When delegates gathered for the final plenary of the National Independent Politics Summit at the University of Pittsburgh on August 20, many anticipated a decisive moment in the history of progressive politics: the launching of an independent presidential campaign backed by a coalition of third parties and progressive groups.
Instead, the key proposal, submitted by Marsha Feinland of the California Peace and Freedom Party, was withdrawn from consideration in order to maintain a sense of harmony. The opposition to the campaign was led by several delegates opposed to a break now with the Democratic Party.
At the beginning of the conference, Ron Daniels, whose National Peoples Progressive Network (NPPN) co-hosted the Summit, argued that progressives should "kick the habit" of backing Democrats. But by the time it came to a vote at the Sunday plenary, which he chaired, Daniels had apparently decided to come down on the side of harmony.
Feinland had written that, "Many think that we should not have a presidential candidate at this time, but should concentrate on local elections that we may win..." She argued, however, that a national campaign would add power to local candidacies and attract new people: "The presence of a presidential candidate who speaks for them will cause more people to participate in the political process at all levels."
Howie Hawkins proposed having a national slate of 1000-2000 local candidates in 1996 with a shared identity, a short platform, and coordinated direct actions, as well a common clearingouse for the slate. He argued that, "The proposal for a national slate of local candidates should not be seen as incompatible with a presidential campaign. If a united left presidential campaign emerges, then this national slate would have a national candidate as well--and the national candidate would have a grassroots base of campaigners." Hawkins' proposal was accepted by the NIPS plenary without any resolution of the presidential component.
One obvious problem is that, unless there is a drive to gain ballot access in more states, there are only a half-dozen states that could include Congressional, Legislative, and Statewide candidates in a national slate. And without a national candidate a national platform may seem somewhat irrelevant to local, non-partisan campaigns for city councils, boards of education, and local commissions. And without the stimulus of a national campaign, many local groups faced with shrinking optimism may find they don't have the energy or the volunteers to even match their campaign performance in 1992 or 1994.
While the Hawkins' paper proposed linking up campaigns through collective direct action, a specific plan for a national Caravan and March for Social Justice was put forward by Inila-Wakan and adopted in principle by the NIPS plenary. The Caravan will begin on May 12 (Mothers' Day) and culminate in a mass demonstration on Wall Street. His proposal also included support for a "People's Pledge Campaign," and this issue was decided separately.
James Vann, the Co-Chair of the National Committee for Independent Political Action, introduced the proposal for a Coordinated Pledge Program "to identify and build the constituent base for a unified national independent progressive political party." The Pledge proposal was apparently seen as running counter to a 1996 presidential campaign or third party coalition: "Despite some dispersed examples of independent party successes, it is readily apparent that the present third party movement is too small and too disunited to meet this political objective." The Vann proposal was changed by friendly amendement to refer to a goal of a coalition of parties rather than a single unified party, and it was passed with only a handful of abstentions.
Besides an endorsement and development of language for the forms of a "Pledge Sign Up Campaign," Vann proposed a numerical goal of "perhaps, one million signatures." The plan included a continuation body to administer a national data base and get the forms out to "the various party-forming organizations, as well as the greater left community."
Given the enormity of this task, the discussion of the Vann proposal was insufficient. The idea of gaining a million signatures without gaining ballot access in a single state is incomprehensible. Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, estimates that an independent presidential candidate would need to collect 680,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot in all 50 states (Newsweek 8/28/95).
This is a daunting task, but how can those who argue that the progressive third-party movement is too immature for a presidential campaign turn around and say that it should gather ten times as many signatures as Greens did in California in 1991, and end up with a totally inert data base and no new ballot lines.
Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Summit was not the end of the consideration of a 1996 presidential campaign and/or a drive for ballot access. The failure of partisan independents to carry the day at this meeting will not put the issue to rest. Linda Martin, who coordinated the Third Parties '96 conference in Washington, DC on June 1-4, announced plans for a second round in DC on January 5- 7, which could be a presidential nominating convention. A planning meeting will take place in Boulder, Colorado, on November 17-19.
Linda Martin's planning meeting will be one week after the populist gathering called by Ronnie Dugger to take place in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 10-13 to form a new populist party or "Citizens' Alliance" or whatever attendees decide. But in his view, "This is not a call to get ready for 1996 politics (The Nation 8/14/95)." Dugger, in replying by email to 700 responses to his call, has suggested that local groups send delegates to a planning meeting in Chicago on October 7-9.
Dugger was the founding editor of The Texas Observer and now lives in New York City. At last report, the details of funding and logistical organization for the "Meet Me in St. Louis" Conference had not been worked out, but he had expressed his willingness to work with all those interested.
Most of the delegates and observers at the Pittsburg Summit left in a joyous and confident mood, expecting that more will be done to move the process of independent political action and unity further along.
Some delegates clearly felt that they should wait until the 2000 election before launching a presidential campaign. However, no one made the argument that the time to begin the 2000 race is now, because a 5% voting result in 1996 would net $4 million in Federal funds for the campaign in 2000. Sitting out 1996, at a time of electoral crisis when 55% of the voters say they want a new political party that "should represent the people" (NYT 8/12/95), is not exactly the height of "practical" politics.
According to a Times Mirror survey (LAT 8/24/95) almost half the voters disapprove of both Clinton and the GOP leaders, and of these discontents fully 63% favor an independent presidential candidate. Unlike 1992, "the new third-force voters more often have a Democratic pedigree...[and] are younger, poorer, and more likely to be women than were Perot voters." This is the constituency behind the numbers released last week, showing that in an election today 35% would vote for an unnamed GOP contender, 32% for Clinton, and 26% for an unnamed independent presidential candidate.
Democrats are being pulled apart in various directions. Clinton's strategist, Stuart Rothenberg, thinks he can only hold on by zig-zagging right and left and looking like a centrist. "He has to walk a tightrope, and nobody knows where the line is. You're going to see the President targetting messages to groups in his base - affirmative action, liberal women, environmentalists - while his overall message is more centrist (LAT 7/30/95)."
The Congressional Black Caucus has floated the idea that an "independent" campaign by Jesse Jackson would bring down Clinton but deliver enough Rainbow votes in November to elect a Democratic majority in Congress. However, the signs are that Jackson, faced with unpaid debts from 1988 and the disarray of the Rainbow, may prefer instead to tease out concessions as Clinton does his high- wire act. After Clinton's "so mend it, but don't end it" reply to Pete Wilson's assault on affirmative action, Jackson wrote: "The contrast between President Clinton and his Republican opponents poses a challenge to citizens of conscience in this nation. We can accept the President's lead or accept the governor's retreat. It is time to stand and be heard (LAT 7/23/95)."
Jesse seemed to be flatly ruling out any third alternative, but he will of course "keep all options open" for as long as possible. He recently stressed that he has until June 1996 to make up his mind. In the meantime his Hamlet pose also discourages any other claimant to the Rainbow nation.
On the other side, Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute and Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council want to survive by pulling the Party away from "the interests represented by Jesse and the unions," and they envision a new "third way" Democratic Party that stands for privatizing social security and pro-business tax reform. Other fat-cat Democrats around the Progressive Foundation headed by Michael Steinhardt say that "Precisely because we could be washed out in a Clinton loss, I hope our `third way' leads to a third party (Time, 7/10/95)."
The "third way" that many Wall Street Democrats as well as the Fourth Estate seem to be conjuring-up is an independent or mugwump campaign by Bill Bradley plus Colin Powell or Lowell Weicker or Warren Rudman or John Anderson or who knows. Bradley says, "I'm very much now in a jazz combo, and you don't know what's going to happen next (LAT 8/27/95)."
Bradley confirmed that he and Lowell Weicker, John Anderson, Jerry Brown and others will be jamming in Denver, Colorado, after Halloween. The key issue at this rendezvous will be who else to invite into the combo. Despite his expressed concern over Disney money and other fat cat support for Bradley, self-described ex- Democrat Jerry Brown has opted to be part of the mugwump band (Chicago Trib 8/25/95).
The most popular slogan of Labor Party Advocates is "The Bosses Have Two Parties - Workers Should Have Their Own." It is conceivable, however, that the fat-cats could evolve from a "third way project" into a third party, as proposed by hedge-fund guru Michael Steinhardt, investment bankers Felix Rohatyn, Steve Rattner, and Barrie Wigmore, Electronic Data Systems entrepreneur Mitch Hart, and entertainment investment moguls Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. These cats are the third-force behind the restructuring of the political process that is taking place in response to mass dissatisfaction with the Republicrats (Time 7/10/95).
Insider Morton Kondracke, the executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, says this is "the opening that the DLC and PPI hope to fill with a neo-Progressive 'third way.'" Inside the beltway now, "neo-Progressive" means simultaneously "post-Liberal" and "post-Clinton." Because of Clinton's stumbling and bumbling, Kondracke says, "the pioneering brainwork of the DLC and PPI are available for a third party candidate such as Bradley or retired Gen. Colin Powell (NEA 8/29/95)."
The money behind Bill Bradley's combo may be hoping to co-opt this discontent and prevent the emergence of a Labor-Rainbow-Green- Feminist electoral alliance like the one that is shaking up politics in New Zealand. In any case, it is certainly curious that Lowell Weicker and Co. were able to arrange an anti-Green newsmaker panel for CSPAN on June 2-3 to follow immediately on the heels of Linda Martin's TP '96.
Labor Party Advocates, which will be holding the founding convention of the new Labor Party in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 1996, should be aware of what they are up against when they challenge the bosses' ownership of the two-party system. They need to ask Jerry Brown now, what side is he on?