In late April, the forces of compassionate conservatism issued notice of yet another battle won over the evils of Clintonism. "Bush Shows Strength in Pacific Northwest," proclaimed a press release from the Bush campaign in bold faux newspaperese. And indeed, according to two new polls, George W. Bush was edging Al Gore by one point in Washington and three in Oregon. But though the Democrats have indeed lost ground in the region, it's not Bush who's winning it: Garnering a surprising 7 percent in the Oregon poll was longtime consumer gadfly and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
You can be forgiven if, perhaps, you missed Nader's candidacy. He declared back in February, but although he quickly polled as high as likely Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan, the media have not paid much attention. They can be forgiven, too: In 1992 and 1996, Nader perfected the art of the desultory anticampaign, rarely hitting the campaign trail, making no effort to raise money, and generally being content to sit back and let his good name be enlisted for ballot access efforts by the Greens. The result? In 1996 Nader took less than threequarters of 1 percent of the popular vote.
This time just might be different. For the past four months, Nader has run an actual campaign, complete with actual fundraising and actual press releases. He has campaigned in lefty strongholds like Madison, Wisconsin, where registered Greens are relatively--very relatively--numerous, and among farmers in South Carolina, where they are not. Nader's still far enough off the radar screen that most recent polls, especially most state polls, don't even ask voters about him. But with no advertising, little coverage, and a miniscule campaign budget, Nader already makes as big a blip on the national scene as the heavily covered, well-funded Buchanan, hitting 6 percent (versus 4 percent for Buchanan) during the first wave of polling about his candidacy two months ago.
Third-party candidates, of course, run every election year. Well over 100 are running in 2000, according to Project Vote Smart, including such likely long shots as Jackson Kirk Grimes of the United Fascist Union and Felix of the Lettuce Party. And though Nader--by virtue of his visibility and public standing--is a far more plausible third-party candidate than most, his chances of actually winning the election aren't much better than Felix's. But winning isn't necessarily the point (although, as with any serious campaign, it is officially the point). Nader wants "to build a major political force," as he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, "progressive in content, but appealing to conservatives, liberals, all the people who feel they're losing control in this country over everything that matters to them." With Nader on board, the Greens have a good chance at getting on the ballot in most states, will almost certainly hit the 5 percent threshold necessary to receive Federal Election Commission funds, and may knock down a lot of overly restrictive ballot access laws in the process.
"I think Nader has some real potential," says John Zogby, who puts Nader as high as 9 percent in the all-important (for Florida- and Texas-deprived Gore) West. "My polling shows that he does particularly well with older voters, fairly well with Boomers, and best among the 18-24 year olds. In every case, he seems to represent to them--not unlike John McCain--the perception of the last honest man in America."
But even if Nader fails to launch the Greens, there remains the intriguing possibility that he could pull a Perot. In 1992 Ross Perot focused on a single issue--deficit reduction--that, however abstract and wonky, tapped into a deep vein of voter discontent and propelled Perot to a startling 19 percent showing against Bill Clinton and George Bush. It wasn't enough to win, but it was enough to help nail a deficit reduction plank firmly into both the Democratic and Republican platforms.
Enter free trade, an issue even more wonky than deficit reduction, but one that has spawned a grass-roots movement that is simultaneously more intense and more politically diffuse than Perot's. Fair-traders exist on the political left and right, though Nader's brand is clearly left. But just as centrist free trade orthodoxy reigns supreme within the economic and foreign policy academies, the caricature of fair-trader as isolationist/ anarchist/idiot reigns supreme among newspaper editorials, columnists, and political magazines. While opponents and skeptics of free trade can rally behind House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and a caucus of dissident Democrats (and some Republicans), both party establishments and all four plausible primary candidates are ardent free traders. Gore and Bush agree on little else, but both have supported the China deal.
As a result, most antiglobalist sentiment has percolated frustratedly outside the confines of normal, two-party politics. The ferocious protests this spring against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., demonstrated the intensity of that sentiment. And the variety of those protesting illustrated something even more significant: Free trade, like deficit reduction, is a penumbra issue--the flashpoint for a broad pro-labor, pro-consumer, anticorporate, pro-grass-roots politics that has little sway within either party.
Enter Nader. The potential for Nader to successfully build the Greens--a task that would have been hopeless at any other time in the past three decades--rests largely on the possibility that these disparate political forces might provide a pre-organized grass roots that could be folded into some new party structure. Groups like A16 and United Students Against Sweatshops, for whose members Nader is something of an elder statesman, could well provide his campaign with foot soldiers. And labor, for years estranged from student movements and less than keen on Nader, might come around as well, at least at the base. The AFL-CIO has already backed Gore, and of the three large unions who abstained from that endorsement--the Teamsters, Steelworkers, and United Auto Workers (UAW)--only the UAW has even hinted at the possibility of a Nader endorsement. But the Teamsters are already planning to invite Nader to address their executive board (as Bush, Gore, and Buchanan have), and some observers say Nader, whose views on free trade and corporate power are closer to the unions' than are Gore's, might win some grass-roots support. "Part of my job, for 10 years, has been to talk to members about joining our PAC," says Chuck Harple, the Teamsters' political director, who in past years never saw much support for Nader among labor. "But with the education we have been doing on the China vote, a lot of our members are saying, what if?"
However many of the disenchanted Nader draws back into politics, though, the one person most likely to be affected by his campaign still is Al Gore. Since March, Gore has lost the slim postprimary lead he held in some polls; he now consistently lags behind George W. Bush by one to eight points. Some evidence suggests that these votes have gone not to Bush from the middle, but to Nader from the left: According to one analysis by Global Strategy Group and the Polling Company, Nader has cost Gore 5 percentage points. And though Nader is nowhere near Perotian heights, his support is crystallizing in a handful of states--not just in the Northwest, but also toss-up Midwestern states like Ohio--that could prove pivotal in a close race between Gore and Bush.
Assuming Nader gets between 5 percent and 10 percent, a few different electoral scenarios are possible. One is that the Buchanan-Bush-Gore-Nader ballot will be a replay of the 1948 election, in which fed-up progressives rallied behind Henry Wallace and against the too-centrist Harry Truman, while the Dixiecrats, under Strom Thurmond, came at Truman and establishment Republican Thomas Dewey from the right. In this scenario, Nader might give Gore a good scare but not hand the election to Bush, while boosting turnout among liberals, who would likely vote Democratic down-ballot and help that party take back the House. The result could be a significant realignment in American politics--the generation of enough turnout among progressive nonvoters to, perhaps, turn the Democratic Party back toward the left.
Another possibility is that Nader could siphon enough votes to put Bush in the White House but also help carry the House Democrats to a decent majority--bad for the Democrats, but not wholly catastrophic. Still another scenario would be for Gore to lose and for Bush to carry down-ballot Republicans and, thus, the House. This scenario might be good news for the Green Party. It might also, potentially, be good news for opponents of the Clinton administration's stance on trade issues. And it would be horrible news for Gore and the Democrats.
But there's an even worse scenario, for Democrats and liberals: The Greens win 10 percent in 2000, and again in 2004, 2008, 2012, and onward--carving out a sustainable niche among left-liberal voters, failing to ever inspire the allegiance of a greater swath of the electorate, and consigning the Democrats to permanent minority status. This describes the fate of the British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats during long periods of postwar history. To regain power, these nominally left parties had to recreate themselves, paradoxically, on the center-right.
Pushing the Democrats even further right would be an odd feat for the Greens. It's possible, of course, that the Greens will usefully move the Democrats in the direction of a newly activated progressive base, and then fade as the Perotistas have. But the Greens tend to see the Republicans and Democrats as indistinguishable, a myth that is as sustaining to their campaign as it is fatuous. Nader, too, seems disinclined to think of his campaign as mere leverage, and is of the opinion that a Bush presidency--with its likely efforts at national tort reform and environmental rollback, and its three to five Supreme Court nominees -- would be nothing worse that "a cold shower for four years" for the Democratic Party. Fine. But what about the rest of the country? "He's done a lot of good things in his life," says former Clinton aide Paul Begala. "But helping elect George Bush would not be one of them."