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"As I look across this room, we're old, not young. We should recruit progressives on the issues. We grow around the issues."

The Green Party tries to find its center 

The Green Party, which drew nearly 3 million voters in 2000 when it nominated Ralph Nader for president, has since struggled from an exodus of supporters and a self-acknowledged identity crisis. In 2008, Cynthia McKinney, the party's presidential nominee, garnered just one-tenth of one percent of the vote, finishing sixth, behind Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party.

Last week, about 100 Green Party members convened at N.C. Central University in Durham to regroup from a disappointing election year, discuss political strategy, conduct a panel on single-payer health care and hear McKinney rant about "the Israel killing machine."

All but the last item elicited a spirited discussion among party members, who subscribe to "ten key values," including "ecological wisdom," gender equality, nonviolence and political decentralization.

"What's our pitch to the American country?" John Rensenbrink, a former U.S. Senate candidate and party co-founder, asked during a "constructive critique" workshop. "We've got to be very serious about what our messages are in the eyes of the American people."

If the central message is a criticism of Middle East foreign policy, as McKinney's speech seemed to indicate, the Green Party may need to retool it.

McKinney's keynote address, which she delivered from her home in a "Viva Palestina" T-shirt, was broadcast over the Web and displayed in a sparsely filled auditorium on Central's campus. Due to a communications mishap, McKinney took no questions from Durham and instead handpicked "Palestine questions" from an online chat room.

"I had hoped to be in North Carolina with all of you," McKinney began. "Unfortunately, I was not able to make it ... because, for the past three weeks, I have had quite an ordeal."

Last month, the Israeli Navy detained McKinney and 20 others for allegedly violating a blockade that restricts arms from entering the Gaza Strip. McKinney was scheduled to be deported but refused to sign release papers, resulting in her weeklong stint in jail. From there, she delivered a manifesto in which she claims Israel "has lost its last shred of legitimacy."

McKinney spent the majority of her speech detailing the ordeal and said she went to the Middle East because she "wanted the children in Gaza to have crayons."

In Durham, McKinney continued to compare her cause—which she has branded "Dignity"—to the struggle for civil rights, claiming the group she launched (named after another ship that attempted to breach the blockade in 2008) has followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X in working to "stop the machine" with "great personal sacrifice that was not acknowledged publicly."

McKinney then held up souvenirs from a more recent humanitarian trip she took to Gaza, including a discarded can of peanuts with a Hebrew label. McKinney claimed the label was proof that Israeli soldiers had knowingly bombed an elementary school and then ate peanuts to make their presence known. She also claimed to have seen a Star of David written in chalk on the school's chalkboard.

McKinney didn't mention Hamas, Fatah or Palestinian militants. Nor did she delve into what could have been a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the political situation in the Middle East.

Afterward, 2008 Green Party presidential candidate Jesse Johnson—who finished fifth behind McKinney and others for the party's nomination—said the speech ignored "human rights violations taking place in Washington's backyard," including the practice of mountaintop removal mining.

Meanwhile, Rensenbrink, the former Senate candidate, told the Indy that the party—which he said now suffers from a "shocking absence of leadership"—should attract people by addressing disparate issues.

"If we could help people see how their causes relate to other causes, and to seriously ask themselves, 'Does your position on this issue contribute to the transformation of society?' then we have them—even if they don't join the party," he said.

At a previous forum on single-payer health care, the party seized upon a popular issue and made the argument that the Green position was in the majority—not on the margins. Panelists pointed to a CBS poll that suggested most Americans want the government to provide health care. The Green Party has long advocated for a more equitable health care system, and panelists noted single-payer systems throughout the developed world provide better, cheaper medical care than the U.S. According to a study by the World Health Organization, the U.S. ranks 37th in quality of health care, yet spends more per capita than any country.

Currently, single-payer has been left on the table in discussions over health care reform, which at most may include a "public option." The issue—which President Barack Obama advocated for as an Illinois state senator—could draw in new Green Party members and inject what former Wisconsin Green Party co-chair George Martin deemed sorely needed: "new blood."

"As I look across this room, we're old, not young," Martin said during the constructive criticism workshop. "We should recruit progressives on the issues. We grow around the issues," he said.

Instead, the party was left with McKinney, and her self-declared mission to bring crayons to children in Gaza. As McKinney answered questions from the chat room about Palestine, party members who had lined up to ask questions from an auditorium microphone dispersed slowly and filed back into their seats.

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