June 26, 2004
A profound split within the Greens was on display at the party's convention in Milwaukee this weekend.
Part of the split had to do with the personality of Ralph Nader, and the question of how closely tied the party should be to Nader, who isn't a Green and refused to seek the nomination (only the endorsement) of the Green Party.
But there was a more substantive split over the question of whether there is a meaningful difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and whether George Bush poses such a grave threat that the Green Party should not compete against John Kerry in swing states.
The Nader forces were ably represented by Peter Camejo, who ran for governor as a Green in California this year. He is running as Nader's vice presidential candidate.
On the other side was presidential candidate David Cobb, an energetic Green Party organizer who pledges to build local and statewide chapters but run strategically in November.
At a debate on June 24, with a raucous standing-room-only crowd of 500 Green delegates, Camejo and Cobb went at it.
"We should never say to people to vote against their wishes," said Camejo. "I disagree with David Cobb about voting for Kerry in borderline states. We should never vote for someone who is against our interests." He added: "The main obstacle in this country is that people are trained, taught, and enslaved into the two-party system."
Cobb responded: "Failure to recognize that George Bush poses a deep and profound threat that none of us have ever faced before is a problem. I want my campaign to culminate with Bush out of the White House. It matters."
Camejo: "The comments that David Cobb just made are the reason you should vote for me. It's the Democratic Party and the Republican Party together that are creating the problem. The job of the Democratic Party is to protect Bush. . . . And it's an illusion that what Bush represents can be removed by voting for the Democratic Party."
He went on to call the Democrats "murderers" who "killed two million people in Vietnam," and he warned that Kerry would support the Iraq War. Camejo said, "There has to come a time when I say, free at last! I will never vote for them again."
Camejo vowed to campaign aggressively in all states. "You betcha," he said, in response to a question. "We've got to tell people the truth about the Democrats. They totally support Bush policies."
Cobb explained his so-called safe-state strategy. "In 40 states, where it's not close, I'm going to say, progressives, don't waste your vote on the Democrats. Now in the other states, progressives should vote their conscience" and go for Kerry if they like.
Camejo retorted that "voting your conscience" usually means you should feel free to vote for a third party candidate, not go vote for the Democrats.
Cobb then criticized Nader for not appearing at the debate. "Ralph Nader is not here. That means something," he said. "It's a question of internal democratic process and institutional, personal self-respect. I'm going to be a Green at the end of this convention, no matter what happens. I'm going to be a Green at the end of the election, no matter what happens."
After the debate, I spoke with John Rensenbrink, a Green delegate from Maine. "I started the damn thing back in 1984," he says. "I was one of the principal organizers of the Green Party." He is a Cobb supporter for two reasons. First, he thinks the party needs to wean itself from Nader. "We're living on borrowed charisma," he says. And second, "Bush is a dimension worse than we ever would have anticipated. If he wins the election, he will take it as a mandate." He says Camejo is "dead wrong" about denying the difference between Bush and Kerry and vowing to compete in swing states. "It's irresponsible, and lacks wisdom altogether."
Linda Schade, staffing the Nader/Camejo table, says, "Many of the important issues are unrepresented by the two major parties, and Nader will continue to raise these." Chief among these issues, Nader supporters say, is the Iraq War.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink and a former Green candidate for Senate in California, agrees with Rensenbrink and takes strong exception to Camejo's views.
"I get chills down my spine when he calls the Democratic Party our enemy," she says. "For Peter to say the Democrats are equally bad is horrifying to me. Kerry is pro-choice, and his position on the environment is significantly better than Bush's." (In an e-mail she wrote on June 25, she said a Bush victory would be "disastrous for our party, our county, and our planet.")
She also says the Greens need to work with their nearest allies, like the unions and NOW and the Sierra Club, not stiff-arm them.
"There are more progressives in the Democratic Party than there are registered Greens," she cautions.
She is troubled, she says, that Camejo "is more venomous about the Democrats than he is about Bush." Yet she recognizes the appeal of the pox-on-both-their-houses rhetoric.
"It's fire and brimstone," she says. "But it's not reality, and it's very destructive of our position in the peace and justice movement."