speak with authority–electoral authority–when it goes to Capitol Hill, not just say, ‘Please, please, do what we want.'” He expresses no regrets; he is unfazed by the harsh criticism; he is unrepentant. With the Florida recount under way, Nader showed no sign of caring much about who will win. Instead, he was more excited about a letter he received on November 8 from Holly Hart of the Iowa Green Party. She reported that his campaign appearances there prompted Republican farmers to contact the party and that “the Green Party and the message of your campaign have come out well ahead of where they started.” Though Nader only scored 2 percent in Iowa, that was enough for the Iowa Green Party to qualify for automatic ballot status. “Not only that,” Hart wrote; “we now have around five new Green student organizations and many new county Green chapters–enough so that we can now organize a real statewide Green Party.” This is evidence of the “benefits” of his campaign, Nader notes; he has created a “ripple effect” throughout the nation.
The 66-year-old Nader won’t say whether he’s interested in another crusade for the White house (“one election at a time”), but he insists that he remains committed to building the Green Party. The details, though, are hardly set, and it’s not even clear what Nader is working with. On Election Day, the party was split between two different entities–the Association of State Green Parties and the more leftist and smaller Greens/Green Party USA, though the two sides were close to a merger agreement. Nader says he will be the de facto party “leader,” but without the title (“I don’t like the word”) or the day-to-day responsibilities for the party itself. Instead, he sees himself establishing several Green-related outfits–a nonprofit educational group, a lobbying arm and a political action committee–that would exist parallel to the party. As he envisions it, “I’m on the outside expanding the Green Party, while those on the inside intensify it.” But can Nader control or shape a party from the outside? Political parties are usually difficult to steer, and the Greens have their share of bickerers. Moreover, remember Ross Perot and the Reform Party? Earlier this year, failed Reform Party contender John Hagelin took a stab at gaining control of the Seattle Greens. “They”–the Greens–“will have to be very clever” to avoid would-be highjackers and internal wrangling, Nader remarks, not using the word “we.” As one Nader adviser says, “Ralph does have a track record of building things that last. And he’ll stick with this. But he will find it much more complex than building citizens’ groups.”