The U.S. Green Party's presidential candidate for 2012 talks with MNN about her 'Green New Deal,' the politics of climate change, the challenges for third-party candidates and her quest to escape Ralph Nader's shadow.
Jill Stein speaks at an Occupy Wall Street protest on Sept. 17, 2012. (Photo: Paul Stein/Flickr)
Jill Stein is running for president of the United States this fall, but just like every Green Party candidate who sought the office before her, she faces dismal odds of actually winning. That doesn't seem to faze her, though — as a Harvard-trained physician, she says her campaign is about long-term rehab as well as urgent care.
"I'm still practicing medicine," she tells MNN by phone from Lexington, Mass. "But I'm practicing political medicine now, because politics is the mother of all illnesses."
Stein's career as a doctor led her into politics, she says, by revealing how social and ecological issues can affect human health. "As a doctor and as a mother, I found myself really troubled by these epidemics of disease descending on young people — cancer, asthma, learning disabilities, diabetes, you name it. I felt like it wasn't enough to hand out pills and send people back to the things that were making them sick. These rising rates of disease were new, and our genes didn't change overnight."
Her first campaign was for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 — against current Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, no less. Romney won, but Stein says the race still gave her a new perspective on politics. "I entered the race in 2002 out of utter desperation," she says, "but I came out of that race with utter inspiration."
Her change of heart, she adds, came from an epiphany that America's political ills are part of a broad, systemic infection — one she thinks is treatable. "That's what got me into politics, learning that if we want to fix our collapsing climate, collapsing economy, the offshoring of our jobs, the skyrocketing costs of health care and higher education, we have to first fix the broken political system," she says.
On getting attention
Stein and her running mate, anti-poverty advocate Cheri Honkala, will be on at least 85 percent of U.S. ballots this year. That's a big deal for any third-party ticket, and the campaign also qualified for federal matching funds. But Stein still hasn't appeared in a televised presidential debate, despite her experience debating Romney in 2002. To be eligible for those, the Commission on Presidential Debates requires support from "at least 15 percent of the national electorate" in five major polls. Stein is polling at about 2 percent, but she says that could change with more TV exposure.
She has appeared in some alternative debates with other independent candidates, however, including one hosted by NPR and another by the Independent Voter Network. She's also scheduled to join an Oct. 23 third-party debate moderated by Larry King (update: see the video). And Stein has issued scathing critiques of the major-party debates, too, arguing that President Obama and Romney both lost the first one "because the voice of everyday people was left out."
Stein sees herself as that voice, and after she was denied a spot in the second debate as well, she and Honkala took matters into their own hands. They held a rally outside the debate venue at New York's Hofstra University on Oct. 16, and were later arrested as they tried to enter the venue. Supporters filmed this video of the incident:
On the Nader effect
It's common for third-party candidates to conflate Democrats and Republicans, but Stein's critiques of Obama inevitably bring up the "Nader effect," a theory that suggests Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned enough progressive votes from Democrat Al Gore in 2000 to help Republican George W. Bush win the race.
The 2000 election largely boiled down to Florida, where Bush received just 537 more votes than Gore. Since Nader had 97,488 votes in Florida, it's hard to argue he wasn't consequential — and since Nader's policies more closely resembled Gore's than Bush's, it's reasonable to suggest Gore could have won if not for Nader.
It may be unfair to single out Nader, though, since more than a dozen independent candidates ran in 2000, seven of whom surpassed Florida's 537-vote gap between Bush and Gore. And while Stein is aware of the Nader effect, she calls it a myth.
"If you look at exit polls from 2000, Nader drew votes equally from Democrats and Republicans," she says. "But most of his votes were from Ross Perot voters who wouldn't have voted for either major party anyway. So the election was given to Bush not by Nader, but by the Supreme Court and Democrats who allowed that to happen."
Ralph Nader gives a speech in Florida during his 2004 presidential run. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
On the silent majority
As Stein sees it, partisan voters are just a small piece of the puzzle anyway. She insists victory would be within reach if she could mobilize America's silent majority — the hordes of eligible voters who, for whatever reason, don't vote. "There are 90 million voters now who are not voting," she says. "They could change our entire political landscape going forward. And even if the vote fell short of winning, it would essentially win the day by showing there is an enormous constituency."
Of the roughly 131 million Americans who voted in 2008, more than 98 percent leaned either Democrat or Republican. But 225 million Americans were registered to vote that year, so Stein isn't necessarily on a wild goose chase. She does face an uphill slog, though, since she not only must persuade millions of nonvoters to vote, but also to support a fringe party that usually loses. It's like asking ballet fans to watch football, then asking them to fill a stadium for a winless team.
Stein points out that unlikely uprisings have become an international trend lately, from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to niche protests against things like bank fees and oil pipelines. Social media have played a major role, and Stein says Twitter and Facebook could give the U.S. Green Party a long-sought spark.
"Look at Tahrir Square," she says, referring to the public arena for Egypt's 2011 revolution. "Young people can lead the way in this country, too, to take back our democracy. Thirty-six million students are essentially indentured servants [from loan debt], and if word gets out to them, it would turn this election on its head."
On the 'Green New Deal'
Fighting apathy, of course, is just half the battle. Stein also has to convince former nonvoters to vote for her, and selling a third party in the U.S. isn't easy — despite the success of multiparty systems overseas, including powerful Green parties in places like Germany and Australia. Stein is optimistic, though, arguing independent voters will jump on her bandwagon if she can just convey where it would take them.
"We have the solutions, and we actually have the numbers," she says. "If those 90 million people come out to vote for their best interest, we would win this election. These are policies the American people are clamoring for in large numbers."
The centerpiece of Stein's platform is the "Green New Deal," which her website calls "an emergency four-part program ... for moving America quickly out of crisis into the secure green future." Asked why it's an "emergency" program, she cites not just economic risks, but also the threat of climate change. "We're seeing the hottest 12 months on record, devastating droughts, fires, and all of this is happening with less than 1 degree centigrade warming," she says. "Yet we're on pace for 6 degree warming in this century alone. We're facing an all-out climate emergency."
President Obama speaks at a U.N. climate summit in 2009. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Obama has taken steps to curb U.S. carbon emissions — raising fuel-efficiency rules, for instance, and investing in clean energy — but Stein says he's dragging his feet on the global stage: "When Obama undermined the climate accords in Durban, South Africa, he was basically saying we can wait until 2020. Even the most basic science says we need to make major, concrete progress before 2020 if we're going to survive."
Rather than distracting from other issues like energy prices and job growth, Stein argues fighting climate change will have a domino effect on many problems. "Thankfully, by fixing the climate crisis we can fix the economic crisis as well," she says, adding that "for every dollar spent on jobs in fossil fuels, we could create three jobs in the green economy." The specifics of her Green New Deal are on her website (and in the video below), but here are some highlights, divided into four "pillars":
"Economic Bill of Rights" — The first pillar deals with labor issues (e.g., fair pay, workplace safety), health care (a "single-payer, Medicare-for-all" program), education (tuition-free public education from pre-K through college), housing (mortgage help, public utilities) and taxes (i.e., "fair taxation that's distributed in proportion to ability to pay").
"Green Transition" — Environmental issues are a big part of Stein's platform, from multi-use "complete streets" to subsidies for organic farms, CSAs and farmers markets. This pillar has three subsections: investing in green businesses (via grants and low-interest loans), prioritizing green research (by redirecting funds from fossil fuels) and providing green jobs (with a goal of 16 million).
"Real Financial Reform" — Many of Stein's financial reforms sound similar to Obama's, but she argues the president is too friendly with Wall Street. Her goals include: reducing homeowner and student debt, nationalizing the Federal Reserve banks, ending taxpayer-funded bailouts, breaking up "oversized" banks, and creating a 90 percent tax on bonuses for bailed-out bankers.
"A Functioning Democracy" — The last pillar contains a wide range of policy ideas, such as: revoking corporate personhood, making Election Day a national holiday, abolishing the Electoral College, making the District of Columbia the 51st state, increasing federal support for local media outlets, repealing the Patriot Act and cutting military spending by 50 percent.
Many of these policies are costly, but Stein says her plan to halve military spending would free up more funds, along with cutting high-income subsidies and tax breaks. Some of her proposals might also intially cost jobs in certain sectors — phasing out coal, for example, would hurt employment in parts of West Virginia and Wyoming — but she insists they would be replaced and expanded upon by greener ones.
"We can begin to convert this bloated military budget into a job-creation budget," she says. "We can convert weapons manufacturing into wind-tower and solar-energy manufacturing. We can put people who need work — people being phased out of the coal industry or nuclear power — put them to work practically overnight in a national effort of weatherization and efficiency to conserve energy."
This may all be a moot point, of course, given Stein's tiny poll numbers and her party's history of losing by huge margins. But she looks at American politics like a sick patient, and the doctor in her knows it's unwise to quit a course of medication before you're finished. "It's time to embrace the politics of courage, not the politics of fear," she says in describing what it would take for her to win. "If people decided to stand up for the politics of courage, like those people in Tahrir Square, that's all it takes."
For more information about Stein, Honkala and the Green Party, check out the video below. And to keep up with all the environmental angles in this year's U.S. presidential race, plus other political news, make sure to visit MNN's Politics page.
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