It's probably unfair to be too hard on the Greens for taking such a complicated view of the 2004 Presidential election. At their convention in Milwaukee at the end of June, the arguments were flying: for running all out against the Democrats again, for running only in "safe" states where they wouldn't affect the outcome of the Presidential election, and even for not running a candidate for President at all. While it was confusing trying to sort out all the Greens' various positions, it's easy to sympathize with them. What is the right thing to do? Fold the tent on building a progressive third party when the going gets tough? Or stay true to principle and ride a wave of opposition to the war in Iraq and the corporate takeover of our democracy--all the way to another victory for George W. Bush?
The Greens are still dealing with the hostility of half the nation for Ralph Nader's "spoiler" effect in 2000. Add to that the penumbral presence of Nader, who didn't even attend the convention, seeking the Greens' endorsement from an aloof distance. It was no surprise that David Cobb, champion of the "safe state" strategy, emerged as the party's nominee.
Nader left it to his running mate, Peter Camejo, former Green candidate for governor of California, to make an impassioned argument at the convention for running aggressively against the Democrats. "This campaign will stand against the Bush/Kerry pro-war stance," Camejo told the convention, "because the biggest political error made by progressives is instead of opposing a policy, they oppose an individual, and think that if you change the individual, you change the policy." Kerry calls for more troops in Iraq, and the Democrats and Kerry are little better than Bush on many issues, Camejo says.
But Nader himself has said that there is a substantial difference between the two political parties, and he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that beating Bush is the first priority in the next election.
Chasing Camejo across the skyway from the Hyatt Regency to Milwaukee's downtown convention center, I tried to get it all straight. Why isn't Nader running as a Green? What are we to make of the possibility of reelecting Bush?
Nader didn't come to the convention, Camejo said, "because he promised not to interfere" with the Greens' decision, and "because he wants to build a broader coalition. He welcomes people who wouldn't come in if he were just a Green." Or, as another Nader supporter at the convention put it, the Greens are just too "kooky" for Ralph.
As for the question of reelecting Bush: "Ralph will never withdraw," says Camejo. "We should have the right to run. People should be able to run without fear. People who tell Nader not to run, what they're really opposing is the right of citizens to pull another lever besides Kerry or Bush."
Other Nader folks at the convention repeated Camejo's outrage at the Democrats' efforts to keep Nader off the ballot in various states. Carl Mayer, the Nader campaign's treasurer, told me that Nader had called Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe to say if the Democrats keep tearing down his signs and trying to block ballot access "he'll camp out in the swing states." Nader told Russert on Meet the Press he would come back on the show to reassess his candidacy if he is taking more votes from Kerry than Bush as the election draws near. Could sheer stubbornness--and anger at the Democrats' tactics--keep him in the race?
"Those are very important issues," says Mayer, "process, democracy, the third party movement." In other words, yes.
David Cobb takes a milder view. The great uncovered story of the Green Party, he says, is its tremendous growth at the local, grassroots level. He cites statistics: In 1996, there were ten organized state Green parties, five with a ballot line. In 2000, twenty-one parties, ten ballot lines. In 2004, there are forty-four state parties with twenty-three ballot lines (largely an effect of Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign). There are 205 Green officeholders across the country, Cobb points out (though most of those are in nonpartisan local offices).
"And we're doing it in a voting system that attempts to force progressives to vote against what they hate instead of for what they want!" Cobb proclaimed at the convention to loud cheers. He got the crowd to chant along with him: "The solution is instant runoff voting!"
(This focus on process and election reform is an unsexy but fundamental concern for the Greens. If voters could cast ballots for first- and second-choice candidates in an "instant runoff" election, there would be no downside to voting for quixotic progressive candidates.)
Cobb got big cheers as he extolled the formation of the Green Party's black caucus, and announced at the end of the speech that the caucus had endorsed him. "No, we did not!" "Yes, we did!" "That's not true," caucus members shouted at each other from the audience. A correction was issued--the caucus had not formally endorsed Cobb, but, instead, something called the "D.C. voter exchange" had. More procedural disputes. More Green growing pains.
Cobb takes strong exception to the idea that Bush and Kerry are interchangeable.
But for procedural reasons, the Greens need to run someone for President in 2004. "Many of our hard-won ballot lines will be lost in many states if we don't have a Presidential candidate on the ticket," Cobb explains. Besides which, the Greens are the only real anti-war party. Cobb and his running mate, Pat LaMarche, urge progressives in "safe states" to vote Green, and tell those in the swing states to "vote their conscience"--a hint that lefties might want to go for Kerry this year that caused Camejo's lip to curl.
In any event, it won't matter much what the Cobb/LaMarche message is. With only $30,000 raised and virtually no name recognition, the Green Presidential candidate won't pose much of a threat this year.
But Ralph Nader is a different story. He'll have fewer ballot lines without the Greens but could get into a serious battle with the Dems in a few key states. "Nader wants to campaign nationally and appeal to independents, Reform Party members, progressives, populists, and contest corporate power, which controls everything, including the election process," says Mayer. "The Democrats have been harassing and filing lawsuits and trying to deny him the right to be in the debates. Do Democrats want to have a debate on ideas or challenge signatures? They have to decide what they want to do." Mayer concedes that on judicial appointments it makes a difference if the Democrats or Republicans win the White House. But "not one whit on the war, the occupation, campaign finance reform, or the fact that corporations control the elections, or federal agencies."
Sounds like the old Nader campaign of 2000. But 2004 is a different year.
-- Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.