Can McKinney Really Hurt Obama?

07/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In June, former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney publicly hailed Barack Obama's grab of the Democratic presidential nomination. But praising his fete is one thing, trying to beat him out of the presidency is another. And that's her goal as the Green Party's presidential nominee. While it stirred barely a yawn in Democratic Party circles, it stirred speculation whether McKinney can do any real damage to Obama.

At first glance there's no reason to think that she can hurt him. She's not one-time Green Party top candidate Ralph Nader. His credentials in 2000 as a fierce environmental and consumer crusader were impeccable. This earned him the respect and admiration of thousands of impassioned supporters, the ability to tap liberal and progressive money tills, and the grudging respect from some corporate and government officials. He was rarely out of the media eye for years.

Even now the debate still rages whether the votes he got in 2000 actually sunk Democratic presidential contender Al Gore or not. The certainty is that a bigger percent of Nader's votes would have gone to Gore and not Bush if he hadn't been in the race. That could have sealed Florida and the White House for Gore. We'll never know for sure but nearly a decade later many Democrats still blame Nader for Bush.

By contrast McKinney was a six term congresswoman who is still mostly remembered for her shoot from the lip quips, and for creating a ruckus with a capital police officer. She had the ignominious distinction of being bounced from her Congressional seat by an obscure county official.

But this doesn't mean that McKinney can't toss a curve at Obama. She's got energy, charisma, has name recognition and is on the ballot in thirty six states, a handful of them are crucial swing states that Obama and McCain will wage war to win. She is the first black Green Party presidential candidate, and she and her VP pick Rosa Clemente are the first two black women to ever head a political ticket (Clemente is Afro-Puerto Rican). She trudged the campaign highway through thirty states building an organization, drumming up financial support, and lambasting Bush's policies. Then there's the murky, dirty side of politics. Some Republican-affiliated independent committees might be tempted to dump some dollars into her campaign in the swing states to wreak havoc on Obama. That happened in 2004 when Republican donors kicked in cash to Al Sharpton's truncated bid for the Democratic presidential nod. The aim was to create havoc, confusion and division among black voters.

Then there's Rush Limbaugh's windy boast that he launched Operation Choas in the Democratic primaries in the swing states. He implored Republicans to back Clinton to subvert Obama. With McKinney, such a dirty political trick would be to siphon off votes from those progressives and blacks disenchanted with the Democrats and Obama. Even without the dirty tactics, an Obama scandal, a damning revelation, a gaffe, or more flips, reversals, and shifts by him to the right could sour more left side Democrats and Independents on him.

The best thing McKinney has going for her, though, is her 10 point manifesto. This is a free swinging, unabashed anti-war, universal health care, anti corporate, pro-environment and civil liberties and full employment pitch. This could touch a nerve with some voters who express disgust that the gap between Obama and McCain in their positions on issues from Iraq to the economy at times seem paper thin. It could stir some voters fed up with the top heavy parade of corporate officials, lobbyists, and Beltway establishment politicians that dominate Obama and McCain's campaigns to cast a protest ballot for her.

The tantalizing possibility that McKinney might pull two to three percent of the vote nationally is more than a wild stretch. In a close to the wire contest between Obama and McCain this could be just enough to cause the Obama camp jitters as Nader did with Democrats in 2000.

McKinney can sweeten the pot for left side Democrats who may have some qualms about Obama, but are scared stiff of a McCain White House. She can quietly put the word out as some Green Party strategists did in 2000 that disenchanted Democrats in locked down Democrat states have the luxury of voting their conscience with a vote for McKinney. This poses absolutely no risk to Obama's chances of winning their state. But in the swing states, a McKinney vote could pose a risk to Obama. The message then is: Take a deep breath, exhale, and then punch the ticket for Obama. The absolute last thing that McKinney should want is to carry the odious tag of spoiler. Nader, rightly or wrongly, will carry that tag to the end of his days.

The odds are that in this hyper-charged, history making election with much on the line for both parties McKinney's impact and presence will be negligible. But thank goodness for her presence anyway.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).