Did Ralph Nader and the Green Party put George W. Bush in the White House in 2000? There's only one more hotly debated question on the American left these days: Will Nader and the Greens do it again in 2004?
Nader, who many Democrats and progressives blame for tipping the last presidential election to Bush in key states like Florida (where Nader won 96,000 votes), has not yet announced his decision about 2004. But according to national Green Party officials, Nader probably will run. "I'm getting that sense," says Ben Manski, one of five national Green Party co-chairs. Juscha Robinson, a member of the party's presidential exploratory committee, agrees: "The co-chairs of the committee met with Ralph a couple weeks ago -- it was a very comfortable discussion. It does look like he's leaning in that direction."
The surprisingly bellicose and hard-right direction of the Bush administration has given many Greens pause about running a third-party presidential campaign next year. One prominent Green Party activist -- journalist and former Nader confidant Ronnie Dugger -- has publicly and privately pleaded with his old friend not to run for president, urging him instead to run for senator or governor. Dugger argues that the extremism of the Bush presidency has created a "national emergency" that requires a unified effort on the left to beat the Republican ticket in 2004.
"What if Nader runs again and gets only a million votes this time, less than [the 2.8 million] he got last time, but still enough to give Bush the election? There will be a widespread revulsion against his campaign -- is that building the Green Party?" asks Dugger. "To elect Bush at a time when he's waging war on the human race, that to me is insane. The Greens would be denying their moral responsibility for this disastrous outcome. If Ralph runs again and tips it for Bush, it would not only be a worldwide tragedy, the prospect of building the Green Party would be radically doomed."
Nader did not respond to Salon's requests for an interview. But longtime Green Party organizers say he has not been swayed by those who have pleaded with him to abandon his presidential ambitions. "Ralph has been committed to the third-party strategy since the 1950s," says Howie Hawkins, who has been active in the Green Party since 1984 and who ran unsuccessfully on the Green ticket for New York state comptroller in 2002. "He's congenitally unintimidated. The Gore campaign came to him and said, 'Drop out and we'll make sure your organizations get funded. If not, we'll smash you.' It was just like the Mafia. But it just strengthened his resolve."
If Nader surprises Green Party officials and decides against another run, they are still prepared to mount a presidential campaign without him. Last summer, the party's presidential exploratory committee asked state party organizations for their candidate recommendations. Based on the states' responses, the exploratory committee sent out letters to 40 prospective candidates and began discussions with them to gauge their interest. According to Manski, the state organizations ranked Nader as their No. 1 choice, former Democratic congresswoman Cynthia McKinney No. 2, and Global Exchange founder and 2000 California Green Party candidate for Senate Medea Benjamin. Filmmaker Michael Moore also made the list.
"Nader doesn't have it locked up," insists the 28-year-old Manski, who worked on the staff of Nader 2000 and is studying law at the University of Wisconsin. Robinson agrees: "We had a great partnership with Ralph in 2000. But there's a feeling among some people that it's time to look for new faces. Even if he decides he wants it, he won't necessarily get it. It's a sign of the Greens' growing sophistication, that there are people willing to challenge him."
But other Greens point out there are no presidential prospects in the party who have Nader's financial clout and national recognition. "No one's in his league," says Hawkins. "He's been on the road since the 1960s. He raised $8 million in 2000. Who else can do that?"
No other Green candidate could hurt the Democrats as much, either. Which is why former supporters like Dugger, who presented Nader at the Green Party conventions that nominated him in 1996 and 2000, are working hard to convince him to back a progressive Democrat in 2004. "The only vehicle to defeat Bush next year is the Democratic Party -- you start there, or you don't start with reality," says Dugger. "Not running a Green candidate for president does not mean abandoning party building, as I've told people like Medea. That's denying the history of the Green Party in Europe -- they built their party by running for local offices, and now they have power at the cabinet level in countries like Germany."
Dugger argued his position at the Cooper Union in New York last month, joining forces with writer Katha Pollitt and historian Lawrence Goodwyn to debate Howie Hawkins and writer Jeff Gates over the Nader 2004 question. He says he left the event feeling very discouraged. "We were just ships passing each other in the night without even feeling each other's ripples -- we simply talked right past each other. The other side was fixed on berating the Democrats with excessive zeal, while we were trying vainly to root the discussion in the political reality of defeating Bush.
"This is the most emotionally ragged fissure in the American left in my lifetime," says the veteran populist organizer, who founded the Texas Observer. "It's an astonishing split and it's very deep."
Far from being chastened by the way life has turned out under Bush -- the U.S. launched on neo-imperial expansionism and a massive military buildup, civil liberties under wide assault, deficits soaring and government programs being slashed, and the influence of the Christian right being demonstrated in everything from judicial appointments to Pentagon prayer meetings -- many Green Party officials still cling to their line that there's little difference between Republicans and Democrats. "I've never been so disgusted in my life as seeing how the Democrats contributed to going to war in Iraq," says Medea Benjamin. "They simply capitulated, with the leadership telling the party that they should vote for Bush's war resolution to get the whole Iraq thing behind them. It was a repeat of the Florida debacle, where the Gore campaign refused to let their supporters take to the streets. They told Jesse to go home -- I was there, I was flabbergasted! They're not interested in activating people, they're interested in raising money."
Some even advocate running Greens against progressive Democrats, as the California Green Party is considering doing against Barbara Boxer in next year's Senate race. "It can push the campaign dialogue away from the right, by making left-wing Democrats run to the left," says Robinson.
As for running a Green Party candidate for president in 2004, Robinson admits that "Bush has certainly given me pause; in fact I think Greens everywhere are thinking about it." But in the end, she says, it's more important to build the party than to defeat Bush -- and to do that, the Greens need to run a national campaign. "If we didn't run a presidential candidate, our organizing efforts would be set back years," says Robinson, who divides her time between the Green Party and law school at the University of Michigan. "Under state election laws, you need to field a candidate to maintain your line on the ballot. Running a national race also gives you invaluable exposure. If we didn't run a candidate next year, it would just confirm in voters' minds their suspicion that we're simply a different shade of Democrat."
But some high-profile Greens, like Medea Benjamin, are clearly more torn over 2004. "I wonder if we would have gone to war under Gore. I certainly think we would have had a better chance of stopping it. Seeing what Bush is doing to this country and our standing in the international community, I'm having great dilemmas about the next race. Never before have I felt the need for a multiparty system, but never before have I felt so afraid of another Republican presidency. I'm stunned by how extremist the Bush presidency has become on foreign policy. We never could have predicted this."
Benjamin says she continues to feel loyal toward Nader and she would vote for him again next year if he runs -- "but if there were a chance that a Democrat who was significantly different could beat Bush, I wouldn't put my energy into working on the Green campaign. I really do want to knock off Bush. But November 2004 is a long way away and I don't know how things are going to shake down. At this stage, when we're at war in Iraq and who knows where next, I'm more passionate about getting Bush out of office than in getting another 3 percent of the vote for the Greens."
Robinson concedes that a number of Greens are now advocating for the party to put its efforts into state and local campaigns -- where they have shown some success, holding about 180 offices nationwide -- but not the presidential race. These people's views, she insists, do not represent a majority of the party. But the party is obviously embroiled in an internal debate over the question. Dugger says he has been asked by the Greens to speak on the subject at the end of the month at a meeting in Detroit.
According to Dugger, Lawrence Goodwyn, a respected historian of populist movements, has floated the idea of a national unity meeting of progressives to lock arms behind a Democratic presidential candidate that Greens could vote for. "Someone like Michael Moore could easily call such a meeting," says Dugger, who adds that he is trying to track down Moore to get him onboard.
Moore was one of Nader's more celebrated campaigners in 2000, but when "things at Nader Central went crazy," as Moore wrote in his book "Stupid White Men," and it was decided to target swing states where Gore might win or lose by a razor-thin margin, Moore got off the bandwagon. In the final days of the race, Moore writes in his book, he wisely advised the Nader campaign to cut a deal with Gore, throwing him its support in return for major progressive concessions in a Gore administration. A Nader campaign official told the filmmaker that the party could not abandon its goal of getting 5 percent of the vote, which would trigger federal matching funds. But the day after the election, Moore pointed out, "that's all you'll have -- five percent of the vote, and zero percent of the power." In fact, Nader won less than 3 percent -- and the undying enmity of thousands, if not millions, of his former admirers on the left.
Moore, among others, has reportedly been advising Greens and other progressives to imitate what the Christian right did in the GOP -- to build a base within the Democratic Party by working to take over its moribund precinct organizations. Dugger says this influx of grass-roots energy is precisely what the listless, money-dominated party needs.
"It's absolutely up to the Democrats whether they will see this opportunity to draw many Greens and progressives back in. There are people at the top of the party who are, of course, essentially Republicans and simply want to maintain the status quo -- historically it was men like Robert Strauss. Those people want [Joe] Lieberman or [John] Edwards. But the [Howard] Dean and [Dennis] Kucinich campaigns are being energized by a lot of progressives who have returned to the party in an enraged force. This opens up an opportunity for the Greens and Democrats to join forces at least on the presidential campaign." Even John Kerry, says Dugger, might be acceptable to many Greens like himself, "if he stopped talking out of both sides of his mouth."
Will Greens and progressive Democrats, sharing a mutual alarm about the state of the nation under George W. Bush, begin exploring a marriage of convenience in 2004 -- or as Dugger puts it, "a national emergency coalition"? Medea Benjamin does not expect to hear any such overtures from the Democrats, who continue to treat Greens "as if we didn't have the right to exercise our own minds" -- or in Robinson's words, simply as a "wayward constituency."
There is something self-defeating about the Democrats' refusal to open a dialogue with the Green Party. While some lower-level discussions between Greens and lefty Democrats have taken place, reconciliation has never become a priority of party leaders, who seem to have written off their left flank as irrelevant.
Benjamin thinks that's arrogant. "We've been approached more by Republicans than Democrats," she laughs. "You'd think they would at least talk to us about issues that should be of mutual concern -- like instant-runoff voting [which would allow voters to rank their choices of candidates and therefore avoid splitting the progressive vote]."
Which Democrats could help broker such a political détente? Benjamin quickly reels off a list as if she has already given it some thought: Bill Clinton; Reps. Charles Rangel, Jesse Jackson Jr. or John Conyers; Barbra Streisand; feminists Kim Gandy, Ellie Smeal or Gloria Steinem.
Without this initiative from progressive Democrats, warns Dugger, "It could all drift back to a bunch of disenchanted Greens and Ralph running again, and the makings of a major human tragedy. But if you could peel off a couple million Green voters and add them to the half-million advantage that Gore had over Bush, then you win the election."