Friday, December 26, 2003

Ralph Nader, the Green Party and an independent presidential campaign in 2004

Ralph Nader has decided he will not compete for the Green Party's presidential nomination in 2004. He still may launch an independent campaign for the presidency in 2004, and will make up his mind on that question by January.

One, there isn't much demand for a non-Democratic progressive presidential campaign. I was an enthusiastic nader 2000 supporter, and I'm backing whatever Democrat gets the nomination. I underestimated the relentless drive of the Bush Administration to eliminate the middle-class (by cutting taxes on the most well-off and cutting spending on investments that manufacture a middle-class, like higher education). I also think the Bush Administration is rather incompetent regarding homeland defense, given their invasion and occupation of Iraq instead of focusing on Al-Queda. So, I'd like to knock out Bush, and I suspect about half the 2.7 million people who voted for Nader (and virtually all of the 3 million or so who switched to Gore in the last 48 hours of the campaign) think the same way.

I predict that Nader will not run an independent presidential campaign, even though I think he really, really wants to. I think he won't do it because there isn't much support for it, and he is nothing if not an analyst. (That's the way I like to think about Nader and his motivation: an analyst who is so frustrated with public policy that he thinks he needs to be a candidate to get any attention for his research and findings.) It's really difficult to get on the ballot as an independent presidential candidate (25,000 signatures in Illinois alone). I'm not sure where the bodies will come from to get those signatures. I didn't think he'd be able to get on the ballot in Illinois with the Green Party's help. We just barely (and I mean barely) got Nader on the ballot in 2000 when there was a ton of interest and support for an alternative to the increasingly corporate, big-business Democratic presidential candidate (from Clinton to Gore to the most corporate Democratic Senator, Joe Lieberman). That interest is largely gone, from what I can see. Lots of progressives have decided for 2004 to buck up and join the majority coalition (the Democratic Party), at least for the presidential race.

What's interesting is where this leaves the Green Party. This shifts the likely presidential candidate into the status of Libertarians: no-name, no-backing people that are intelligent, motivated and give a great speech. David Cobb, a friend of mine, is probably the guy most responsible for pushing Nader out of the race, and he's running for the nomination. David is trying to be a presidential canddiate that does the following (potentially mutually exclusive things): (a) help to elect the Democratic nominee, or at least, not help re-elect Bush, (b) find and inspire new people to build the Green Party, (c) help elect other Green Party candidates in races where there is no risk of playing a spoiler. I don't know how you run for an office with the goal of not getting votes, but what the heck -- it will be interesting to see it play out.

Another interesting aspect is that the group of people that will pick the Green presidential candidate is a convention that will meet in Milwaukee in June. It is almost certain that not enough people will show up to fill all the delegate slots. It is also true that by the time June rolls around, it will be too late for many states to put a candidate on the ballot (like Illinois -- our deadline for third party candidates to turn in 25,000 signatures to get on the ballot is late June). So in many states, the national party convention process for picking a presidential candidate is largely irrelevant to whomever appears as the "Green Party" presidential candidate on that ballot. Whoever has the ability to collect the signatures and declare themselves a Green Party presidential candidate gets on the ballot in Illinois -- Ralph Nader or Ralph Reed. And if two people do it? Who is the 'real' Green Party candidate for purposes of the Illinois ballot? Who knows? It will make for a great legal argument if two candidates actually do it (but probably, zero candidates will do it in Illinois).

I'd like to believe that we can figure out how to harness the unmatched vote-getting advantages of a progressive third party (inspiring new and younger people) to strengthen the progressive wing of the majority coalition (the Democratic Party). It's not an easy thing to figure out, but we're getting there. Instant runoff voting clearly helps. Proportional representation is even better.

One final thought. Jason Farbman, a nice, dedicated 25-year-old, ran for state representative as a Green Party candidate against Harry Osterman, the Democratic incumbent, in the Uptown-Rogers Park neighborhood on the Far North Side of Chicago, a traditionally progressive part of the lakefront. He ended up tying the Republican candidate, in an 80-10-10 race, earning 2000 votes in November of 2002.

I'm convinced that at least 1000 of those 2000 Farbman voters only showed up because Jason was running. I'm also convinced that at least half of them (and probably almost all of them) voted for the statewide Democratic candidates (Rod Blagojevich for governor, Lisa Madigan for attorney-general, etc.) that won for the first time in 25 years. Any Democratic statewide campaigner would be delighted with 800 or so new voters.

It would be great for progressive areas to have a two-party system of Democrats and Greens, where the Green candidates bring out new people an dteach them about our governments, so that many of them who would otherwise have not been engaged vote for Democrats in close races against Republicans (and presumably, vote for progressive Democrats in primary electionsagainst corporate or machine Democrats).

It takes a far-sighted incumbent to welcome a Green Party candidate running against him or her as a good thing for building and maintaing the progressive majority. It also takes a Green Party candidate who can communicate those intentions to the incumbent Democrat and campaign in a purely policy-oriented way to bring out more voters and keep them engaged with government. After all, that's what we progressives do is to run governments in smart ways that invest in people. Corporate candidates and reactionary voters just want to stop us from doing that, so we have a greater challenge to keep our voters educated about government. We need educated voters, and no institution educates voters about government more than campaigns.

Julie Samuels, a Green Party state representative candidate in Oak Park with the Oak Park Greens,
, might be finding a better balance to use the advantages of the Green Party as an institution to strengthen, not divide, the progressive majority. Maybe we in Cook County can figure out this out and be a model for the rest of the country.

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