Barely known in mainstream circles, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (pronounced kuh-SIN-itch) might almost be the hero of a Frank Capra movie, forever waxing lyrical about democracy and the common man. (His “Prayer forAmerica,” the widely circulated speech that put him on the political map, begins with the instructions “to be sung as an overture forAmerica.”) A rugged idealist in the tradition of Whitman, Kucinich has a firm handshake and talks like a man drunk withAmerica’s promise. He likes to quote a line from Shelley: that we must “hope till Hope creates/From its own wreck the thing that it contemplates.”
That optimism extends to his underdog campaign. On his way to the University of South Carolina, site of the Democratic presidential candidates’ first debate of the campaign season, Kucinich insisted his current low standing in the polls does not bother him. “All I have to do to get elected is to be who I am and keep doing what I’m doing, to stay politically independent, to stay unbought and unbossed.”
Of all the Democrats hoping to oppose Bush in 2004, Kucinich is one of the least known (which is saying something), though arguably he is the most outspoken. Seated at the far left of the stage at the debate, Kucinich trumpeted his brazenly progressive policy proposals at every opportunity.
“On trade,” Kucinich told the Chronicle after the debate, “no one else was willing to say they’d cancel NAFTA and the WTO. On Social Security: no one else was ready to say that they’d block privatization and take the retirement age back to 65. On healthcare: people [in the debate] had plenty of time to say they’d go for single-payer, guaranteed, universal healthcare and get the private sector out, but no one else would do that. And I was the only one who said, ‘I’ll cut the fat and waste out of the military budget.’ Everyone should have picked up on that; no one did.” Kucinich is also the only candidate who specifically calls for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace, the availability of medical marijuana as a treatment option for seriously ill patients, and the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.
Shunned by the Media
While it may be hard to distinguish between the politics of, say, Senators John Edwards and Bob Graham, Kucinich does have a vastly different vision from his colleagues and offers voters a distinctive choice. Yet it is entirely possible to follow the campaign in the news and not realize Kucinich is running at all. The New Republic does not include Kucinich in its ongoing scorecard of candidates in the Democratic primary, though it does include Bob Graham, who places dead last in many polls, including Zogby’s most recent fromNew Hampshire, and who polls nationwide below Rev. Al Sharpton (also excluded from the TNR scorecard). ABC, which sponsored the debate and held exclusive rights to its broadcast, did not mention Kucinich’s name nor show any clips of him speaking when it aired segments from the debate on its Sunday morning and evening news programs. The debate itself never made it to primetime, not even on ABC. The network did allow C-SPAN to broadcast it, while a few ABC affiliates aired it at11:30 P.M.the night of the debate (a Saturday). TheNew Yorkaffiliate broadcasted it at5:30 A.M.Monday. For long shots like Kucinich, there was little opportunity to win over new voters, except perhaps the cameramen.
With the media apparently determined to ignore him, Kucinich is among those progressives who (naively, some would say) see the Internet as the Great Hope for their cause. “The web makes it possible for people to make contributions—and we’ve been raising money on the web through our website at kucinich.us,” the congressman said. “That’s really empowered our campaign in a major way. We don’t have public financing in a way that’s meaningful in this country, but the web enables mass subscriptions to any candidate. And when people learn that there’s a chance for a candidate to be elected President of the United States who can really defend the public interest, and who isn’t tied to corporate interests, I think that’s going to become very attractive to a lot of voters. And that’s why I know I have a chance.”
Some of his biggest supporters disagree. A few weeks ago, Ralph Nader called the congressman “the best candidate” but added that he would not be able to raise enough money to win the Democratic primary, no matter how hard he campaigned. Kucinich came in seventh in the race in terms of money raised by the end of the second quarter, totaling $1 million (still a marked improvement over the $180,000 from the first quarter) compared to the $7.5 million Dean raised during the same period. Even in terms of personal assets, Kucinich is only worth about $30,000, while Kerry, Dean, Edwards, and Graham are all millionaires.
Kucinich supporters at South Carolina’s convention are divided about whether Kucinich can overcome his cash-flow problems. Michael Berg remains hopeful but he conceded, “When you stand by your principles, it’s difficult to get the money.”
Campbell Roark, despite his admiration for Kucinich, said flatly, “I doubt he has a chance in hell of getting elected.”
Harry Rogers, also a Kucinich supporter and a member of the Carolina Peace Resource Center, said Kucinich doesn’t yet have the organizational machinery in place that he needs to win, but he does have the people power. “He has some work to do in structure,” Rogers acknowledged. “You do need money, some money, but you don’t need those enormous amounts of money if that can be balanced by human resources.”
Despite the odds, it is telling that a media pariah like Kucinich is giving Dean, something of a media darling, a run for his money for the progressive base. (One Dean supporter recently started a petition drive to persuade Kucinich to get out of the race.) By degrees, the Kucinich campaign is catching on in isolated parts of the country. His numbers keep going up in Iowa. He came in first in a straw poll of union activists in Iowa, and in third place in a similar poll in Wisconsin (where Dean came in first). In the MoveOn.org online primary he came in second, behind Dean.
Earlier this month at Campaign for America’s Future “Take Back America” forum, the audience gave nine standing ovations to Kucinich, who “probably did more to advance his campaign than any of the other contenders,” according to The Nation’s John Nichols.
Michelle Goldberggives a colorful description of the speech in Salon magazine: “Kucinich took to the stage to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and proceeded to conjure the heyday of American progressivism by promising a new version of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. ‘We’re gonna rebuild America’s cities, and we’re gonna do it with America’s steel,’ he roared. In his spellbinding speech, Kucinich laid out a lefty’s dream platform: Medicare for all, money pulled out of the Pentagon budget to pay for schools and other domestic programs, and ‘total nuclear disarmament.’ He spoke to the crowd’s fury over the war in Iraq, getting a screaming standing ovation when he cried, ‘This war was wrong! This war was fraudulent! We must expose this administration!’”
A video of a speech by Gephardt was scheduled to follow Kucinich’s bravura performance, but it was postponed. “Had the video come as scheduled, after Kucinich had electrified the audience with an old-fashioned, lectern-thumping populist sermon,” Goldberg quips, “it would have played like a parody of establishment banality.”
Reaching Out to the "Red" States
The key to Kucinich’s minor successes inIowa,Wisconsin, andWashingtonare his lightning rod public appearances, which always win him supporters. He can’t be everywhere though. He can’t afford it. That and the fact that media insist on shunning him, leaving him with an “unfamiliar” rate as high as 75 percent in recent polls, are probably his biggest obstacles to the presidency—not, as the punditocracy would have it, that he is too “liberal” to appeal to voters in conservative early primary states like South Carolina.
In fact two of the issues dearest to Kucinich—trade and agriculture—are also deeply important and consequential to Carolinians and voters from other rural states, the so-called “red states,” who are usually key to a presidential race because they tend to vote as a block. “Trade and agriculture work synergistically,” Kucinich said, “and I think people want a President that’s willing to go to bat for America’s workers and farmers on trade issues and that’s willing to go to bat for the farmers and consumers on issues related to breaking up the monopolies.”
The trade platforms should especially appeal to South Carolinians and other Southerners, to whom NAFTA is a dirty word. “There is a provision that allows for six months notification of withdrawal [from a treaty]. I found that out when I tried to stop President Bush [through a lawsuit] from canceling the ABM Treaty. They said ‘Well, he can do it.’ Well then, a president can cancel NAFTA, too. So I intend to return to bilateral trade that would be conditioned on workers’ rights, on the right to fair wages and benefits, among other things, and on the right to organize, and on human rights, and on the environment. And I’m the only candidate saying it.”
The state Kucinich’s campaign is most focused on is Iowa, which he insists he can win. He is banking on the appeal of his farm policies. “Our farmers are being just torn apart by agricultural monopolies, from seed all the way through to the supermarket, that are making it very difficult for farmers to be able to get their price. When you talk to hog farmers in South Carolina or Iowa, the problem’s the same. The market’s being strangled by prices being manipulated by these large agricultural corporations. Farmers don’t want handouts, they want to be able to get their price.”
Nevertheless, Kucinich is still the longest of long shots, rarely rising above 3 percent in national polls. When he is mentioned in the media at all, it is only to be insulted by neoliberal pundits. On a Face the Nation appearance, commentator Joe Klein made a point of saying that Kucinich was an annoying distraction in the campaign who has “no chance of becoming President.” In two recent Slate magazine columns, William Saletan called Kucinich a “socialist elf” and made fun of him for being short and a vegan. (Has mainstream political discourse really descended so low?)
Interestingly, Kucinich, a devout Catholic, has a largely anti-abortion voting record, which might appeal to South Carolinians and people from other conservative states, though more likely both the record and his recent about-face on the issue will be problematic in the primary. Kucinich, while maintaining he wants “to do everything possible to keep abortions less necessary,” has come out against efforts in Congress to recriminalize abortion. Roe v. Wade, he now says, should be upheld to protect gender equality, the right to privacy, and fundamental civil liberties. He even advocates a pro-Roe litmus test for court nominees.
“Now I haven’t always been there, as you know,” Kucinich admitted. He sure hasn’t. As recently as 2000 his voting record earned a zero rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League. He previously voted in favor of a ban on dilation & extraction (“partial birth”), with no allowances for the mother’s health. He supported Bush’s “gagging” of U.S. family planning programs overseas. He also voted against funding abortions for women in prison, RU-486 research, and contraception coverage in federal insurance plans. In June he told the Sacramento News & Review that he still believes life begins, on a spiritual level, at conception, but that his thinking has “evolved.”
Less often remarked is how many other Democratic luminaries have reversed their former opposition to abortion sometime before settling on a presidential run, including Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and even Bill Clinton. Many will see Kucinich’s shift on the issue as opportunistic, though Kucinich counters that people on both sides of the abortion debate, instead of working to resolve it, exploit and inflame it to solidify electoral bases.
Hey, Big Spender...
More controversial is Kucinich’s social agenda, which his foes say is unworkable. “Congressman Kucinich’s proposals are extremely costly,” Dean told us in an interview, “and I believe that we can’t enact and sustain a Democratic agenda in this country if we don’t restore fiscal discipline.”
At the convention Chad Lykins, a College of Charleston senior and one of Dean’s supporters, echoed that theme, questioning how viable Kucinich’s $2 trillion healthcare package would be. “Even if you were able to pay for it, my understanding is that it totally takes over the health insurance industry and brings it into the government. How would the loss of that entire industry affect the economy?”
Jeff Cohen, Kucinich’s campaign manager and the director of Fairness & Accuracy in Media (FAIR), said the Kucinich plan is doable and explained why. “It’s a ten-year phase-in. It’s rational, streamlined, and nonbureaucratic.” Half of the amount would be paid for rolling back the Bush’s tax cuts in the top income brackets. The other half would come from a 7.7 percent employer-paid payroll tax, which the Kucinich camp says industry would support because 8.5 percent of industry expenses go toward insurance, meaning the Kucinich plan would represent an overall reduction in business costs. When pressed, Cohen acknowledged that the “end of for-profit healthcare” would mean “there’s going to be some movement in the economy.” But, he said, it would be mitigated by both the ten-year phase-in and the jobs created through Kucinich’s investments in renewable energy and other infrastructural needs.
Those investments, of course, entail more costs. How could all that be instituted without breaking the bank? “By cutting the military budget, closing tax loopholes, getting rid of corporate subsidies, and rolling back tax cuts that benefit the super-wealthy,” Cohen said. He then took a shot at the “professional campaigners” in the primary who run on a platform of fiscal propriety while dismissing Kucinich’s sweeping reforms as too expensive. “If you’re unwilling to take on military bloat then, by those standards, of course you’re going to look at Kucinich and say, ‘This can’t be done.’ But you can’t expect to balance the budget while ignoring bloat. Insurance companies do not treat anyone, they don’t heal anyone. All they do is add waste and duplicate paperwork to the system. It’s pointless to go to the Democratic Party and try to defend that without taking on what’s wasteful in that system.”
Kucinich’s health plan has found a champion in Robert Kuttner, editor of the influential Democratic/progressive magazine The American Prospect . “The best solution here is national health insurance,” writes Kuttner in a May 22 column. “We already have it for one segment of the population, through Medicare. The one declared candidate with a fleshed-out, Medicare-for-all plan is Dennis Kucinich.”
Right for America or not, it would be naive to believe that the plan would be greeted with anything other than a high-octane assault by the insurance industry lobby. “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, and our politics has always been rough-and-tumble,” Kucinich said. “So I’m ready for anything.”
Can Kucinich Compromise?
“Rough-and-tumble” may actually be a big understatement, judging from his one very contentious term asCleveland’s mayor, back when he was barely thirty. That chapter of his biography is a veritable political Rorschach. In the debates, moderator George Stephanopoulos challenged Kucinich: “The one time you held executive office, the city went bankrupt.” (Strictly speaking, it was a default on loans.) The other reporters covering the debate erupted into laughter from the off-siteDebateMediaCenter. No doubt many of them will look no deeper into Kucinich’s record than that.
Yet Kucinich became something of a local hero because of the episode, in which six banks servicing Cleveland’s debt choked off the city’s credit because Kucinich’s administration refused to sell off Muny Light, Cleveland’s public utility, to a private company, CEI, which would have created a local energy monopoly. The city was forced into default and Kucinich’s political career was derailed for years. Over time, it was revealed that eight of CEI’s eleven directors were also directors of four of the six banks, while five of the banks owned a combined total of almost $1.8 million in CEI shares. “I saved the people’s electric system,” Kucinich told the Chronicle. “People have cheaper electricity in Cleveland because of me. Now the bank that tried to force me to sell the electric system—that bank when out of business.”
But even if Kucinich was vindicated in his decision not to sell off the utility, how the city got into such bad financial shape to begin with is still a legitimate question. Some of Kucinich’s critics accuse him of having run up huge debts through bloated spending programs, while Kucinich’s team maintains the debt was inherited.
The Center for Public Integrity settles the score in a brief and revealing history of Kucinich’s term as mayor, with one passage in particular worth quoting in full:
Cohen, who was following events in Cleveland at the time, said that the Cleveland of that era could be compared to Argentina now. The South American analogy seems exactly right. When we read CPI’s description it reminded us instantly of the political events we observed in Venezuela. In fact, the parallels between Mayor Kucinich of Cleveland (c. 1978) and President Chávez of Venezuela are striking. Both were/are populist reformers swept to power by public outrage over a broken system; both inherited a fiscal mess; both antagonized powerful business interests which then blocked their every effort at reform, even going so far as sabotaging the economy; both fired public officials on live television; both were targeted with recall campaigns to remove them from office; etc.
The ugly fact of the matter is, in modern politics there are two states: a public state and a corporate state, and the latter really calls the shot—or else. Practically every time a public body has tried to confront the corporate state head-on, public welfare is held hostage. However, there do seem to be ways progressive politicians can avoid the trap. President “Lula” da Silva of the Worker’s Party in Brazil, for example, has found ways of building consensus despite reactionary corporate interests (though some progressives charge that the concessions he makes to predatory lenders and the IMF go too far).
The question is: who is Kucinich now? Is he the firebrand, provocative Chávez type he seemed to be when he was mayor, or the chastened, wiser, more pragmatic Lula-esque politician that came back to the Cleveland City Council?
Say Kucinich somehow managed to become President. What could we expect from him when the insurance industry lobby and their allies come after him? Is Kucinich statesman enough to tame such a huge wounded beast? If he can’t broker corporate compromises, is his candidacy rightly doomed because of the corporate backlash his presidency would provoke, or is it worth the political risk to try to dismantle the institutions that give big business and mass producers the power to effectively control the political system?
Whatever the case, Kucinich said he now considers the default episode a badge of honor. “Everybody in Cleveland knows I did the right thing in challenging this very powerful energy monopoly,” Kucinich said. “Wouldn’t Americans love to have a president who showed an ability to stand up to entrenched corporate power, to tell the money power that I’m choosing the people over the money power?”
In theory, perhaps. But realistically, does an idealist and an ideological purist have a chance to become President in a tainted electoral system? Only if Kucinich can mobilize more than people’s hopes.
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This story was published on June 26, 2003.
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