Brazile: Memo to Mary Beth Cahill

Posted April 19, 2004 at 3:59pm

On “Meet the Press” this Sunday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) once again stated that he would seek a meeting with Ralph Nader. My advice to Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry’s campaign manager and chief strategist, is to urge her boss to sit down with Nader right away, before he siphons off progressive support that they need to win crucial battleground states. [IMGCAP(1)]

In 2000, some of the old-line leaders inside the Democratic Party told some in the Gore campaign team to ignore Nader and stick to our game plan. Their reasoning was simple: As time went by, Nader would just fade from the landscape. They were wrong and Nader cost Gore valuable time, resources and votes in crucial states like Florida and New Hampshire and made places like Oregon and New Mexico so close that Republicans hope to snatch them away from Democrats this year. The truth is, the Gore campaign did get serious about challenging Nader and the Green Party, but we did so after they had established themselves as formidable obstacles to our victory in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington and other battleground states. Mary Beth, Kerry cannot afford to waste time or resources trying to fight a two-front war on his left and his right.

Unlike some progressive leaders who are interested in old-fashioned political back slapping, Ralph Nader, according to people who know him and respect his contribution to American politics, will turn down anything that smacks of an old-fashioned deal. According to Steve Cobble, a key adviser to Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and a former associate of Nader and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., the consumer warrior and activist does remain interested in issues. Perhaps Kerry can offer an issue set or a plank in the party’s platform that they could work on in tandem; Kerry could talk about working in “partnership” on certain issues progressive leaders support such as the environment, a woman’s right to choose, workers’ rights, civil liberties and civil rights.

In my discussions with Steve, he said he can’t imagine Nader accepting a position in a Kerry administration (again, because it looks too much like a “deal”). However, it might be worth feeling out whether Nader would discuss “advise and consent” powers on certain key positions that fit with interests he has held his entire career (especially those which would also be good for a Kerry administration, as showing a vast difference with the pro-corporate-corruption Bush cronies) — appointments like the FCC, FDA, EPA, SEC, etc.

In the old lefty days in Europe, the political parties used to do “popular front” coalitions; this could work with Ralph’s “second front vs. Bush” idea, with one alteration — Ralph has to make it clear to his supporters in battleground states that he wants them to vote for Kerry to defeat Bush. This seems obvious, but it also appears that this is not what Ralph is doing with his second front (at least not yet).

What this all boils down to is simple: Many of us left-leaning Democrats and prominent supporters of Kerry will have to resist the temptation to attack Ralph too personally, or suggest he doesn’t care about things like civil rights; they should challenge him instead on the strategy he is pursuing, and the tactics he is using (especially if he segues into critiquing Kerry too much, rather than Bush), but they need to avoid pushing the personal buttons, because it will activate his famous stubbornness (as GM found out). And if Ralph gets his back up about an attack, he may abandon any strategic effort to help defeat Bush at the ballot box.

Kerry is in a position to begin this dialogue soon. With a united Democratic Party and strong support from former rivals Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton, Kerry can also call on Kucinich, Jackson, Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and other members of the progressive coalition to help implement any strategy that might come out of the Kerry-Nader discussions. Thus, our progressive allies must not be kicked to the curb this fall, when they will be in a very good position to help retrieve and turn out potential Nader voters.

Soon after the Gore campaign ended and before my much-discussed White House lunch session with Karl Rove, I broke bread with Nader’s former campaign manager and trusted aide Teresa Amato at her home. Teresa at the time was a new mother, and over a simple lunch the two of us discussed ideas we shared about the world her daughter would grow up to live in. She also shared with me the frustration that many voters, including peace activists, anti-globalization crusaders, New Age types and others felt about the Democratic Party. We did not agree on everything, but I listened and respected her views.

In key battleground cities — Santa Fe, Seattle, Minneapolis, Madison, Tucson and Portland — along with many college campuses in the Midwest, Nader remains viable. If Ralph decides, after chewing over a nice meal with Kerry, to stay in the race Steve believes that Kerry could consider asking Ralph directly just to stay out of the top 10 or so battleground states — just don’t file, thus avoiding the “spoiler” problem without giving up the right to run for president.

The Kerry campaign is right to reach out to Nader now. The two men share far more in common than either might admit. If they can agree on a set of principles, Nader will be welcomed into the fold and every attempt should be made to make his supporters a part of the team.

Like it or not, we live in a two-party system. There are two options this year, and abolishing that system is not one of them. As Democrats, we must do everything we can to prevent the one option that is most viable: another four years of George W. Bush.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.