Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Leading Democrats all seemed to be reading from the same book on Sunday, Feb. 22-and it sounded suspiciously like Ecclesiastes.
The object of their scorn: Ralph Nader, the longtime consumer advocate and liberal gadfly whom many blame for tipping the scales to George W. Bush in the historically close election of 2000. Mr. Nader announced on Meet the Press that he'll be a candidate again in 2004, and Democrats worried openly that he might spoil yet another close race.
"I think he's not going to have a sizable impact, but it's terrible if he goes ahead, because it's about him; it's about his ego; it's about his vanity," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a vice-presidential hopeful for the Democrats.
Scott Maddox, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, was even more scornful. "I think that Ralph Nader is proving that the only master that he serves is his enormous ego. I have nothing nice to say about him: 2000 should have proved to him that he's going to be nothing but a spoiler."
Mr. Maddox would know about "spoiled" races. Four years ago, when his state went to George Bush by a scant 537 votes, Mr. Nader garnered more than 97,000 votes for the Green Party. Democrats have long believed that Al Gore would have been in the White House had Mr. Nader not been in Florida.
Mr. Nader bristles at such charges. He said Mr. Gore lost the race through his own inept campaigning, and that the "spoiler" label is a "contemptuous" dismissal by Republican and Democratic elites desperate to preserve the two-party system. Still, of the two major parties he claims to despise, Mr. Nader was clearly more interested in reassuring the Democrats.
In a speech at the National Press Club, he urged "the liberal establishment to relax and rejoice," because "this candidacy is not going to get many Democratic Party votes." Instead, he claimed, much of his support would come from "conservatives and independents who are very upset with Bush administration policies" such as deficit spending and nation-building in Iraq.
Few experts bought that argument. But most agreed that Mr. Nader would have far less impact on this year's race than he did four years ago, when his name appeared on the ballot in 43 states. He'll have a hard time matching that number in 2004 because this time around, the Greens don't seem to want him.
"We wish Ralph well and thank him for working with us and supporting us all these years," said Jo Chamberlain, co-chair of the national Green Party, in a statement. "Our candidates-and our eventual nominee-are campaigning on a platform similar to his, so we don't consider ourselves in any kind of public competition with him."
The Green Party may not want to compete with Mr. Nader, but they're not ready to endorse him, either. That's bad news for the perennial candidate: Because the Greens are already qualified in 43 states, their ballot line offers the easiest access to tens of millions of voters nationwide. Without the imprimatur of the Green Party, Mr. Nader will most likely have to qualify by mounting a state-by-state petition drive to get his name before the voters.
Some states make that easy. Colorado, for example, requires only the payment of a nominal fee, and Arkansas asks for only 1,000 signatures. But in other states, the bar is set much higher. Texas requires 67,000 signatures by the end of May, and North Carolina asks for 100,000 signatures a month later. For a candidate with little money and no real national organization, such numbers are all but impossible to achieve.
That's a comforting thought to many Democratic leaders, but they can't exactly rest easy. Although Mr. Nader announced as an independent and appears to be unloved by much of the Green Party leadership, he still inspires deep devotion among the party rank and file. A Draft Nader movement has sprung up within state Green Parties across the country, and their two-time candidate appears likely to win a third shot.
"In the end, it looks like it's going to come down to Nader or none-of-the-above," says Mark Kamleiter, co-chair of the Green Party of Florida (GPF). Numerous Greens have announced their intention to run, but most of them lack the name recognition or the nationwide base to secure the nomination. Peter Camejo, who ran a strong race for governor of California, is officially a candidate, though he's publicly pledged his delegates to Mr. Nader. David Cobb of California, another prominent Green, says he'll run only in "safe states"-those in which the Greens have no chance of tipping the election in favor of George Bush. "He probably would neglect us poor people in Florida," Mr. Kamleiter complains.
That leaves Mr. Nader as the best-known candidate committed to running an aggressive, national campaign. Eager to preserve their alliance with left-wing Democrats, some national Green Party leaders are urging members to vote for no nominee at all, leaving the Green line empty on state ballots.
But the no-nominee strategy angers many Greens like Mr. Kamleiter, who don't want their party to become a Democratic lap dog. In a discussion about Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee, a fellow Green recently told Mr. Kamleiter, "Sometimes we just have to hold our nose and vote for the winner." Mr. Kamleiter's response: "I've been there, done that, and I can't do it anymore."
How many hard-line, left-wing voters feel the same way? Democratic leaders don't know-and they're afraid to find out. Many Greens feel alienated by Sen. Kerry's votes in favor of the Patriot Act, the war in Iraq, and the Bush tax cuts. Mr. Nader, on the other hand, appeals to them on those very issues, leaving them with the agonizing choice of voting for principle or pragmatism.
"Greens are very sensitive people," Mr. Kamleiter explains. "Many of them are hurt by the charge that Nader's candidacy tipped the election to Bush in 2000." At the same time, however, they wonder whether the Democrats will ever support the left-wing causes they hold dear. "Personally, I've given up on that," he says. Instead, he's working actively in the Draft Nader movement, and he's confident his candidate will win the party's nomination.
The outcome, however, won't be known for months. In Florida, as in other states, presidential preference ballots are now being mailed to party members, and state conventions in the coming weeks will name delegates to the party's national convention in Milwaukee, June 23-28. No one knows yet just what the rules will be ("We're not the most organized people," Mr. Kamleiter confesses), but a simple majority of delegates should be enough to secure the nomination.
If the nomination does go to Mr. Nader-or if he qualifies through the petition process in even a few, key states-the Democrats will have the unenviable job of appealing to centrist, independent voters without driving leftists to vote their conscience and go with the Greens. It's a quandary that will require the wisdom of Solomon-and Ecclesiastes won't offer much help.