It’s that time of year again. Fall is in the air, kids are back in school, and frightened Democrats are warning the Green Party not to run a candidate for president next year. “The issues are too serious,” we’re told, “and the incumbent too awful. Just for this election, forget your progressive values, hold your nose, and vote for whichever conservative white male the Dems decide to run. After all, anyone’s better than Bush.”

We’ve heard this before. The arguments Dems are making now are the same ones they made in 2000. “Rally around Al Gore,” they said. In 1996, it was Clinton. Last year, in my home state of Texas, we were told to support the Democratic candidate for governor, a strongly conservative banker who had never held political office, and whose chief qualification was his ability to fund his campaign out of pocket.

So it’s tough not to see the current Democratic pleas as part of a pattern. It’s not just, “Greens, don’t run for president in 2004.” It’s, “Greens don’t run. Not any time, not any race.” Why not? Because, according to the Democrats’ logic, the Republican candidate is always worse than their own. They’re usually right about that, but that’s an argument that can be made (and has been made) about almost any race in any year. It’s an argument against progressive electoral politics in America. Period.

But shouldn’t environmentalists prioritize defeating Bush, surely the most anti-environmental president ever, over lofty long-term ideals about American politics? Answer: Only if they think his replacement will be a substantial improvement. Granted, no one knows who the Democratic candidate will be in 2004, but if he’s anything like Clinton and Gore on environmental issues, look out! You remember Al Gore: He’s the one who told citizens in Ohio that he would put a halt to a controversial hazardous-waste incinerator sited near an elementary school. In eight years as veep, he never got around to keeping that pledge.

During those same eight years, the fuel efficiency of American cars and trucks actually declined while the Clinton administration sent Detroit automakers more than a billion bucks to research, but not actually produce, cleaner automobiles. Clinton also blessed logging of ancient forests in California and the Pacific Northwest. And his administration placed a moratorium on new listings of endangered species and refused to declare the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a national monument to protect it from oil drilling and … well, you get the picture.

The point is not that Bush is an acceptable president from an environmental perspective. The point is that if you want real environmental protection, don’t bet on either of the two big-money parties. Real change on environmental issues will come with real change in politics, and not before.

And Green Party candidates are talking real change. If it weren’t for us, who would speak up about universal health care, a living wage, publicly financed elections, and true sustainability? Who would criticize Democrats for their nearly unanimous vote in favor of the Patriot Act, for the blank check they gave the president to invade Iraq, for enormous increases in defense spending, for the war on drugs? Who would remind Democrats that they had the votes to stop Bush’s two massive tax cuts, but didn’t? Telling Greens not to run is tantamount to barring those issues from the public debate — just as Democrats and Republicans barred Ralph Nader from the presidential debates last time.

An average Joe.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

If You Join ‘Em, You Can’t Beat ‘Em

Some Dems like to advise Greens to join the Democratic Party and make it a progressive force by working to change it from within. Leaving aside the fact that many Greens left the Democratic Party precisely because they found such reform to be impossible, the argument is cockeyed. It amounts to telling the Democratic Leadership Council, “Go ahead, push the party as far to the right as you like. You can always count on our votes.” To “work within” the Democratic Party ultimately means working on behalf of, contributing to, and voting for candidates whom progressives don’t want in office. Joe Lieberman, anyone? That is not a road map to a progressive future; it’s a road map to exactly where we are.

The great irony, of course, is that as the DLC moves the Democratic Party ever rightward, Democrats themselves are the losers. Mirroring Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” Clinton ran hard to the right, emphasizing crime control and distancing himself from blacks and progressives. His calculation? They would have nowhere else to go. Those tactics worked for Clinton, a master politician, but other Democrats have paid dearly for turning their backs on traditional Democratic voters.

Let me illustrate. On the day President Clinton took office in 1993, Democrats held an 82-seat majority in the House of Representatives and a 57-43 majority in the Senate, and 30 governors were Democrats. On the day he left office in 2001, Republicans ruled both chambers of Congress and only 19 states had Democratic governors.

Norton, left, became interior secretary with the blessing of many Democrats.

Photo: White House.

Still, the Democrats didn’t get the picture. In January 2001, shortly after Bush arrived in the White House, a short article appeared in the New York Times reporting on two of the previous day’s events in Washington, D.C. The first part of the article described labor groups, women’s groups, African-Americans, and environmentalists descending on the capital to try to stop the confirmations of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Gale Norton as secretary of the Interior. The second part of the article reported that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) had sent a letter to Bush saying that none of his nominees — not Ashcroft, not Norton — was in any danger of being rejected. In other words, elected Democrats ignored the strenuous objections of core Democratic constituencies and confirmed two radically right-wing appointees. Who were those Democratic senators answering to? Not labor, women, blacks, or environmentalists.

Die-hard liberal Democrats may be surprised at how conservative their party has become, but Greens are not. Big money is never a progressive force in politics, and over the past decade, Democrats have proven themselves very nearly as adept as Republicans at licking the corporate boot. So their passage of NAFTA and welfare “reform” and funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative and other regressive legislation came as no surprise. It’s all in keeping with the values of Democratic patrons.

Is Dean the best that Dems can do?

Photo: Dean for America.

What about Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the apparent front-runner among the Democratic candidates? Can’t Democratic liberals pin their hopes on him? Not according to University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson, who has followed that state’s politics for more than 25 years: “Howard Dean is a classic Rockefeller Republican. He’s never been a threat to entrenched privilege in Vermont. All this ‘You have the power’ seems very far-fetched to me.” Like so many other Democratic politicians, Dean is just Republican Lite.

If the New Democrats don’t value progressivism, Greens do. That’s because progressive values are vital to our political and social well-being. Think of all the things we take for granted today that began with progressives bucking the status quo: the 40-hour work week, prohibition of slavery and child labor, workplace safety, the right to strike, unemployment insurance, and Social Security, to name just a few. All these began as progressive initiatives. All were resisted by conservative, big-money interests but are now woven into the fabric of everyday life. Many people hope to say the same about universal health care a few years from now. America needs a vigorous progressive movement. And it’s not going to come from the likes of Dean or his fellow would-be presidents — particularly if they know that progressives have no one but Democrats to vote for.

Nader accepts the Green Party nomination in 2000.

Photo: Democracy in Action.

Don’t Blame Nader

Democrats need to face facts: Ralph Nader didn’t cause the Al Gore debacle in 2000; Al Gore did. The vice president lost not only his home state of Tennessee (whose 11 electoral votes would have won him the election), he also lost West Virginia, where two out of three registered voters are Democrats. Nader polled under 1 percent in Tennessee and under 2 percent in West Virginia — less than the margins that separated Bush and Gore in those states. More important, nationwide, about 10 times as many registered Democrats voted for Bush as voted for Nader. In Florida, it was 11 times.

In fact, the Democrats should thank Nader, because he brought left-leaning voters to the polls who otherwise would have stayed home. Exit polls showed that about 30 percent of Nader voters would have skipped the election had Nader not been on the ballot. Once there, those voters tended to cast their ballots for Democrats where no Green was running. So the presence of a Green at the top of the slate actually benefits Democrats down-ballot while not harming the Democratic presidential contender. That’s exactly what New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) found when he ran and won in 1996. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) got the same boost in 2000.

Special edition on elections and the environment.

When New York Times reporters Don Van Natta, Jr., and Katharine Q. Seelye interviewed two dozen big money-raisers for Gore in September 2001, not one blamed Nader or the Green Party for the loss. Their article quoted one veteran Democratic fundraiser as saying, “He [Gore] is a bad candidate. He lost three debates to George Bush, and that isn’t easy. And I won’t raise another dime for him.”

Democratic candidates are making hay criticizing Bush this fall, and with good reason. The Iraq misadventure is hemorrhaging blood and money, unemployment is at a 10-year high, and the deficit is soaring out of sight. You’d think that would all add up to Bush being in big trouble. But don’t count on it. Once Democrats pick a presidential candidate next year, all the fiery rhetoric will cool as the nominee outlines exactly what he intends to do if elected. We’ll be told that the Iraq invasion really was justified, but the Dems would have planned it better. Roll back those tax cuts? Not a chance. What about the deficit? Consult Herbert Hoover on the virtues of a balanced budget. Real progressive issues? MIA. Then, if you listen closely, you’ll hear a long hissing sound that is the air going out of the American political balloon. And 50 percent of voters will stay home next November. Again.

Being a third party in the United States is hard work. Among other things, ballot access laws are a hurdle state Green parties have to clear at least every four years. That requires us to expend precious resources just to get our candidates’ names in front of voters. (Democrats and Republicans have exempted themselves from that requirement.) Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000 did more to build the Green Party than any other single event. We cannot continue to bring progressives into our party if we do not offer them real progressive alternatives to vote for.

If you’re a conservative, congratulations! You’ll have plenty of choices in next year’s election. But progressives need not stay home and fume. Just like in 2000, they can vote for a candidate and a party that stand for grassroots democracy, social justice, and environmental responsibility — and against war masquerading as foreign policy, globalization as economic policy, enrichment of the rich, and impoverishment of the poor.

Greens have picked up the progressive mantle cast aside by the Dems. We carry it proudly. We urge every American: “Vote your hopes, not your fears.” With Green Party candidates on the ballot, you can do just that.

See you next November.