Nader vs. the Green Party?

The leading candidate for the Green Party's presidential nomination talks about Ralph Nader's latest betrayal, and how to run an independent campaign that would not reinstall Bush in the White House.

Published June 24, 2004 10:31PM (EDT)

On Monday, June 14, Ralph Nader was in Cleveland, mugging for the cameras and anticipating a battle with the Democratic Party over his attempts to qualify for the Ohio ballot. In a swing state whose crucial voters are often hyped as potentially deciding the 2004 election, when asked by a reporter, "Aren't you concerned about taking votes away from Kerry?" Nader nonchalantly quipped: "I'm worried about Kerry taking votes away from me."

On the same day, Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, Ralph Nader's main opponent within the party, held a low-profile Q-and-A session with University of South Carolina students and faculty. Unlike Ohio, South Carolina is hardly a competitive race: In 2000, Bush beat Gore by 16 points there, and it is difficult to imagine how the Green Party could "spoil" the outcome of its presidential vote. But the state has a fledgling Green Party, and Cobb was there to court its delegates to the Green Party's 2004 nominating convention.

While only one day in a long campaign, last Monday's events illustrate the differing strategies of the two leading candidates competing for the Green Party's backing. Cobb seeks the Green Party's nomination, while Nader, who has distanced himself from the party in an attempt to reach a wider audience, seeks only the Green Party's "endorsement" of his independent campaign. "Ralph Nader has refused to participate in the Green Party's democratic process," Cobb says. "I don't understand what we would hope to accomplish by supporting Ralph Nader's independent candidacy."

Should Cobb, who managed Nader's Texas campaign in 2000, receive the nomination at the Green Party's convention on Saturday, he will be in direct competition with Nader -- and Nader's running mate, Peter Camejo, an ex-Green Party presidential candidate whose last-minute selection before the convention Cobb sees as an attempt to up the chances of a Nader endorsement. It's a strange situation, Cobb admits. But, he says, "Ralph's decision to launch on his own was his call, not ours."

Before joining the Green Party in 1996, Cobb spent years working for liberal candidates within the Democratic Party. After two stints with Jesse Jackson's campaign in 1984 and 1988, he worked for Jerry Brown's campaign in 1992, the outcome of which, Cobb says, convinced him that "the Democratic presidential primary is the place where genuine progressive politics goes to die."

Yet while Cobb agrees with Nader that America's two-party system is disastrous, arguing that the Democratic Party is controlled by "corporatists and militarists," he rejects Nader's swing-state campaign strategy. If nominated, Cobb intends to run a campaign aimed at building the Green Party in states that are safe for either Bush or Kerry. By focusing on what he calls "strategic states," he believes the Green Party can best recruit new members -- and avoid throwing the election to Bush.

What do you hope to accomplish by running in the 2004 election?

First and foremost, we are going to continue to register more people into the Green Party, we're going to continue to elect more people to local office, we're going to continue to build the infrastructure and institution of the Green Party.

Secondly, we're going to articulate the need to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home, we're going to make the case for universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, the need to publicly fund elections, to end the racist war on drugs, and to provide a fair tax policy that provides tax relief to the poor and working classes in this country.

Lastly, my goal is to run a campaign that will both accomplish the goals of the Green Party and culminate with George Bush out of the White House.

You've been labeled an appeaser by some in the Green Party for advocating that the Green Party try to avoid drawing votes from Democrats in swing states. Why is your strategy controversial within the Green Party?

There are some Greens who believe that we should just go about running our own candidate, and not care whether Bush or Kerry wins.

You don't share that perspective?

I believe the differences between George Bush and John Kerry are incremental, but they are not inconsequential. With the growing strength of the Green Party comes a responsibility to exercise it wisely and intelligently.

George W. Bush is a problem, not the problem. The fundamental problem is a social, political and economic system that's destroying the planet.

But I'd like to see George Bush out of the White House.

Would running a safe-states strategy -- one where the Greens wouldn't campaign heavily in states where they might cost Kerry the election -- be a wise and intelligent use of the Greens' strength?

First of all, I'd never call my strategy a "safe-states strategy." It's a smart-growth strategy. Smart growth means focusing resources where we are more likely to build the Green Party -- the 40 states where the Electoral College votes are not going to be genuinely contested.

John Kerry is no progressive, and the message for the Green Party in those states can be "progressives, don't waste your vote, invest your vote." A progressive voting for Kerry in an uncontested state cannot help unelect Bush. All voting for Kerry will do is say that you support his corporatist, militarist policies. Let's remember John Kerry voted for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He voted for No Child Left Behind. He voted for the PATRIOT Act. He voted for NAFTA. He's on the record supporting the war on drugs, the prison-industrial complex, he's on the record opposing universal healthcare and raising the minimum wage to a living wage.

It seems like the reason for avoiding swing states is as much to prevent an erosion of the Democratic base as it is because you'll have an easier time party-building elsewhere. If it's worth showing mercy on the Democrats in swing states, why not go one step further and ask Greens in swing states to vote for Kerry?

Because my goal is to grow and build the Green Party, not to acquiesce to Democratic Party leadership. I don't believe that John Kerry is going to solve any of the fundamental problems facing this country.

I'm going to tell people to vote their conscience. But if people are so terrified that they're going to [vote for Kerry], I'm saying, "Then do what you need to do, but join with us in the Green Party, register for the Green Party, and vote for Green Party people down ballot." Ultimately those people, I believe, are going to have enough confidence, and courage, and vision, to stop "holding their nose" -- but if they can't do it in this election cycle, I'm patient with them.

I acknowledge that I'm articulating a very nuanced approach, and that it is not black-and-white. But that reflects my understanding of where we are.

You've said that you hope Democrats can see the need to work constructively with the Green Party on issues like instant-runoff voting. Is your strategic states strategy the best way to convince the Democratic Party to work with the Green Party?

No, actually. I think that what's been proven historically is that costing Democrats elections is the best way to convince them that we're not going to go away.

My strategy is an attempt to reach out to genuine progressives -- not to the Democratic Party. At the end of the day, Democrats are going to find that Greens are taking more and more of their traditional progressive base, just as Republicans have found that Libertarians are taking their principled conservative base. Which is why we need multiparty democracy.

Ralph Nader has said that he is running as an independent because he needed to get his candidacy moving earlier than the Green Party held its nominating convention. As the former national legal counsel for the Green Party, do you consider that a valid answer?


Why not?

I can't explain what Ralph Nader's motivations are or were, but his explanation does not hold water. The Green Party's 2000 convention was held in June -- the same weekend in fact that the current one is.

Additionally, Ralph Nader was the one who suggested a late convention to the Green Party's presidential exploratory committee, in order to allow the nominee to receive federal matching funds.

Lastly, the reality is that if Ralph Nader had participated in the Green Party process, he would know the Green Party was gearing up to do ballot access in all the states. Ralph's decision to launch on his own was his call, not ours.

Why is Nader disassociating himself from the Green Party then?

I don't know. I can speculate, but only Ralph Nader can answer that question. And so far, I have not heard him answer the question.

You joined the Green Party because you were inspired by Ralph Nader's politics. Yet you've said "you're not sure what an independent run [by Nader] would accomplish." Why?

I joined the Green Party in order to build a genuine citizens' party that would not be controlled by the corporate fat cats. That is the goal -- continuing to build this party as the electoral arm for the growing movement for peace, racial and social justice, economic democracy, and ecology is the entire reason to participate in Green Party politics.

Ralph Nader has name recognition. But candidates will come and go; the Green Party is here to stay. At the end of the day, the Green Party needs to run its own presidential candidate.

The real question is, "Why is Ralph Nader creating the Populist Party?" I don't understand what we would hope to accomplish by supporting Ralph Nader's independent candidacy. Ralph Nader has refused to participate in the Green Party's democratic process. He has the right to run as an independent, he has the right to create the Populist Party, but it does not help to build the Green Party.

Do you think Nader's decision to choose Camejo is related to the difficulty of running his campaign without the backing an organized third party?

Yes. I think that Ralph miscalculated the degree of support his independent campaign would get from Green Party members.

You know, in '96 and 2000, it was Green Party organizers and activists who worked their hearts out for no pay to get Ralph on so many ballots. This time, he has to hire people not just to coordinate and manage efforts, but literally to go out and do the work.

That's not because people don't respect Ralph Nader. It's that so many people were committed to the idea of building a genuine alternative political party. And this time, there's just not the same willingness to campaign for him.

I don't believe the Nader campaign can get on the ballot in California without the Green Party. It'll take, I forget the exact number, but it's like 150,000 signatures, and I don't think they'll be able to do it.

On your Web site, you've reprinted an essay questioning whether Nader and Camejo are more interested in punishing Democrats or getting Bush out of office. Are you concerned that the Nader-Camejo campaign might alienate progressives?

It depends on how they run their campaign. From what they've said so far, I am not hopeful that they'll avoid alienating progressives.

Do you think the choice of Camejo as a V.P. makes it more likely that Nader will get the Green Party's endorsement?

I don't think it has changed any minds that were already made up.

Out of the undecided people I've talked to, interestingly enough, some people think it helps to "Green" Nader's campaign. For other people, it's driven them away from supporting the Nader independent candidacy because they find it an insult to the democratic decision-making process of the Green Party.

But Peter Camejo doesn't own the Green Party; nor does David Cobb or Ralph Nader. The nomination decision will be a result of a democratic process that began nine months ago, and we'll find it out on Saturday.

You spent many years campaigning for progressive Democratic candidates before going Green. What convinced you there was no future in building a progressive base capable of muscling the Democratic Party?

In 1984 and 1988 I worked on Jesse Jackson's campaign seeking the Democratic nomination. In 1992 I worked on Jerry Brown's campaign. Those campaigns taught me a lot of the things, but the essence of what I learned was that the Democratic Presidential Primary is the place where genuine progressive politics goes to die.

On the floor of the Democratic Party's convention in 1992, we were driven out. The progressive constituency that had almost won the party's nomination was shut out of the party platform, and then shut out of the Clinton administration, the same administration that brought us "welfare de-form," that brought us the selling out of gay rights in the military, and of course, NAFTA, the GATT, and the WTO.

Trying to work within the Democratic Party and doing really well -- much better, it should be noted, than [Dennis] Kucinich or [Al] Sharpton did this time around -- had no effect whatsoever, because corporatists and militarists completely controlled the Democratic Party machinery. All that building we had done, it didn't ultimately change anything.

You've said the Green Party will elect a president by 2016. There are obviously a lot of problems, from an entrenched two-party system to a rift with progressives over the outcome of the 2000 election. What does the party need to do?

The solution includes Greens electing more people to local office, it includes Greens getting elected to higher and higher office, and it includes the electorate witnessing elected Greens championing real-world solutions to the problems that vex us.

For example, we know that Greens typically win 40 percent of the races in which they run. We know that when Greens get elected, they have a very high reelection rate. So I'm giving my best guess that, given where we are now, by 2016, the Green Party should be electing a president.

By Jeff Horwitz

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