What Does Nader Want?

With just five weeks until the election, Ralph Nader is running something that bears a remarkable resemblance to a real presidential campaign.

The Green Party candidate is on the road almost every day, preaching the gospel of the progressive left to its adoring, worshipful masses. He has transformed a humble Washington, D.C., brownstone into his campaign headquarters, and filled it with an industrious young staff representing jobs vacated and fall semesters abandoned all over the country.

He has raised over $3.5 million dollars, largely plunked down in individual $5 and $10 contributions, and has attracted what his campaign says are the largest paying crowds of any candidate, including over 10,000 in Portland and Boston and 12,000 in Minneapolis. He has met with the editorial boards of local newspapers, shaken the hands of many breathless supporters and adhered to a micro-managed itinerary worthy of any political candidate ("5:00-5:05 PM: Live interview with WISC-TV.")

Some things about Nader's campaign aren't so typical, of course. He flies coach class from one engagement to the next, often sardined between business travelers who don't recognize the celebrity in their midst. He doesn't wear make-up onstage, doesn't have speechwriters or coaches and lets himself be seen weary and drained at the end of a 16-hour day.

The reporters who follow him in irregular spurts complain they're not fed as well or treated as royally as their colleagues covering the Bush and Gore campaigns. He doesn't kiss babies, and though he'll stand amiably in photos, he certainly doesn't pose for them.

But perhaps the most conspicuous difference between Nader and his rivals is that he freely admits he has no expectation of winning. Instead, he says he is running to plant a political seed, throwing a spotlight of visibility on the Green Party to help it elect local candidates and become a viable Third Party.

"Most of us are in a rut because we're operating in a winner-take-all, two-party system, and most Third Parties come in with a single issue, get a few votes, lose and then fade away," Nader said between stops on a Midwest campaign swing last month. "The Green Party is not going to fade away, it has too broad of an agenda. That's why the press doesn't get this campaign. They give me this forlorn look, 'You stand in the polls at three or four or five percent, is it all over? Aren't you wasting your time?'

"Am I known for wasting my time? Am I known for worrying about being an underdog?" Nader asks. "Ask General Motors and twenty-five other big companies."

Too Big a Tent?

The Green Party indeed has as broad an agenda as Nader asserts, but for a presidential run it may be too broad; talking with state coordinators and organizers for the campaign reveals a vast and contradictory set of goals.

Like Nader, many see the campaign as a first step in building a strong national party reinforced by local elected officeholders. Others are more focused on snaring five percent of the popular vote in order to procure federal matching funds for another presidential run in 2004 -- a goal for which Nader says he has never expressed support. Some Greens say they are trying to pull the Democratic Party leftwards, while others cling to the extreme longshot of Nader winning the election. As his campaign churns toward November, it sometimes seems entangled in a web of confusion throttling its own momentum.

On one end of the spectrum are wild optimists like Colorado state coordinator Nancy Harvey, who works close to the fiery hearth of Nader support. A typically enthusiastic Green diehard, Harvey is a middle-aged progressive who has been involved in the party for thirteen years and helped build the Boulder Green Alliance. Intelligent, articulate and well-informed, she nevertheless admits to a fantasy of Nader winning in a November shocker.

"Based on the enthusiasm of the campaign here in Colorado and the numbers he's pulling at these 'super-rallies,' I think that his message is really reaching people," she said. "I really do think that in a real three-way race, if he got into the debates and the media wasn't ignoring him, we could pull something like what happened to (Gov.) Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. I really think he has a shot at it if enough people could hear him."

Harvey is far from alone in fixating on the debates as a magic bullet for a candidate with single-digit support. Ken Sain, the field coordinator for the Nader campaign in Kentucky and founder of the state's Green Party, was similarly enraptured by the dream of an underdog victory driven by access to an estimated TV audience of 50 million Americans.

"I think we'd have a real strong possibility if we got him in the debates, and that's why the Republicrats are so determined to keep him out," Swain said. "He could get 35 percent if people heard what he has to say, and in a four-way race, he could win the election."

There are even those true believers who argue Nader is already headed for the White House, with or without the debates. After a stadium rally in Minneapolis, local organizer Dean Zimmerman was inspired enough to predict Nader would win by a slight margin by taking the states where he has the strongest support -- Oregon, Washington, California, Minnesota, Colorado, Vermont and Maine -- even though he hasn't polled even close to the two major party candidates in any of them.

Nader states flatly that he has no expectation of winning the presidency. Nevertheless, he continually stokes the fires of hope in his ardent supporters by reminding them of Ventura's debate-driven Reform Party triumph in 1998. Ventura, whose support registered at 8 percent before gubernatorial debates in Minnesota, vaulted to victory with around 30 percent of the vote after he was allowed to debate.

Nader's exclusion from the debates has become one of his central campaign issues, which is one reason he always brings up the triumph of an ex-pro wrestler with whom he has very little in common politically. But by mythologizing the epic Ventura victory -- which happened in a mid-sized state with a strong taste for the politically unique -- it seems Nader has inadvertently convinced some Greens to focus on a similar possibility for this campaign.

Green Realist? Jumbo Shrimp?

Not all Green organizers are so gripped by such visions, however, and some are even unaware of the extent of their colleagues' fervor.

"I don't think there's a single Nader supporter out there doing this thinking he's going to be the next president of the United States," claimed Julie Gozan, secretary of the Central Oklahoma Greens. "I would have loved to see him in the debates, because that would have shifted the terms of political discourse, but my only hope now is that he'll get five percent of the vote so that the party will be eligible for federal matching funds, and I hope he'll run again."

Many are simply looking to build their local party branches, happy to ride Nader's celebrity coattails to greater visibility. Lucky Kaiser, an organizer in Youngstown, Ohio, who represents one of dozens of Green organizations that have sprouted this election year, hopes for no more than a strong start on the long road to incremental change.

"We're so grateful that he's taking the time out of his life to do this, and whether he wins or not is immaterial," said Kaiser. "It's that we have a candidate who we can back and who's helping us get our party a little bit deeper entrenched."

Likewise, Nebraska Greens state coordinator Katie Fisher sees Nader's strongest impact as the expansion of her state party, which gathered six thousand signatures to put him on the ballot. "I think locally we will eventually have congresspeople, city council members, and local elected offices filled by Green candidates," she predicted.

Fisher also applauded Nader for honing in on agricultural issues as a way of drumming up local support. In Nebraska, she said, "we gave [agricultural corporation] ConAgra the property they sit on for one dollar which is the worst sort of corporate welfare. I think that because they've been bought out by the big agribusinesses, we have a lot of strength with farmers here since we want to help save their farms."

Unlike California, Oregon and New Mexico, which each have an established Green Party and have elected Greens to local offices, other state organizations are struggling, declaring victory for simply getting Nader's name on the 2000 ballot.

LeAnn Owens, an industrial hemp-legalization activist, helped found the Alabama Greens this past April and was thrilled to have collected 5000 signatures to put Nader's name on the ballot, which "here in conservative Alabama was a feat in itself." She hoped to contribute a few votes from the state toward the national goal of five percent, and foresaw slow, moderate growth over many years for the party.

"I think it's in the process of gelling," said Owens. "A lot of people in the Greens still have disparate ideas, but I see it coming together."

Oklahoma's Gozan sounded more somber, weary after a dispiriting defeat in her state's ballot battle. With the highest signature requirement per capita of any state, the Greens were unable to gather the 35,000 signatures necessary to put Nader on the ballot -- and because of a prohibition on write-in votes, even the most determined Oklahomans won't be able to support Nader come November (South Dakota is the only other state where voters won't be able to at least write him in).

Gozan said the Oklahoma Greens were still doing fund-raising for the national campaign, circulating petitions to open the presidential debates to Third Parties and encouraging supporters not to vote for anybody for president to avoid nudging Nader away from the national five percent mark.

What About the Democrats?

The most muddled message emanating from the Nader campaign is whether its intention is to form a viable, permanent Third Party or to drive the Democratic Party leftwards. One ubiquitous Nader sound-bite calls on the Democratic Party, having betrayed its populist roots, to either "shape up or shrink down" -- implying that if the Democrats "shape up," they stand a chance of recovering the support of the progressive left.

But in a recent interview, Nader said it was his hunch that "the Democratic Party under its present dominance and indentured status to business interests is not going to reform. If they're pushed by a Green Party, they'll try to become more like Republicans and take away Republican votes."

Asked to elaborate on how the Democrats would respond to his challenge of shaping up or shrinking down, he surmised that "the latter is going to happen, because I don't think they're capable of internal change. I've been waiting too long for that to happen."

Some Greens are not so quick to write off the dominant liberal party, however. Alabama's Owens said that in addition to getting five percent of the national vote, exerting a progressive influence on the Democrats would be a secondary victory.

"I think there are still good people in the Democratic Party, and even though most of them are bought and sold by the same corporate interests that buy the Republican Party, I'm not sure at this point if they're a lost cause," Owens said. Oklahoma's Gozan agreed: "The Democrats have to see that there's a pull on the left because they've been so responsive to a pull on the right."

But for Ross Mirkarimi, a founding member of the California Greens and state director of Nader's campaign, the Democratic Party is "an 800-pound gorilla" which will only "gesture with populist themes" if it feels a threat from an upstart party on the left. Speaking from a 4000-square-foot regional office in San Francisco, one of seven in the state, Mirkarimi said that although Gore has scrambled to stem the tide of defectors to the Greens, the Democrats would not undergo any fundamental changes if reinstalled in the White House.

In fact, many Green organizers described a bitter, irreversible withdrawal from the party traditionally charged with protecting the interests of the common man. Kentucky's Swain, an ex-Democrat, said "if (the Democrats) come back to the left, great, but as far as I'm concerned, I've left and I'm never coming back." And for Oregon's Smith, "the Democratic Party sold out years ago, and now their money comes from the same corporate interests as the Republicans."

Like Nader, Smith believes the Democrats might try "to co-opt some of our themes and the rhetoric, but as far as moving toward the left, I rather think they're going to continue moving toward the right."

But whatever the Democrats do or don't do, and whoever wins the presidency this year, Nader believes his campaign is already a success.

"Can we lose when we come out in November with millions of votes, so we can fight toward victory in future elections? Can we lose when hundreds of candidates will go into local, state and national level on the Green Party? Can we lose when we push the agenda to critique corporate power and abuse?" Nader asked.

"I don't think that's a loss. That's a victory."

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