Published on Thursday, AUgust 17, 2000 in the Washington Post
Nader Picks a Milder Shade of Green
by Cathy Newman
It's Wednesday, Nov. 8. Think, for a moment, the unthinkable: Ralph Nader has made it to the White House. As America's new president, he now has the power to carry out the Green Party USA's official agenda, which, the nation may be stunned to learn, includes plans to abolish the Senate, to slap a 100 percent tax on the affluent, and to break up firms with more than 10 percent market share.
But the man the Greens have chosen to run for president has already thrown out the most radical elements of the Green Party platform. Nader, it turns out, is running with quite another party: the Association of State Green Parties, which champions a far more sober set of policies.
Of the GPUSA's plans to scrap the Senate and impose a 100 percent tax on all income over 10 times the minimum wage, he says: "I don't like those two positions. . . . I'm adopting positions that disagree with some positions of the Green Party USA. I'm not for the abolition of the Senate. There's so many bad things going through Congress I want two opportunities to stop them." Taxing a maximum wage, meanwhile, he dismisses as "not comprehensive enough. If you really want to have a tax on wealth, have a tax on wealth."
He is running instead with the ASGP, which nominated him the Green presidential candidate in Denver last month. The ASGP's longer, more moderate platform is organized under four serious-minded headings--"democracy; social justice and equal opportunity; environmental sustainability; and economic sustainability."
While Nader maintains he's running on the ASGP platform, that's not quite how Howie Hawkins sees it. Hawkins, who pulled together the GPUSA platform, insists Nader is embracing both parties. "He's using both of us. I really see the platforms as different in degree rather than direction. The ASGP calls for proportional representation in its platform and the U.S. Senate is inherently disproportional, so you could argue that abolishing the U.S. Senate is implicit in the demand for proportional representation."
Nader has made it clear he does not want to become embroiled in Green Party politics and has no interest in trying to unite the two warring factions. His supporters fear that the extreme views of some in the GPUSA are a thorn in his side. John Rensenbrink, one of the founders of the ASGP, who is advising the Nader campaign, admits: "It's a real problem for us, there's no question about that."
By abandoning the Green Party's more unconventional ideas, Nader has been able to claim the center ground and gain support from people who would traditionally have felt most comfortable voting Democratic. He has, says Rensenbrink, cast himself as a "majoritarian."
In doing so, the Greens' presidential candidate is following in the footsteps of other major party candidates. In 1996, Robert J. Dole, the Republican presidential nominee, said he had not read his party's platform, and certainly didn't feel bound by it. Marshall Wittmann, political analyst at the Heritage Foundation, explains: "Nader's trying to be a conventional unconventional candidate. He's done what many Democrats and Republicans have done in the past, which is to ignore their party's platform, particularly when it intrudes into attempts to attract the mainstream."
Wittmann sees Nader's alliance with the Green Party as simple opportunism. "He needed a vehicle, and the Greens were the most attractive and available vehicle to him," he says.
By distancing himself from fringe elements of the Green Party, Nader has managed to attract support--or at least sympathetic noises--from a number of unions that would usually find the tree-hugging hippie image of the more radical Greens abhorrent. The Teamsters, who have backed both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the past, have not yet decided whether to endorse Nader. But his campaign's emphasis on strong labor laws, universal health insurance and corporate accountability has been applauded by such unions.
Union leaders attacked Vice President Gore for supporting permanent normal trade relations for China, and the Teamsters' president even stood alongside Nader at a news conference after the China trade bill passed Congress.
"Nader is bringing to the forefront issues that matter to working families. The fact that he's a Green Party candidate is irrelevant," says Bret Caldwell, director of communications for the Teamsters.
It's that kind of sentiment that may mean Nader tips the balance against Gore in key states such as Michigan and Ohio. The Green candidate was only on the ballot in 29 of 50 states by the end of last month, but he is ranking between 5 and 7 percentage points in the polls. Achieving more than 5 percent of the vote in November would make the Greens eligible for all-important public financing in the next presidential election.
David Leland, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, plays down the threat. "The people in Ohio are going to realize [a vote for Nader] is either going to be a wasted vote or a vote for George Bush. The fact that he's been discovered as being a multimillionaire, having all those things he's been attacking all these years, makes him a bit of a hypocrite," he says.
Nader's supporters counter that he is already successfully putting pressure on the vice president to adopt a more progressive stance. Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, which became the first union to back Nader in mid-June, says: "Nader's involvement in the race is moving Gore to a more progressive platform." She accuses Gore and Bush of repelling voters by indulging in "esoteric debates in D.C." without taking immediate action to address health reform and other burning issues.
Nader himself believes he may be more help than hindrance to the Democrats. If he can reach a fraction of the tens of millions of people who either don't vote or back independent candidates, he would send a signal to the Democrats without handing Bush the White House. He also reckons the groundswell of support for the Greens may help the Democrats win back the House. People who did not turn out at the last election may vote for Nader as president, at the same time picking a Democratic candidate for House or Senate races. "Anyone who says I may cost Gore the election has to concede that I may put [House Minority Leader Richard A.] Gephardt back as speaker. That's a nice prospect for the Democrats," he says.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company