Fractured Factions

By rejecting Ralph Nader, are the Greens avoiding being spoilers or damaging their own future?

| Tue Jun. 29, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

Ralph Nader gave the Green Party a national profile when he ran as its presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. But the party has gradually soured on Nader, and it finally severed its ties with him over the weekend, choosing to nominate longtime activist David Cobb for president rather than endorse Nader’s independent candidacy. The split leaves both the Greens and Nader running from John Kerry’s left, while the Libertarians remain the top threat to siphon off Bush supporters on the right.

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Nader was not seeking the Green Party nomination, having announced in December that he would run without a party affiliation. But he had hoped the Greens would not select a candidate of their own and choose to nominate him (as the Reform Party already had). Trailing Cobb in polls of party members, Nader selected longtime Green activist Peter Camejo as his running mate, with the intent of capturing the Green endorsement and the 22 states’ worth of ballot access it ensures.

But a clear majority of Greens went with Cobb, a former trial lawyer who left his practice to focus on political activism, on the second round of balloting. At the convention in Milwaukee, Camejo called for party unity after the vote, and Cobb was effusive in praising Nader:

Ralph Nader has had more influence on my life than any human being who is not related to me. Ralph, if you are watching, thank you for what you have done, and thank you for what you will continue to do.

But calls for unity will make little difference when voters make their choice between Cobb, Nader and Kerry in November. And the split underscores a problem the Green Party has been battling for some time – how to get enough support to keep growing the party without the perception that it’s playing spoiler. If the Greens draw substantially fewer votes than they did in 2000, the party can lose precious ballot access next election, obliterating the gains it made under Nader. But Cobb still plans to run a "safe-state" strategy, campaigning for himself only in non-swing states, though he will campaign in all states for Green candidates down the ballot. The strategy has a fan in columnist Norman Solomon, who said he switched his party affiliation to Green as a result:

With the swing states all too close for comfort, activists should be emphatic that the Green Party's presidential campaign this year ought to concentrate its efforts on "safe states" -- where the Bush-Kerry race isn't close.

The Green Party should not be at cross-purposes with the progressive movements struggling to end the Bush presidency. People in those movements will long remember, for good or ill, how the Green Party conducts itself between now and the day that seals the fate of the Bush White House.

Not surprisingly, Nader played down his defeat at the hands of his former backers. Nader believes the Green Party stood to benefit more from the endorsement than he would, getting a higher profile and more fundraising opportunities from its association with him. And he questioned the logic of Cobb’s "safe-state" plan:

If you're trying to build a political movement, you don't turn your backs on people who happen to live in so-called close states. Our plan is to get as many votes nationally as possible. We're campaigning all-out.

Nader is already facing attempts by Democrats to block his ballot access in several states, as well as a new FEC complaint stemming from his campaign’s use of a charity’s office space. There’s no word yet on whether similar tactics will be employed against Cobb, now that progressives have three candidates to choose between this November.

While the Green Party is trying not to play spoiler to John Kerry, the Libertarian Party is hoping to do just that to George Bush. Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik told the Reno Gazette-Journal he hopes to take enough votes from Bush among conservatives in Nevada to swing the state to Kerry:

We want to be able to control the swing votes so the Democrats and the Republicans must pay attention to us. I’m trying to let American voters know that there are more choices. I want them to know that the Libertarian Party has this crazy idea that the Constitution means something.

Like Cobb, Badnarik concedes he won’t win the election, but is trying to grow his party’s base:

Unfortunately, a large percentage of our population are still unaware that the Libertarian Party exists. I want to be able to spread the message successfully enough that everyone in the United States knows that we exist. I don’t have to make a touchdown this election. I just have to move the ball down the field to make it easier for the next Libertarian candidate to continue the process.

Third-party candidates like the Greens and Libertarians -- not to mention the Natural Law Party, the Socialist Party and so on -- all face the same dilemma of how to widen their exposure without harming issues they care about. Now the Greens will find out whether jettisoning Nader achieves either of those goals.

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