Al Gore came out swinging in his ballyhooed return to politics. Cheered by 2,500 Democrats who converged April 13 on the Wyndham Palace Resort in Lake Buena Vista, he took aim at President Bush's education and health-care policies. He declared himself "tired of the right-wing wind." And he blamed Republicans for using Sept. 11 as an excuse to advance their agenda.
Eight hours later and 70 miles away in Tampa, the rhetoric blew from the left. With an audience of 6,000 mostly young activists inside the University of South Florida's Sun Dome, Ralph Nader -- whose 2000 presidential campaign, many say, robbed Gore of the White House -- attacked not only the Republicans, but also the Democrats. The latter party had abandoned its progressive roots, said Nader, who two years ago hammered the same point. The Democrats follow the GOP's whims. Instead of debating a living wage, universal health care or a ban on the death penalty, he said, the Democrats focus on suburban, centrist issues like education and Social Security -- all while stuffing their pockets with the same corporate cash as their opponents.
Two years ago that message was enough to galvanize outrage, and Nader -- the consumer activist who let himself be drafted by the Green Party -- rode it to the end of the presidential race and a finish that earned him 2.8 million votes.
At 2.74 percent of the electorate, that tally fell far short of the best result by a third-party candidate in presidential balloting. Nonetheless, progressives were energized. They claimed a new movement was forming. The evidence showed disgust within partisan flanks. Voters were fleeing the established parties. Soon there might actually be a place where they could turn to find politicians who were accountable on the issues they felt truly mattered -- not simply schools and crime, but rising unemployment, drug legalization, rollbacks of environmental protections, access to medical care and labeling of genetically modified foods. With the intervening Enron scandal and the Bush administration's efforts to hide its coziness with the energy lobby, liberals felt things shift further in their favor.
So, what's being done to build on that momentum?
The answer: Not a lot, apparently.
Gore, of course, did win the popular vote, and the Democrats will remind voters of that no matter who is their candidate in 2004. Meantime they've got their own repair work to do, which includes wooing those whose defection they blame for Gore's loss in the state-by-state Electoral College count that gave the presidency to George W. Bush.
Floridians are special villains. Notwithstanding Palm Beach County's mismarked ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, Gore lost the state to Bush by a final 537 votes. Had Nader not collected 97,488 votes himself in the Sunshine State -- liberal-leaning votes that many Democrats felt belonged instead to their man -- Washington, D.C. would have been celebrating not with "The Yellow Rose of Texas" but with "The Tennessee Waltz."
Those Democrats insist that Nader's backers hurt their own cause more than helping it; the result, they argue, is a president whose core values are the antithesis of progressive politics.
Indeed, that's long been the dilemma facing the progressive movement, which itself is a hodgepodge of environmental and social-justice causes: Stick with the Democrats and try to pull them left, or back a third party that, even with a standard-bearer as well-known as Nader, is inevitably a long shot.
The Greens know this. Still, their relative success backing Nader in 2000 make them the third party to watch. To have any genuine, enduring clout, Greens desperately need to organize the groups that backed Nader two years ago. (For his part, the 68-year-old Nader has not committed himself to 2004.) That's what Nader's "People Have the Power" rallies -- the one in Tampa was the 10th -- are all about, linking activists in the hope that they'll support each other's causes. But so far, the rallies have had little lasting impact. Nationally, the Democrats still take the left for granted, and the Green Party's growth has been, in Nader's words, "slower than I would like."
Even if Nader does run again, history suggests he won't fare much better. Prominent third-party figures have colored eight of the last 21 presidential elections, and comparatively, Nader isn't that special. In 1912, Bull Moose candidate and former President Teddy Roosevelt took 27 percent of the vote, splitting Republicans and handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Twelve years later, another progressive, Robert LaFollette, claimed 17 percent of voters. In 1948, so-called "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond and progressive Henry Wallace took 2 percent each. Twenty years later, George Wallace worked a segregation platform to earn 14 percent. Then came independent John Anderson's 7 percent in 1980, followed by Texas billionaire Ross Perot's 19 percent in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996, respectively.
The common thread: All of those third parties fizzled as quickly as they emerged. In fact, the last enduring third party was the GOP, which emerged 140 years ago.
But that doesn't mean the others haven't had an impact. Anderson, for instance, raised substantial environmental issues. And in 1992, when Democrats and Republicans were pushing NAFTA, Perot showed up with big, color-coated charts hyping potential job losses.
After a halfhearted run six years ago -- he registered as a candidate but refused to campaign -- Nader charged hard in 2000, saying he wanted to decimate the GOP-Democrat "duopoly," which he saw as two heads of the same beast. Then he crashed full-throttle into the media's catch-22: You can't get votes without being on the front page, yet you can't get on the front page without polling well. He and Buchanan weren't even allowed into the presidential debates.
As the election neared, Nader's poll numbers waned, but he persisted, telling followers that he wouldn't back out to help Gore; if the vice president wanted to win, he had to do it on his own. (To those who blamed Nader's Florida numbers for Gore's failure, Nader backers pointed out that Gore also lost his home state of Tennessee; Bill Clinton's home state of Arkansas, and the Democratic stronghold of West Virginia. A victory in any one would have changed the outcome.)
Nader, Buchanan and Libertarian Harry Browne combined tallied more than 130,000 votes in Florida alone -- meaning that more than 2.2 percent of Florida voters favored "none of the above" over Bush or Gore, despite knowing the election was a virtual dead-heat.
A day after the election, Nader reiterated his "party-building" goals, and some of his supporters claimed the close vote would make Democratic power-brokers take notice. But Nader also fell short of a key objective: His 2.74 percent was less than the 5 percent the Green Party needed to qualify for future federal matching campaign funds.
Even so, on Feb. 20 of this year the Green Party of the United States opened its first Washington, D.C office, a symbolic step toward establishing its presence as a bonafide entity. The Federal Election Commission bestowed formal recognition to the Greens last fall, though it's still up to individual states whether to list their candidates on the ballot.
Another way the party hopes to achieve credibility is through changes in the electoral system. One solution is instant-runoff voting, which opens to third-party candidates roles other than spoiler. It works like this: Instead of choosing a single candidate, voters rank their first three choices in order. If no one achieves a majority of first-place votes, the last-place finisher is dropped and his or her second-place votes are distributed to the remaining candidates. So it goes until a majority is achieved. Instant-runoff voting is already in use in parts of Vermont and Utah, and last month San Francisco voters adopted it for use in their city elections.
For now, at least, the Greens are certainly outpacing the unraveling Reform Party. Last week, 30 national committee members -- more than half of that party's executive committee -- and eight state organizations took their support for Buchanan and bolted, leaving the party's remnants to those who seek a resurrection of Perot's original centrist coalition.
Yet while Nader captured 2.4 million more votes than Browne, the Greens still are eclipsed by the Libertarians' success on local levels. The Greens claim about 100 elected officials nationally; the Libertarians have more than 300. Libertarians also take credit for the growing resistance to the drug war and the GOP's move to privatize Social Security, both of which have been on the Libertarian agenda for 30 years.
Ironically, Libertarians model their goals after early 20th-century Socialists, says party spokesman George Getz. Though they never elected a national leader, Socialists proposed a number of ideas that Democrats co-opted and Republicans eventually warmed to, including the minimum wage, Medicare and Social Security.
"We would be delighted if we could have the same impact," Getz says. So would the Greens. But they've got a long way to go.
Jim Glover attracts passers-by with his banjo. Among the 120 groups with displays on the second-level of the arena hosting Nader's rally, his table lacks the fancy signs that adorn many of the others. Instead, the man who identifies his organization as the Green Democrats plucks away, his instrument sometimes drowned in the rock music coming from the stage below.
Glover is the progressives' dilemma personified. He voted for Nader, and he's regretted it every day since. His message to Nader supporters is that they need to back a winner, no matter how imperfect. "I'm saying let's give the Democrats a chance to be more progressive," he says.
Nancy Whitman has the same goal. The former head of the Pinellas County Democratic Party is at a Young Democrats' booth down the row from Glover.
"I am really tired of people bad-mouthing the alternative to the right-wing in this state," she says. She's bitter about Nader's role in the election: "There is a difference [between the two major parties]. Anybody who says that isn't reading the paper."
Both Glover and Whitman agree with much of Nader's politics -- just not with him. The election debacle left some Greens who were swept up in the Nader groundswell heading for the door. It's better to win than be idealistic, they say.
"It's a matter of tactics," says Amy Isaacs, national director of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. "We decided that, willy-nilly, we have a two-party system. We sort of view ourselves as a burr under the [Democrats'] blanket. The Greens, when they're trying to attack liberals in races they can't win, then we differ."
But what good is a third party that simply acquiesces to its competitors? And if the Democrats bank on liberal votes the same way that Republicans count on the religious right, what's to move them out of the center?
To Nader, the answer is clear: "[Progressives] need to grow a third party and grow it fast," he says in a press conference before the rally. "Either one or two of the parties is gonna shape up, or one or two of the parties is gonna start shrinking."
That doesn't seem the case among the Democrats gathered in Orlando. The issues that played so heavily in Tampa -- namely, corporate control over politicians, consumers and the environment -- were absent here. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a possible presidential contender, pledged to fight oil rigs on Florida's coast. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida blasted Gov. Bush's education plan. Only Florida House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, a gubernatorial candidate, took the Bushes to task on gay-rights and abortion issues.
Still, Gore brought the crowd to a fevered pitch with his admonition, "Never give up on what you believe in!" But that's exactly what progressives say the Democrats have done.
To prove the progressive movement is still kicking, Greens say, look again at Nader's audience. As pointed out by Michael Moore, whose Bush-bashing book "Stupid White Men" sits atop the New York Times best-seller list, the Sun Dome rally -- a $10 ticket that also featured entertainers like former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and '70s rocker Patti Smith -- drew more than twice the Democrats' crowd.
"It's this way all over the country," Moore says before taking the stage. "I see it every night. We live in a very liberal, progressive country on the issues." Fifty-eight percent of Americans consider themselves pro-labor, he adds. Sixty-three percent are pro-choice. Nearly nine of 10 Americans say they're environmentalists.
"They just don't like the liberal leaders 'cause they don't lead," Moore says.
"The Power to the People" gathering isn't officially linked to the Greens. It's sponsored by the Nader-led nonprofit Democracy Rising. Ostensibly, the rallies -- which, prior to Tampa, hit Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; Toledo, Ohio; San Francisco; Boston; Cleveland; Minneapolis; Phoenix and Atlanta -- are meant to encourage civic involvement. But the main goal is to organize.
Each rally-goer received a "progressive directory," which lists contact information for the 120 organizations that participated. But while some have coinciding agendas, it may be naâ?¢ve to suggest that the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement will protest alongside Humanists of the Suncoast, or that domestic-violence fighters The Spring of Tampa Bay will join forces with the Nation of Islam or the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
While Nader tries to build his grassroots following, Democrats are almost dismissive.
"Everybody regards them as jerks," Orange County Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Doug Head says of Nader voters. "I believe that they know this nonsense about the two parties being equal has been demonstrated in the last year and a half. My mood is to say, you guys were wrong, you cost us an election, get with the program."
Even if they don't, Head says, Democrats "are much more inclined to go after the no-party moderates."
Nowhere is that more true than in the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary. Polls show that voters care about education, so the five announced candidates are so far sticking to education. Occasionally, they target black voters by bringing up Jeb Bush's elimination of affirmative action.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno leads in polls, though some say she's too liberal and has too much baggage (i.e. Waco and Elian Gonzalez) to beat Bush. Tampa attorney Bill McBride, the party establishment's favorite, leads in money and endorsements. Neither is courting the Nader progressives.
Reno opposes the death penalty, though she says she'd sign death warrants and doesn't think Florida's system is flawed enough to warrant a moratorium. McBride takes the other view; he's pro-capital punishment but wants the system fixed. McBride's staffs hypes the $12-an-hour living wage he helped to establish as a minimum for employees of his law firm, Holland and Knight, though he won't commit to that as statewide policy.
"McBride represents the traditional Democratic candidate the insiders are used to," says Frankel, who has hinted she may drop out of the race. "In our own way, Democrats need to get used to the fact that our party, to ever nearly get where it needs to go, needs to get the money people to open their wallets to women and blacks. I think we have a ways to go on that."
If Nader runs again, Greens want to be ready. "We have to grow up and be worthy of him," says Florida Green Party spokesman Alan Kobrin. "We are taking steps in that direction. It hasn't been that easy. Ã? We haven't been sleeping; we've been learning what it really means to be a political party. We're not the kind of people who have been involved in traditional politics."
That's not the only problem they face. As Seminole Community College political scientist Michael Hoover points out, the Green Party is more closely identified with Nader's politics than its own platform. Without Nader, it might well collapse -- like Perot's Reform Party did without him. The socialists, anarchists and environmentalists who attend Nader's rallies or hold demonstrations, though good at criticizing mainstream politics, tend to accomplish little else.
"Activists have a tendency to speak to themselves," Hoover says.
"The No. 1 issue progressives have to fight is that, professionally, they have [always] been more issue-oriented," says Democracy Rising's McDougal. "They don't bridge together beyond the issues and address the real problem [of corporate money in politics]."
Some are just scared to join a losing team. "A lot of people are waiting in the woodwork," Kobrin says. "If you want us to do anything, join us." Repeatedly, he hears would-be Greens say they'd join "if you guys would get your act together."
"This is a long-term process," Hoover says. To be successful, progressives must work in and out of the Democratic Party, though those individuals can't "compromise and accommodate and lose sight of what is considered the core principles and values, for what? A piece of the pie?
"It's necessary to do both. It has to be a two-tracked approach," he says. "[But] a seat at the table's not the end result."
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