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The Greens Go to Washington Greening the Golden Triangle

Greening the Golden Triangle

by SAM SMITH

The Greens have gone home, returning the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel to visiting corporate campaign contributors, lawyers in town to consult with other lawyers, and tourists who consider the Washington Hilton too déclassé.

The Mayflower brags that it is the "second best address in Washington, D.C." The four-star, four-diamond hotel has hosted presidential inaugural balls from Calvin Coolidge to George W. Bush. It claims that "guest rooms and suites feature opulent marble foyers and classic furnishings. Fine touches include marble baths with phones and four-inch TVs, complimentary overnight shoe shine, and morning newspaper and coffee with a wake-up call."

The Mayflower is in a lawyer-lobbyist heavy section of Washington appropriately known as the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is to politicians what Wal-Mart is to Pampers. You go there to buy them cheap.

It’s not that the Greens or the Mayflower have gone soft, but it is a union hotel and in the wake of the 9/11, even besloganed t-shirts and beards look good to Washington hoteliers. Thus it was last weekend that the national Green Party conference gave the archaic elegance of the hotel something of the visual asymmetry of GIs rummaging through Saddam’s palace. It was, to be sure, a far gentler, nobler, and more benign invasion, yet still a reminder that things can change here as well.

It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Like a lot of other sacred traditions in the United States ranging from major corporations to Arthur Anderson and the Catholic Church, the two old parties are disintegrating into perversely corrupt parodies of themselves. The Greens and the Libertarians have become the two largest political parties in the country without a criminal record. And the Green Party, unlike most others, is also growing, reflecting the increase in those who have noticed that it alone views the future as something to protect and improve rather than to exploit viciously or treat as a toy in an ultimately terminal game of ecological Russian roulette. Other straws in the wind include the fact that even Alabama now has a Green Party, the conference approved funding efforts to recruit amongst black Democrats, and in California Green Peter Camejo has a respectable 8% in the Field post-recall poll, running only 12 points behind Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Greens tend to take their beliefs seriously and not as bargaining chips to be traded for short-term gain. This puts them outside of the mainstream of American politics and can even be sometime exasperating for those who love them. There are times when you yearn for the moral pragmatism, say, of the mythical Quaker lady who confronted the robber in her house with the words, "I do not intend to shoot thee, but thee is standing where my gun is about to go off."

If you listen to Greens debating strategy it becomes clear that they don’t believe in it. Their strategy is simply to be who they are, a sort of WYSIWYG politics that drives more traditional politicians and much of the media to distraction.

It can also be a problem for Greens because most groups that venerate personal moral witness typically do not, at the same time, run for president. They tend to avoid the secular heights in favor of spreading the word among the multitudes. They’re not the sort of people you generally find planning mass mailings.

But the moral individual can’t run from ambiguity and it was clear that the Greens had no intention of doing so, cheerfully and vigorously declaring their enthusiasm for another presidential race.

For several years they have been falsely blamed for the election of George Bush by Democrats in deep denial, much like a drunk driver blaming his accident on a curve in the road. In fact, significantly more Democrats voted for Bush than for Nader, an examination of changes in late polls fails to show a correlation between the Nader and Gore vote, and Gore was such a lousy candidate he couldn’t even carry his own state. There is further the carefully unspoken truth that the Democratic Party went into the campaign still defending a president who had become a late night TV joke for his dishonesty and corruption and who had overseen the disintegration of his own party’s electoral position to a degree unknown since Grover Cleveland.

But Washington is a town run by myths, not facts–so much so that a silly NPR reporter at the Green conference even implied that Nader was to blame for the Patriot Act. Not only did this ignore the strong Democratic support for the Patriot Act, it overlooked the fact that the voters brought out by Greens in 2000 gave the Democrats the Senate for two years until the next election when–with Nader nowhere around–they blew it.

Still, regardless of the mythical nature of the Democratic argument, it undoubtedly is out there, potent, and unlikely to go away. Thus, the Greens enter the next presidential campaign hampered not only by their actual political weakness but by an overarching lie that they are simultaneously too strong and dangerous.

Ironically, the real danger in this falsity is not at the presidential level, but rather that those independents and Democrats who might otherwise be willing to vote Green at the state and local level will come to believe it and punish the Greens wherever they are on the ballot. At least one leading Green told me he thought this may have even happened in 2000.

The question that thus remains unanswered is this: in what way will the Greens come out of the 2004 presidential race stronger than when they went in? It certainly happened in 2000, but a lot of things have changed. Will the Greens end up with new power or a permanent stigmata?

While there is no real debate going on as to whether to run a candidate, there is considerable question of who and how to run. Ralph Nader, who did not attend the conference, finds himself being challenged by more than one alternative on both individual and tactical grounds. Nader has lost support in some quarters by not joining the Green Party, being aloof from its operations, and not sharing his mailing lists. He points out, on the other hand, that he has appeared regularly with Green candidates, raised money for them including attending 44 fundraisers in 30 states.

He clearly has support but there is also ecological expert Lorna Saltzman; Carol Miller, who did extremely well as a candidate in New Mexico, running as a favorite daughter; a draft movement for popular activist Medea Benjamin; and stereotype-busting party lawyer David Cobb, clearly genetically and grammatically Texan, proposing an organic Green candidacy with a safe states strategy in which he would run all out if Lieberman got the nomination but restrict his efforts to the less contested states should a more moderate Democrat be nominated.

Cobb’s approach was easily the most sophisticated proposed during the weekend conference. It leaves lots of room to adjust to changing reality while emphasizing party building. But the party convention is a year off and the debate between the various candidates will undoubtedly also be a debate about how the final candidate should run. If Nader were to adopt the safe states strategy it could lessen Cobb’s raison d’etre. On the other hand, New Mexico favorite daughter Carole Miller is a favorite plenty of places outside of the state, Cynthia McKinney has not decided what to do, and if the war becomes increasingly discredited, the arguments for Medea Benjamin increase.

Ultimately, and right up to election day, the states– ironically thanks to a court ruling during Strom Thurmond’s third party try–have a lot of flexibility in deciding what happens. In the end, there may not be one Green strategy at all, but several.

The Democrats might have had more luck with the Greens had they not spend the past three years scolding, dissing, and attempting to eradicate them. The Greens are the only constituency in America whom the Democrats believe they can convince by insult. I have frequently told censorious Democratic friends that if they want my support they need to treat me at least as well as a soccer mom or a corporate lobbyist. They look befuddled, unable to comprehend why someone they chased out of their party doesn’t want to beg readmittance.

They believe, along with the media, that the Greens are just wayward Democrats. In fact, the dominant paradigm of the Democratic Party is far closer to that of the Republicans that that of the Greens. Further, the Democrats have spent the last decade in a masochistic effort to convince people that they were really just nicer Republicans, expanding the prison population and undermining social democracy to prove it. They should not be surprised if those whom they convinced included many Greens.

In the alternative, over the past three years, the Democrats could have instituted instant runoff voting in jurisdictions they control (thus eliminating the sort of mess they ran into in Florida). They could have relaxed ballot access laws so that Greens don’t have to run for president just to have a line. And they could have even, European fusion style, offered the Greens state and national cabinet posts should they win office.

None of that happen. Instead, when John Eder won a seat in the Maine state legislature, the Democrats not only redistricted him five months later but tried to increase substantially the difficulty for the Greens to get on the ballot at all. This sort of disreputable behavior is well known throughout the Green Party–Eder was a speaker at the conference–and is taken as a sign of the dangers of dealing with the Democrats.

Few things are more difficult in American politics than the survival of strong third parties. The Greens face two deeply corrupt yet clever major opponents dedicated to preventing any erosion of their duopoly even if it means the total eradication of a democratic republic. Every law is stacked against the Greens; the media can’t imagine why anyone would want more than the two existing mobs; and increasing numbers of Americans, disgusted by the whole thing, just stay home.

It is far too early to say whether the Greens, in the face of these difficulties, will find a strategy that doesn’t prove masochistic for either themselves or the country and that will make 2004 for them another year of progress. One reason for this is that it is not clear what that strategy should be. Further, many who presume to know what the Greens should do also believe that it would be best if the Greens went away entirely. This weakens the value of their advice.

Whether the Greens pull it off, one thing is clear: they are trying, really trying, to do the right thing for America and Americans. They’re proud of their party and proud of what they been able to do so far. And about how many politicians and parties can you say that?

SAM SMITH is the editor of one of our favorite websites, The Progressive Review, and the author of The Great American Political Repair Manual. He lives in Washington, DC.