WHAT HATH BILL Clinton wrought?
Ten years ago, Clinton won the presidency by running on a heavily Democratic Leadership Council–inspired platform. Under the auspices of that centrist, even right-leaning agenda, Democrats embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform, and, in some cases, the reactionary Defense of Marriage Act. American liberals’ lurch to the center-right triggered an electoral revolution of sorts — the emergence of a national Green Party. We all know what happened in 2000 when Green candidate Ralph Nader ran for president. The big question today is, what’s going to happen in 2002?
The Green Party is poised to dramatically alter the political scene in three states where it is fielding candidates for higher office: Maine, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. In Maine, publicly financed Green candidate Jonathan Carter is getting ready to put up a strong run for governor against Republican Peter Cianchette, Democrat John Baldacci, and Independent John Michael. In Minnesota, the Green Party has nominated Ed McGaa, a Native American and veteran, to run against incumbent Democratic senator Paul Wellstone and his Republican challenger, St. Paul mayor Norman Coleman. And in Massachusetts, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein could rob the Democrats of victory in a narrowly divided general election. At issue is the "Nader Effect," whereby the increasingly well-organized Green Party cuts into Democratic support. The stakes are high. In Minnesota, Wellstone’s defeat would give control of the Senate back to the GOP.
For the Greens, though, success in state elections represents a logical next step from a national election where their candidate won 2.7 percent of the vote — still far less than the 19 percent cash-rich independent candidate Ross Perot garnered in 1992, but enough to determine the election. "The Greens are going to run headlong, and if that means running against Democrats, so be it," says Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight, Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2002). "The goal is to build the party, and the way to build the party is to run candidates."
BUT BUILDING a third party in the United States isn’t easy. Our political system all but ensures that a third party will succeed only by tearing into one of two major parties. It happened in 2000 on a national scale, and it might just happen again in 2002 in Minnesota, where Senator Wellstone has been deadlocked in the polls with his Republican opponent for the last year and a half. "The stakes are very high in this race," says Jim Farrell, the communications director for Wellstone’s campaign. "This race may decide who controls the Senate." While Wellstone is known more for his advocacy on the environment and worker protections, the most important issue to emerge in this campaign, Farrell says, is judicial and Supreme Court nominations. Republican control of the Senate will mean a return to the GOP’s stranglehold on appointment of federal judges via control of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since the Democrats gained control of the committee when Vermont senator James Jeffords left the GOP to become an Independent, they have derailed the nominations of judges like Charles Pickering, a former federal judge in Mississippi who staunchly opposes Roe v. Wade.
"McGaa’s got the ability to cause Wellstone problems," says Minnesota political consultant Bill Hillsman, who created Wellstone’s innovative television spots in 1990, when he defeated Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. The award-winning ads depicted Wellstone in Roger and Me fashion trying to confront his opponent. (Hillsman also created Jesse Ventura’s now-classic 1998 ads depicting the wrestler-cum-gubernatorial candidate as an action figure.) "McGaa is more progressive than Wellstone on a lot of things," Hillsman adds. Indeed, the progressive Wellstone has had to go "more middle of the road," he says, to compete with Coleman for centrist voters. (Wellstone also hasn’t helped himself by breaking a pledge to serve only two terms and then return to teaching.)
The Minnesota Green Party endorsed McGaa — who had been a Green for only a couple of months before the May 18 convention — after fierce debate. Nader’s 2000 running mate and well-known Minnesota activist Winona LaDuke actually wrote to each Green delegate, urging him or her not to make an endorsement in the Senate race. "Paul Wellstone is the closest we have to a Green in the U.S. Senate; he has been a champion of the vast majority of our issues," LaDuke pleaded. Despite her efforts, the Green Party nominated McGaa.
Nader himself praised Wellstone and talked McGaa down at a speech last week in Washington, saying of the Green candidate " he’ll be lucky to get a few thousand votes, " according to the Star Tribune. Nader offered to appear with Wellstone, but backed away from making an official endorsement.
Wellstone supporters are privately hoping that interest in the Minnesota governor’s race — which has no incumbent, thanks to Governor Jesse Ventura’s decision to step down at the end of his term — will take the wind out of McGaa’s sails and save their candidate. Considerable sentiment exists within the Green Party in favor of activists shifting attention away from the Senate race and toward Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, best known for his environmental activism. Pentel is running against Republican Tim Pawlenty, Democratic Farmer Labor Party candidate Roger Moe, and Independence Party candidate Tim Penny. In that race, Pawlenty, Moe, and Penny — a former Democratic congressman who elected to run this race under Ventura’s party banner — are bunched near the top with around 25 percent, while Pentel has been solidly polling five percent or better, enough to guarantee the Greens’ major-party status into the next election. If there is a "spoiler" in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, pulling the election away from one of the major-party candidates, it will be Penny of the Independence Party, not Pentel of the Greens.
"If you’re a good Green activist, concerned about the Greens maintaining their five percent and keeping their public financing, you don’t have to vote against Paul Wellstone," says Sarah Janecek, the co-editor of Politics in Minnesota, an eight-page newsletter published 20 times a year. "You can vote for Ken Pentel in the governor’s race and you can vote for Paul Wellstone and feel good about it."
The Wellstone campaign seems to be subtly pursuing a strategy of encouraging Green voters to do just that. Wellstone-campaign spokesman Farrell seems to be trying to appeal to pragmatists within the Green Party by pointing to Wellstone’s record on energy policy (he helped stop President Bush’s attempt to cut funding for development of renewable energy) and the environment (he helped draft a conservation-friendly farm bill). "Ken Pentel is well known within the Green Party. He’s probably a good deal more known than Ed McGaa," says Farrell, sounding a bit like a campaign strategist for the Greens. "Pentel’s going to be a strong candidate. They get public financing with this election. They need to get five percent to reach their major-party status — the trigger for public financing."