Progressives Get their Act Together for the Democratic Primary:
Dean or Kucinich: Which is Better for Progressives?
Once thought to be extinct, progressive Democrats are now all over the place. On June 26, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair and presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) sent a taped message from the floor of the House of Representatives (where he was battling Republicans over Medicare) to Baltimore’s “Communities United Can B’More” rally, which packed Johns Hopkins’ Shriver Auditorium. Ralph Nader, the moving force behind the rally, spoke next, lauding Kucinich and his candidacy. Meanwhile, on July 24, MoveOn.org, a progressive Internet-based community, kicked off its own Democratic “primary” (essentially an online poll) in which as much as $40 million in campaign money is at stake. Former Governor Howard Dean, M.D., of Vermont and Kucinich were the top two vote-getters and will likely compete for the MoveOn PAC money in a run-off in the fall. (Sen. John Kerry placed third in the first-round primary, but among such a progressive crowd he’s probably ‘unelectable.’)
Briefly, ‘progressives’ are distinct from ‘liberals’ in that they are as uncomfortable with big government as they are wary of big business. They maintain that centralization of both economic and political power is a breeding ground for corruption. While they strongly favor broadly applied public services, they feel those services should be streamlined and subject to the oversight and involvement of citizen stakeholders, not just bureaucratic appointees. Because they tend to place a greater premium on human rights and community empowerment, progressives tend to be young people and/or activists. Most important for the short term, they generally make up their minds—and keep them made up—early in election cycles, which makes the next few weeks critical for candidates wooing progressives.
The MoveOn primary will be a good way to gauge which candidate will have the most progressive appeal nationwide. (So far, Dean has a commanding plurality.) It will also fill that candidate’s coffers: if just half of MoveOn’s members donate fifty dollars to MoveOn’s PAC, approximately $37 million dollars would go to the winning candidate. That would be just the shot in the arm that both Kucinich and Dean, each positioning himself as the primary’s progressive choice, really need right now. Both are considered long-shot candidates in the main primary—though Dean may be catapulted to the front ranks now that he has raised more money for the second quarter (mostly over the Internet) than any other Democrat.
MoveOn is not without controversy. The top three vote-getters in its primary were also the only three candidates who, as winners of a MoveOn straw poll, were allowed to send members e-mail pitches. Also, Dean hired one of MoveOn’s few employees as a consultant for his campaign, raising conflict of interest concerns. Even so, MoveOn’s primary represents progressives’ first major opportunity in a long time to play a decisive role in the real ‘primary before the primary’—that is, the race for campaign money.
The "Democratic Wing" vs. the "Republican-Lites"
In previous primaries neoliberals effectively marginalized progressives by outstrategizing and outspending them. Now, thanks to organizations like Campaign for America’s Future, Ralph Nader’s Democracy Rising, and Jim Hightower’s Rolling Thunder, progressives have started getting smart about organizing and putting their money where their mouths are, with huge implications for the current Democratic race. In such a wide-open field, and with the MoveOn money in play, whichever candidate successfully mobilizes the progressive constituency could have a decisive effect, either as champion or spoiler, on the primary’s outcome.
Interestingly, this is the same pool of voters dismissed as not worth courting in a memo, “The Real Soul of the Democratic Party,” written last May by Al From and Bruce Reed, the founder and CEO, respectively, of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). “The great myth of the current [campaign] cycle is the misguided notion that the hopes and dreams of activists represent the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” they wrote. “Real Democrats are real people, not activist elites.”
The memo was brought to our attention by a friend, Peter Maybarduk, who thinks it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy by driving the young and politically passionate away from the party. “It’s insulting to imply that activists aren’t ‘real people,’” said Maybarduk, who was turned off from the Democrats during the Clinton era by the way the DLC shaped the party.
Campbell Roark, a recent college graduate from Beaufort, SC, who attended his state’s Democratic Party Convention, ripped the DLC’s logic. “There’s this strange sense—it’s akin to populism—in which people see someone that’s anti-intellectual as almost being more like one of the people. As if that makes him good: ‘He’s one of us.’ Billionaire mavericks can be populist, whereas any left-leaning liberal intellectual, we’re 'the elite.' It’s nonsensical.”
With a copy of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night in hand, Roark is the poster child of the young, activist “elite” courted by MoveOn and disdained by the DLC, and it’s no surprise that the candidates he favors are the frontrunners in MoveOn’s primary. “I’m probably going to vote for Kucinich or Dean, because I think they’re more for workers’ rights and universal health coverage for all Americans,” said Roark.
Dean and Kucinich’s low to modest standing in the national polls is deceptive. The support they’ve won so far is firm, loyal, and growing, whereas those who favor one or another of the front-runners are still shopping around. Gatherings of the party faithful reinforce the point. In straw polls conducted at Democratic forums from Iowa and Wisconsin to Washington, D.C., and in online polls by advocacy groups such as Care2 and MoveOn, Dean and Kucinich, both often tagged “too liberal” to be “electable,” are the only two candidates consistently favored by party and union stalwarts. Even in perennially right-wing South Carolina—where outgoing state Democratic Chair Dick Harpootlian told House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi not to show her face in his state because she is “far too liberal”—all the local Democrats we talked to at the state convention last month were either undecided or supported Kucinich or Dean.
The Generation Gap
That support was largely due to a clear split between young and older voters. Most convention delegates, especially those middle-aged and older, came and left undecided. Patricia Walls was typical. As the nine candidates paraded to the podium one by one, trails of hairspray billowing in their wake, Walls, a party delegate, darted her eyes nervously when asked to consider which candidate she prefers. “I think—What’s his name, Kelly?”
Perhaps, we suggested, you mean Sen. John Kerry? “I don’t know yet,” she said, confessing she didn’t know much about any of the candidates or their platforms.
Neither did Bill Reed of Summerville. A mature gentleman and self-described “conservative Democrat” who supported John McCain in 2000, Reed said he votes “according to the best man for the job,” though he isn’t sure who that is.
Walls and Reed are hardly alone. A Pew Research Center poll from April showed that 69 percent of Democrats could not name one of the candidates running for President from their own party. However, all of the twenty- and thirtysomethings we interviewed at the convention seemed to have made up their minds long ago, and all of them—to a (wo)man—backed either Dean or Kucinich or both.
Michael Berg, a Spanish translator from Columbia, showered convention delegates with pro-Kucinich flyers, talking about the congressman to anyone who would listen. According to Berg, “Kucinich is the best man for the job” because of his “Medicare ‘E’ plan—that’s ‘Medicare for Everyone,’” and because “he stands up for workers’ rights, stands up for the right to organize unions, he stood up against the war-mongering and imperialism of the Bush presidency, and he does not want an aggressive foreign policy that alienates the world.”
Chad Lykins, a College of Charleston senior and member of SC Students for Dean, is just as committed to his candidate. “Dean has a fantastic track record in Vermont,” Lykins said. “He’s got really creative, very educated solutions that he tailors to different situations, and it seems to be really working, too.”
There is a lesson here for the DLC: the major fault line dividing the Democratic Party is not so much between “real” middle-class working types and activist “elites” as it is between the outgoing and upcoming generations.
However, it is important that the latter, whose political decisions are indelibly linked to their passions, be scrupulously well-informed when they decide to embrace one candidate or another. Otherwise, the potential for unnecessary division and squabbling, born of misunderstanding and misinformation, is great.
From Portland, one of America's most progressive cities, a member of the local IndyMedia Center recently noted in an online comment, “It sounds like people here are split between Dean and Kucinich, and if things continue that way through the primaries, it may be that neither wins.”
Clearly the time is ripe for an in-depth and comparative look at both candidates. We at the Chronicle feel that by training the floodlights of scrutiny on both men, the shadows of doubt and deception will give way and a clear favorite will emerge for progressives.
With that goal in mind, we recently caught up with both men on the campaign trail. In the profile/interviews of Kucinich and Dean, we analyze each candidate's record: his statements, inconsistencies, achievements, and major policy objectives. We also provide a third section, weighing their relative “electability” merits.
This special section of BaltimoreChronicle.com will be a “living” reference. We will update it throughout the primary until either Dean or Kucinich withdraws from the race, at which point it will be discontinued.
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This story was published on June 26, 2003.