As the presidential primary season approaches, it's notable that there hasn't been much discussion of third party candidates or their possible effect on the Democrats' chances of winning the 2004 presidential election. While some of the donkey team hopefuls are beginning to take on a tarnished sheen, where is Ralph Nader or his charismatic stand-in? The brief on-line vote trading that occurred in the fall of 2000 - Nader fans in swing states were encouraged to vote for Gore, and in exchange, a Democrat in a state with foregone GOP electoral votes would cast a vote for Nader - was followed by finger pointing and recriminations when Gore lost the presidency. Four years later, the Greens' silence is almost deafening.
One obvious explanation for the lack of discourse is that Nader, who is skipping the California primary, has yet to declare his candidacy. In 2000, Nader's high profile as a long-time consumer advocate drew the most attention a third party candidate has enjoyed since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose days. Moreover, the Greens' 2000 message - there was essentially no difference between the two major party candidates - rang true with many disillusioned Democrats and newly engaged political activists who were energized by the anti-globalization movement. But this argument no longer seems so plausible.
There's absolutely no question that the number of people voting for a Green candidate is going to go down, even if Nader runs.
Rahul Mahajan, former Texas Green Party gubernatorial candidate
"Except on a few things like the tax cut you could see almost no difference between Bush and Gore," says Rahul Mahajan, former Texas Green Party gubernatorial candidate and author of Full Spectrum Dominance: Iraq and Beyond.
At the time, it even sounded like Bush might be less hawkish on foreign policy, he recalls with some wonder, but adds, "You have right now in the White House an incredibly radical administration."
The Bush regime's far-right policies on tax cuts, civil liberties, and foreign relations have helped define the difference for Democrats; meanwhile the Dem's most successful candidate to date, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, has portrayed himself as a strong critic of the current administration.
Dennis Kucinich's candidacy has also stolen some of the fire from a third party candidacy. Mahajan says it's probably the main reason Nader has not yet decided to run. "In some ways," Mahajan argues, "Kucinich looks better than Nader, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq."
Nader has not been as vocal in his opposition to the war as Kucinich has, disappointing many progressives.
"There's absolutely no question that the number of people voting for a Green candidate is going to go down, even if Nader runs," says Mahajan, who thinks that a significant percentage of those voters, if not the majority, will vote for the Democratic nominee.
Political blogger and consultant Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, whose website, The Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com), is considered by political analysts to be among the top five Democratic blogs, thinks that a small margin of votes can decide this election, as it did in 2000. But Moulitsas says Democrats shouldn't try to appeal to the Greens and their 2000 supporters. Instead, he says, the key is to mobilize left-leaning people who have not participated in politics or elections.
"If I had a choice between going after the politically disaffected, and trying to appeal to 1 or 2 million Green voters," says Moulitsas, "I'd go for the politically disaffected."
The number of non-participating eligible voters is huge - roughly half of the eligible voting age population turned out in 2000 and even if there is a 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans, a savvy candidate could easily draw enough voters to swing the election.
Moulitsas, whose firm advocated the Meetup.com strategy for Dean, says the key to reaching these voters is offering them ways to feel like they own the process.
"Two years ago all you could really do is write a thousand-dollar check or show up at campaign headquarters where they made you lick envelopes," he says. "What technology's able to do, it allows people to become a lot more active participants." From distributing arguments via e-mail to printing posters and organizing letter-writing meetings, Moulitsas sees a fundamental change taking place.
Moulitsas was also key in starting the Kicking Ass blog, which allows Democrats and other progressives to criticize the party. "You want a party and a candidate that's responsive, who accommodates dissent, who values it as a vibrant part of a true democracy." When disgruntled progressives realize they won't be ostracized from the party for being vocal critics, he believes, they become newly energized and committed. "That's the key. Making people feel listened to."
One of the most positive results of the Dean campaign's approach, Moulitsas notes enthusiastically, is that his candidacy has become as much about the rank-and-file movement as it has about Dean personally. If Kerry makes a political misstep, Moulitsas argues, it could kill his campaign. Dean on the other hand, "has 200,000 or 400,000 hardcore supporters to fall back on if he does something stupid." Dean demonstrated his resiliency recently when his Democratic rivals unsuccessfully tried to take him down over his clumsily worded remarks about appealing to Southern voters who sport Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.
"It's (Dean's) nomination to lose at this point," says Moulitsas. Mahajan agrees, adding that he thinks Dean will be able to draw a significant percentage of the Green vote.
Mahajan, however, would rather see progressives focus on keeping the anti-war movement alive. Polls consistently show that the continuing Iraq occupation comes in third or fourth in national surveys that ask Americans what issues are most important to them. But, Mahajan warns, "It was difficult for Al Gore in 2000 to open up any perceived space between them and the Republicans on (taxes and health care), and there's always the fear that if they open up too much space they [the Democrats] will be portrayed as deluded liberals."
Mahajan thinks that Dean, too, could fall into this trap if he wins the nomination. Progressives need to continue to apply strong grassroots pressure, Mahajan explains, so that the Iraqi occupation and Bush's foreign policy remain strong points of attack for the Democratic candidate. "If the Democrat wants to win," says Mahajan, "hammering Bush on that issue is going to be of absolutely key importance."
In a similar fashion, Moulitsas says he wants to "evangelize" newfound Democrats and use them to push the party to the left. "It's not as important to move the party ideologically," though, Moulitsas says, noting that as a national party, it requires a big tent that can accommodate Al Sharpton and Joseph Lieberman. The most critical change in the Democratic platform, he says, is "to make it more responsive to people, and the more responsive party is going to be more able to accommodate the requests of the base." •
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