Political Green Giant?

The political convention season got under way last weekend as the Green Party caucused in Denver and overwhelmingly chose longtime consumer advocate and environmental activist Ralph Nader as its presidential candidate. Native-American activist Winona LaDuke, from the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, will be Nader's running mate.

Fringe politics? Nader would beg to differ: "Green values are majoritarian values" was one of the overarching themes he tried to drive home in his acceptance speech, which ran over two hours long. Despite what the poll numbers show, (nationally, Nader is running between three and six percent) Nader says that he is in this race to win it. Or win major concessions from the major parties, in the much more likely scenario that one of their representatives gain the White House.

The Green platform carries a number of planks that may have resonance with certain voters this year. In a campaign where campaign finance reform figured prominently in the Democratic and Republican primaries, Nader and the Greens have made this their first order of business. Nader has pledged not to accept any PAC or soft money, which easily trumps Al Gore's "If you won't use soft money neither will I" gambit.

Nader has also vowed to renegotiate international trade agreements such as NAFTA and those that govern our membership in the WTO, which should place him firmly within a growing current of discontent with these treaties and bodies among environmentalists and organized labor.

Especially organized labor. More than receiving the Green nomination, the surest sign that Nader has arrived as an important factor in this campaign was the very public show of mutual affection between him and the Teamsters' leadership last week. The Teamsters, and organized labor in general, are steamed with Gore over his appointment of outgoing Commerce Secretary William Daley as his campaign manager. Daley had spearheaded the Clinton administration's efforts to get NAFTA passed and to win congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations with China, both of which labor was firmly against.

"Democrats are taking labor, organized labor and general labor, for granted," Nader has said, "And when labor gets taken for granted, it gets taken." If the Teamsters or other large unions endorse Nader, it would be a great boon for him - and a huge blow for Gore.

Gore is, right now, running between five and nine points behind George W. Bush in most national polls. As these figures overlap Nader's national numbers, and conventional wisdom has it that most votes for Nader would come from Gore's column, Nader has been asked if he worries that his campaign might contribute to a Bush election in the fall.

He does not, as he sees Gore and Bush as representing "the same corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup." And, understandably, he questions why the question gets framed that way at all: "I'm not worred about taking votes away from Al Gore," he said recently, "I'm worried that Al Gore will take votes away from me." Besides, many Greens will tell you, a vote for Ralph Nader is not necessarily otherwise a vote for Al Gore. As one young Green put it at the convention, "If it weren't for the Green Party, I wouldn't be votingÂ…most of my friends don't have that allegiance to the two-party system that our parents had."

This remains of little consolation to Gore, who sees polls showing that Nader's support is strongest in the Democratic must-win state of California. Thirty-one Greens hold state-wide office there, and thoughts of Bush winning what would essentially be a three-way race there must keep Gore strategists awake at night.

Nader, meanwhile, hopes that the Green's issues will also find traction with some folks who might otherwise vote Republican. Distinguishing conservatives from "corporationists," Nader says, "Let us not prejudge any voters" and again sounds the call that "Green values are majoritarian values." While such an outreach may largely be the product of optimism, the new politics of the new world order have in many cases blurred distinctions between right and left. One might assume, however, that right-leaning opponents of NAFTA and the WTO would be more inclined toward presumptive Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan.

Nader is having his moment now, and hitting his stride as a candidate. The vigor with which he is campaigning this year has helped him overcome lingering perceptions from his last, desultory campaign four years ago that he is a quitter. Now that the Greens have qualified for federal matching funds, the next hurdle for them and their candidate is inclusion in the televised "debates." Nader is suing the Federal Election Commission over rules that allow corporate backing of these events, and decrying the 15 percent polling bar for participation.

This time around, Ralph Nader remains the longest of long shots. In political parlance, at least, he is the classic "spoiler." But his candidacy, though it hurts Gore more, could well prove a thorn in the side of both major parties at a time when they have left themselves open to charges that they care more about winning than reform.