Two years from now, the national committee of the Green Party will make a big decision: Should the party run a candidate for president in 2004?
To hear many Green leaders tell it, the choice is a no-brainer. In a recent news release, Mike Feinstein, a party member who's the mayor of Santa Monica, Calif., made it sound like a done deal. Green Party candidates "will challenge Democrats and Republicans at every level of government," he said.
A key strategist for the Green Party -- newly restructured as a nationwide organization -- seems to be on a similar wavelength. "I think there's a general presumption that we will run a presidential candidate in 2004, if we find the proper candidate," Dean Myerson told me. "I have not heard any opposition within the Green Party to running a candidate for president in principle."
But when I spoke with another organizer in the party, the signals were a bit different. "It is not a foregone conclusion that we will run a candidate for president in 2004," said John Strawn, who is slated to play a major role on the party's presidential exploratory committee. "We will have a very deliberate process to make that decision."
The publicity bonanza in store for another Green presidential race may be a compelling attraction for party activists -- despite the fact that much of the news coverage and commentary about Ralph Nader's campaign last year was decidedly negative. Most hostile of all were liberal pundits eager to see George W. Bush defeated by Al Gore.
In one of the more gentle attacks on Nader to appear in the New York Times, the newspaper editorialized midway through 2000 that "he is engaging in a self-indulgent exercise that will distract voters from the clear-cut choice represented by the major party candidates." The year laid bare the arrogance of commentators who seemed to be saying, one way or another, that wide-ranging political debate would be a distraction from the serious business of choosing between two thoroughly corporate candidates.
At the same time, the Green campaign often gave the impression of aloofness from the very real dilemmas faced by Americans eager to keep Bush out of the Oval Office. Such grassroots concerns were legitimate -- and when the Nader campaign came off as dismissive, it lost credibility.
Overall, the strategic rationales for the Green Party's 2000 presidential campaign (which I supported) were hardly airtight. Sometimes, we heard claims that a strong showing for the ticket of Nader and Winona LaDuke would push the national Democratic Party in a more progressive direction. Nine months after Election Day, that theory is on shaky ground. The Nader campaign had a historic effect on the presidential election -- but since then, the Democratic Party's hierarchy has retrenched. If anything, it seems more deeply entangled with corporate fat cats than ever.
Looking ahead, media attention to a Green Party presidential drive in 2004 would be substantial. That high-profile scenario alone may make fielding a national ticket seem irresistible. But one of the worst mistakes that the Green Party could make in the next few years would be to glide, as if on automatic pilot, into another campaign for the presidency.
If the Green Party enters the next presidential race, it will largely appear to a lot of prospective constituencies to be a political party locked into a counterproductive tactic. Those constituencies will weigh the benefits of such a campaign against the obvious danger that it could help return Bush to the White House. If the Green Party seems contemptuous of such concerns, many progressives are likely to perceive it as a party too impractical to merit support.
That would be a shame. The Green Party has gained strength from a grassroots approach while fighting against the consequences of anti-democratic corporate power, in great contrast to the two major parties. "The official Democratic Party has ossified into a Washington-based financial service," loyal Democrat Robert Reich noted in the American Prospect magazine last month. "It's become ever more efficient in seeking out likely donors but has forgotten how to inspire local crusaders. As a result, there's a large and growing political vacuum at the local and state levels."
Reich added: "That vacuum is being filled by Green Party activists, labor organizers, students campaigning against sweatshops and for a living wage, Latino community organizers, and church-affiliated community activists, none of whom are especially interested in a resurgent Democratic Party."
Ironically, a Green Party presidential race in 2004 could alienate much of the party's possible base. For many potential supporters of Green candidates in local races across the country, such a national campaign would evoke images of a nascent party so lacking in pragmatism that it remains willing to help the right wing win the White House.
The way things stand, most observers assume that the Green Party will be waging a campaign for the presidency in 2004. The main disagreements, they say, will revolve around who should be on the ticket. But the party might be better off, in the long run, if it can resist the media glitz and short-term sizzle of another presidential run.
Norman Solomon writes a syndicated column on media and politics. His books include "False Hope: The Politics of Illusion in the Clinton Era," published in 1994.