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California dreamin': third-party activists get going in the Golden State.

David Lysy will cast his first-ever vote for President this November. But if the contest shapes up as the pundits are predicting, the nineteen-years-old freshman at Dartmouth College will not be voting with much enthusiasm.

"When I think of choosing between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, the word `apathy' comes to mind," says Lysy, a religion student who devotes much of his free time to anti-military activism. "If it's a Clinton-Dole race, a lot of people will just say, `Why bother?"'

Like many progressives around the country, Lysy is uninspired by the prospect of a Presidential vote that pits a conservative Democrat with close ties to Wall Street against a conservative Republican with close ties to Wall Street. With varying degrees of expectation and enthusiasm, some are searching for an alternative.

"I'd be a lot happier if Ralph Nader or someone else with some real progressive credentials ran," says Lysy. "Then, at least, I'd have a chance to vote for something I believe in."

A growing number of progressives are attaching themselves to the "anti-candidacy" of consumer activist Nader, who for several months has flirted with the prospect of launching a national campaign using the ballot lines of Green and progressive third parties around the country. Others have given their support to a reenergized Socialist Party, while still others continue to search the political wilderness for some sign of light.

As the 1996 Presidential contest moves into high gear, progressives are clearly torn over the question of whether to resign themselves to backing Clinton or to build an alternative on the still shaky ground of third-party or independent politics.

Among those progressives who cannot abide Clinton, the search for a candidate they can believe in takes on new urgency as the major-party nominating process gives every indication of producing a pair of candidates who are united in their support for NAFTA, GATT, weakened environmental and consumer protections, and a downsized federal government--with the exception of the military, and punitive welfare reform.

"The main philosophy now in both major parties is that of Ayn Rand--that altruism is foolish, that everyone should be out for themselves and no one else," says former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler, a Socialist and longtime proponent of independent left politics. "Gingrich has seized the whole structure of the country and is bringing it to destruction, and the Democrats just don't seem to have the direction or the energy it takes to swing back." Zeidler calls the dilemma "a choice between the eviler of two lessers."

Through much of 1995, progressives who wanted an alternative to Clinton and the Republicans looked to Jesse Jackson, who threatened to challenge the President in either the Democratic primaries or as an independent. By the fall, however, it was clear that Jackson had not made the moves necessary to launch a campaign.

Just when it seemed certain that no "name" progressive would challenge Clinton, Nader stunned observers by allowing his name to be entered in the Presidential primary of the California Green Party. Though he had long disavowed any interest in entering the 1996 race, Nader's simmering discontent with Clinton boiled over in October, when the President signed legislation that eliminated the national fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Nader said the move would lead to the "killing and injuring of tens of thousands of people a year," and he wondered aloud in interviews about whether Clinton wasn't "just a Republican President" in Democrat's clothing.

Supporters of the California Green Party, which in 1994 won statewide ballot status (which gives them an open slot for a Presidential candidate this year), seized on this opening and invited Nader to enter their primary.

Activists including environmentalist David Brower and Southern California ACLU executive director Ramona Ripston signed the letter asking Nader to consider taking the Green line, as did veteran Democratic Party strategist Pat Caddell--who played a critical role in shaping the campaigns of Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, and Jerry Brown in 1992.

The letter stopped short of asking Nader to launch a national candidacy, but suggested that his entry in the Green primary would "spur grassroots organizing around the country that will determine whether sufficient support exists to make your candidacy nationally viable."

Nader accepted the invitation, promising to use the California platform to expose "the corrosive impact of special-interest money" and to build "a catalyst for the creation of a new model for electoral politics."

To some, that sounded like a signal that the consumer activist--who polls say is still one of the most trusted figures in the nation--would be open to a more widespread candidacy. Nader seemed to invite such speculation by releasing a statement suggesting that a campaign could harness "civic energy to build democracy so as to strengthen and make more usable our democratic process for a just, productive, and sustainable society."

But Nader privately told friends and associates that he allowed the Greens to use his name only to pressure Clinton to take more progressive positions, and initially he made no effort to build a campaign.

"For a while there, most of us weren't sure what Nader's plans were," says Greg Jan, a California Green Party member who has taken a lead role in organizing a Draft Nader movement. "He agreed to be on the primary ballot last fall, but for a long while after that no one heard a peep out of him. Then, it seems, with the new year, he made the decision to treat the campaign more seriously."


In early January, Nader told KABC radio in Los Angeles that, if he ran, he would not be a spoiler throwing the race to the Republicans. Rather, he suggested, the two major parties were spoiling America.

He also indicated to Maine Greens leader John Rensenbrink that if certain stipulations were met he would allow his name to be placed on the ballot in that state. Rensenbrink suggested that the Maine filing would have a "snowball effect," causing existing third parties in other states and independent activists nationally to join the Nader crusade.

Rensenbrink was right. Within days, Nader had received expressions of support from activists in at least eighteen states, including New Mexico and Alaska, where there are already strong Green parties; Pennsylvania, where the Consumer Party line could be available; and Wisconsin, where some members of the New Progressive Party want him on their ballot.

As the weeks have passed, Nader has been sounding more and more like a candidate. He sketched the outline for a campaign that would eschew tradition--taking no special-interest money, and spending only $5,000 nationally--relying instead on his own name recognition and grassroots activism of ordinary citizens.

He told The New York Times: "The people need more political choices and less cynical political horse-trading. Both the Democrats and the Republicans refuse to change, won't give up the special-interest money, won't reform and give the people more power. This campaign isn't about me becoming President. It's about getting a new political movement going for the long haul."

That prospect is precisely what excites many activists about a Nader candidacy. "He's one of the most respected figures in America. He's a public-interest hero. I think that if he ran he could reshape American politics," says John D. Moyers, executive director of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, which seeks to promote greater citizen input in the American electoral process. "We need more independent politics in America, and Nader could be the catalyst we've all been looking for."

There is no question that Americans are open to alternative politics--perhaps more so than at any time since the 1850s, when the then-radical Republican Party displaced the Whigs. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll last fall indicated that only 32 percent of eligible voters surveyed would be satisfied with a Clinton-Dole match-up. And 63 percent said they wanted a third-party choice.

Ross Perot's third-party initiative--operating under both the Independence and Reform Party labels--has sought to seize the initiative in a number of states, with varying degrees of success. But the Perot party's platform, with its emphasis on conservative bromides such as a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, and openness to the restructuring of the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, is hardly the call to action progressives are seeking. And while Perot denies any personal ambitions, pollster Gordon Black, who has been closely tied to various third-party organizing efforts, says the eccentric Texas billionaire "will probably serve as Presidential candidate."

While the Perot party draws relatively weaker-than-expected numbers in polls around the country, even an informal Nader candidacy shows surprising potential. A Field Poll conducted in December found that, without so much as visiting California, Nader was already gaining the support of 11 percent of those voters surveyed in the state.

On the basis of such numbers, California's Jan dares to dream the historic dream of all third-party activists. "The most interesting scenario we have is that the American public, when it finally realizes it has a chance to break the two-party strangle-hold by voting for a trusted name such as Ralph Nader, will seize the opportunity," Jan says. "At a minimum, a Nader candidacy will invigorate progressives, invigorate the left, and get us organized. Even if we can't win the Presidency in 1996, this will get us organized for 1998, 2000, and beyond."

Not everyone is so confident about the prospects of a Nader candidacy, however. Though the Field Poll showed Nader drawing his votes most heavily from people who were disaffected from both major parties, many liberals and progressives fear the only real impact of a Nader bid would be to hand the Presidency to the Republicans.

Americans for Democratic Action, the group that spearheaded liberal opposition to the reelection campaigns of Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, has already endorsed Clinton's reelection, as have virtually all leading Democratic progressives. Even some signers of the initial appeal for a Nader candidacy on the California Greens' line have reconsidered.

"I see what's happening to people as a result of Republican policies and I cannot be casual about it," says Ramona Ripston of the ACLU. "As much as I feel let down by Bill Clinton, as much as all of us feel let down by Bill Clinton, I don't want to give the Republicans a blank check by handing them control of both the Presidency and Congress. Ralph would be a fine candidate, and I was very open to the prospect of him running last fall. But the situation has become more confusing since then. It has become clear that the rightwing Republicans who are in control of Congress are so evil, so intent on taking away the rights of Americans, so intent on attacking women, the poor, and immigrants. They are so nasty, so mean-spirited, that one really has to evaluate whether a third-party candidacy is the realistic option."

Dan Cantor, a national organizer for the New Party, is certain that a third party is a realistic long-term option. But he also rejects the idea of a Nader Presidential bid this year.

"Ralph has to face the question: Does he want to throw California to Bob Dole?" says Cantor.

Cantor is convinced that, ultimately, Nader will answer that question in the negative and fold his anti-candidacy.

"There won't be a serious third-party challenge from the left this year; nor should there be. The base can't sustain it. We have to build our base at the local level before we try a Presidential run," says Cantor. "Over time we can move up. But there's no substitute for building our power. It has taken the American left a long time to get as weak as it is. To think we can rebuild our strength by running for President is just unpersuasive. There is just no substitute for the unglamorous work of building a base city by city, state by state."

Labor Party Advocates is another group that has eschewed Presidential politics this year--though some of its backers in Wyoming have indicated that they may jump the gun and seek ballot status in that state. Other groupings that are interested in third-party politics (including one that a number of supporters of Ron Daniels's 1992 campaign for the Presidency) are using 1996 as a year in which to work locally and regroup, rather than to launch new national campaigns.

One such group, The Alliance, has organized nineteen chapters around the United States. Founded by Ronnie Dugger, former editor of the Texas Observer, The Alliance calls for forging a new populist movement. The group plans a national convention before the fall, but has no plans to enter the electoral fray as a presence this year.

At this late date, the likelihood of a "name" progressive other than Nader mounting a serious challenge to the major parties is remote. But that does not mean that progressives who cannot stomach a Clinton-Dole contest will be left without options.

The most vigorous of these comes from one of the nation's oldest third-party groupings--the Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas.

The Socialists were a powerful force in American politics during the early years of the Twentieth Century. They held 667 elected posts nationally on the eve of World War I, sent several members to Congress, and gained roughly a million votes in the Presidential contests of 1912, 1920, and 1932. But the party came close to disappearing at mid-century, and was kept alive through the 1970s and 1980s only by a small cadre of activists.

In recent years, however, the Socialist Party has shown unexpected vigor, attracting a growing number of young members, winning a smattering of local offices, and recently gaining ballot status in Oregon. In October, before the prospect of a Nader candidacy surfaced, the Socialists decided to launch their most aggressive national campaign since the days of Norman Thomas--a New York pastor whose "social gospel" provided a framework for the development of America's governmental "safety net."

The Socialist Party this year nominated Mary Cal Hollis, a former member of Colorado's Rural Electric Power Board who has long been active in the trade-union, anti-nuclear, environmental, and Central American solidarity movements. The Hollis candidacy is backed by the most sophisticated Socialist campaign ever--complete with a World Wide Web page, a campaign staff that includes veterans of Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign and various Green Party candidacies, and an aggressive plan for landing the party candidates on the ballot in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

"The S.P. has really moved into the Twentieth Century," says John Winter, who is coordinating the Hollis campaign nationally. "Our goal is to be a team player with other people doing work on the left to create a viable campaign that will move the debate out of right field."

The Socialists hope to gain ballot access for the Hollis campaign in California by winning the March 26 primary of the left-wing Peace and Freedom Party. It has filed in Vermont on the Liberty Union Party line, and will file in a number of other states under the Socialist banner.

The Socialists know their ambitious efforts will be obscured if Nader runs. But they do not seem particularly troubled by the prospect. "Everybody's looking over their shoulder with regard to Ralph Nader," says Winter, a New Jersey union activist. "Our attitude is that if he would take the race seriously and would go all the way to November, he would help sway the center of gravity on the whole array of issues toward the left. We want to kick the economic debate out of right field, and we alone are going to have a hard time doing that. Obviously, Ralph Nader is a bigger name and bigger draw."

If Nader decides against running, however, the Socialists say they will approach Green and third-party activists around the country in hopes of weaving together the broadest possible base of support for their campaign of "compassion and reason."

Whether a Nader candidacy, a Socialist campaign, or some other alternative becomes the focal point for a left presence in the 1996 Presidential race, former Milwaukee Mayor Zeidler says it is essential that the option be presented.

"At a time when there is mounting economic insecurity in America, and when people are indicating that they are dissatisfied with the solutions being proposed by the Republicans and the Democrats, the left has a responsibility to provide an alternative," he says. "Eventually, I think people will wake up and we need to be there."
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Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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