If Presidential politics actually worked like it does in the movies—or in the imaginings of patriots—the hot August night would have been one of those epic moments when everything starts to change.
Fifteen thousand trade unionists had packed into Chicago’s Soldier Field to hear contenders for the 2008 Democratic nomination make their cases. While the frontrunners drew their requisite rounds of applause, it was the scrappy working class Congressman from Cleveland who wowed the AFL-CIO activists. Dennis Kucinich delivered applause line after applause line—connecting with the crowd on ideological, political, and emotional levels that the other candidates could not begin to reach.
“I want to see America take a new direction in trade . . . and that means it’s time to get out of NAFTA and the WTO,” shouted the Congressman above the thunderous applause that greeted his promise of “trade that’s based on workers’ rights: the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike.”
So powerful was Kucinich’s presentation that even the moderator, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, shifted his line of questioning from the usual soft media inquiries about “reforming trade policies” toward a blunt demand that the candidates say whether they would “scrap NAFTA or fix it?” After Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and the others struggled to answer the question without offending either the labor crowd or their corporate donors, Kucinich won the moment by declaring, “No one else on this stage could give a direct answer because they don’t intend to scrap NAFTA. We’re going to be stuck with it. And I’m your candidate if you want to get out of NAFTA. Let’s hear it. Do you want out of NAFTA? Do you want out of the WTO?”
The steel, auto, machine, and construction workers were on their feet, cheering wildly. Again and again, on industrial policy, on health care, on each issue that arose, Kucinich owned the argument. And when the Congressman turned to the signature issue of his insurgent Presidential bid, ending the war in Iraq, he distinguished himself from the cautious contenders to his right by speaking the truth that has been on the mind of everyone who has watched the sorry degeneration of this nation’s system of checks and balances. Instead of promising to end the war as President, Kucinich declared, “We shouldn’t have to wait for a Democratic President to do it. The Democratic Congress needs to act now.”
It was a virtuoso performance. Mark Lash, a steelworker from Crown Point, Indiana, summed it all up when he said that of the seven candidates who were trying so hard to woo the workers, it was Kucinich who gave “the answers everyone wants to hear.” In one of those old Jimmy Stewart movies or maybe in a new John Cusack movie, something big would happen. Unions would have started going against expectations to endorse the underdog. The media would have started taking him seriously. A long-overdue political awakening would have begun—for the Democratic Party and for the nation.
But contemporary politics does not follow a movie script. The process unfolds along lines defined by money, polling, punditry, and the extreme caution of institutions—and even voting blocs—that are more inclined to deny possibility than to embrace it. The discarded-civics-book character of the process by which Presidents are selected is evident at every turn on the campaign trail that Kucinich follows, and it raises a fundamental question about the candidate and his hearty supporters. Will the Congressman be the Harold Stassen of the left, a smart and honorable perennial Presidential candidate yielding diminishing returns on Election Day after miserable Election Day? Or will he grab hold of the system that denies him and force something meaningful from it? Will Kucinich end his 2008 quest as an asterisk or as an irrepressible force agitating effectively against a dismaying Democratic Party and a dysfunctional democracy?
One thing is certain: Kucinich cannot expect anything more than cheers from many of those whose causes he has long and loudly championed.
Within weeks of that August AFL-CIO forum, unions began to make their endorsements.
The Machinists went for Clinton, arguably the steadiest proponent in the field of the job-killing “free trade” schemes that have decimated the union’s membership.
The Carpenters and the Steelworkers broke for Edwards, a newly minted populist who sounds good but still struggles to get the specifics right.
The Firefighters backed Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, an old-school liberal with a weaker record than Kucinich and no better prospects.
And what was the Congressman from Cleveland left with when the applause died down?
No endorsements from labor.
No backing from prominent Democrats.
No poll numbers of consequence nationally or in the essential early primary and caucus states.
There is something that is surely heartbreaking about the hand that is regularly dealt to Kucinich and his idealistic second bid for the Presidency. But the Congressman has chosen to play at the table of contemporary American politics, where not only the rules but the very premises of the process are stacked against him.
It is not merely the dominance of the monied elites and the party bosses, nor even the emphasis on image and style, that undermines a candidate who is actually referred to by supposedly serious reporters as “too short to be President.” It is the desperation of Democratic voters denied, voters who, after so many stolen elections and failed campaigns, have convinced themselves that the only thing that matters in 2008 is winning—and that the only way to win is by nominating not the candidate who is right on the issues but the candidate who seems, a la John Kerry in 2004, to have the right strategy or at least the right stature.
Yet, Kucinich keeps returning to the table and demanding to be part of the game. Almost alone, he argues that voters might yet embrace his “new vision for America” and that he can win not just the nomination but the Presidency. In Maine, or North Dakota, or Hawaii, he never fails to claim that local support is up from what he got when he bid for the nomination in 2004 and to suggest that: “If we can do well here, [the momentum] can spread to other states and parts of the country.”
Kucinich’s optimism is defined by nothing so much as the Congressman’s belief in magic—political magic. He clings to a faith that 2008 will provide an opening like the one that forty years earlier allowed an obscure Senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, to put questions of war and peace on the table and chase a sitting President from office, or like the one that actually made an unknown former governor of Georgia with a tendency to spout off about human rights the commander in chief.
To a degree, Kucinich’s limitless faith is understandable. He has achieved alchemy more than once. Elected on the basis of sheer hard work to the Cleveland City Council as a twenty-three-year-old “new politics” candidate in 1969, he was the city’s “boy mayor” by age thirty-one. But after tangling with the city’s bankers and utilities, he was a defeated political has-been at thirty-three. Ridiculed in Ohio and nationally, he lost comeback bid after comeback bid before finally disappearing into political Siberia and a quest for meaning that found him living, without income or prospects, in New Mexico.
Then, in 1994, a year when Democrats were losing everywhere, Kucinich returned to Cleveland, picked up the populist banner, and won a state senate seat from a Republican incumbent.
Two years later, he defeated a key lieutenant to House Speaker Newt Gingrich to claim a seat in Congress.
Redeemed finally after decades in the political wilderness, Kucinich could have settled into a comfortable tenure on the left flank of the House Democratic Caucus. Instead, he kept right on pushing the limits of politics, fighting Presidents Clinton and Bush on issues ranging from trade to militarism and finally emerging in 2002 as the most ardent Congressional critic of the rush to war with Iraq.
Kucinich’s “reward” for getting the war right was marginalization in the 2004 Presidential race, when the media portrayed a cautious war critic, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, as the peace candidate while dismissing the campaign of the genuinely anti-war contender.
The 2004 race yielded Kucinich no primary or caucus wins and just 1 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Yet, the Congressman is running once more, mounting essentially the same campaign that he did four years ago. Kucinich is again bouncing around the country, creating the facade of a national campaign but never sticking around long enough to convert the enthusiasm of the crowds he draws into votes. And, as in the later stages of the 2004 race, when he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that he could not win a fight that everyone knew was finished, he refuses to entertain the notion that he might not be swearing an oath of office on January 20, 2009.
There is much to be said for the power of positive thinking, but in Presidential politics the practice can be futile—especially when more prominent and monied candidates are stealing your themes: economic populist (Edwards), anti-war (New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson), and time-for-a-transformation (Obama). In Kucinich’s case, his optimism borders on off-putting and out of touch. Indeed, if he continues on his current course, he runs the risk of falling short of the 643,067 (3.9 percent of the total) votes he scraped together by the end of his never-say-die 2004 run.
If that happens, it will be a political tragedy, because Dennis Kucinich is more right on the issues than ever: with his demand that Congress defund the war in Iraq, with his warnings about the dangerous machinations of the Bush-Cheney machine regarding Iran, with his courageous stance on nuclear disarmament, and with his increasingly ardent advocacy of impeachment.
Kucinich may be more necessary to the process of choosing a 2008 Democratic President than even he may understand. The front-loaded race for the nomination will be a blur for most Democrats, who will likely be told who the party’s candidate is going to be long before they actually have a chance to weigh in. At that point, the trailing candidates will be told by the money men who define American politics that it is time to start suspending campaigns.
More than two dozen states will select delegates after February 5. Many of them—Wisconsin, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Oregon—have Democratic voter bases that are ardently anti-war. If Kucinich were to commit now to mount a campaign that made no pretense of personal electability but rather promised to force the party to debate its direction—not just on the war but on the whole question of what a post-Bush America might look like—he could yet turn himself into the most effective protest candidate this country has seen in years.
What might the Congressman propose to the voters of later primary and caucus states, where the choice could well come down to Kucinich versus Clinton? By telling voters “this is your chance to vote for a peace plank,” Kucinich could—and should—promise to use whatever bloc of delegates he is given to fight for a clearly anti-war platform, to provoke floor fights over foreign policy and the domestic agenda, and to have his name placed in nomination in order to take his message to prime time.
In a one-on-one race, where the Kucinich campaign is about an idea rather than a man, he could turn the tables on the elites. By ditching talk about actually being nominated—which only strains his own credibility—and instead making himself the tribune of the peace and justice movement that is alive and powerful at the grassroots of the Democratic party, Dennis Kucinich could win hundreds of delegates to the 2008 convention. He could renew and redefine the debate in the later primaries and at the convention. He could force the eventual Democratic nominee to listen to the party’s neglected base—which polling suggests is now very close in its thinking to the self-identified independent voters who decide close contests in November—rather than to the Wall Street donors and Washington think tanks that invariably muddle the message once the pundits declare the nomination fight to have been settled. And, maybe, just maybe, Dennis Kucinich could make the Democratic nominee more appealing than a broken political process is supposed to allow.
The challenge for Kucinich is a real one. He can run according to the rules and be a Democratic Harold Stassen, or he can break the rules and make his campaign a redemptive force. To do the former, he need merely continue campaigning as he now is. To do the latter, he must level with himself and with the voters and offer himself up as a representative of the idealistic insurgency that both the party and the country so sorely need.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and Washington correspondent for The Nation. His latest book is “The Genius of Impeachment.”
“When you consider that this war was based on lies, when you consider that Iraq did not attack the United States, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, it is an urgent matter of national morality to determine what the appropriate response is.
“It is time for us to start talking about the legal responsibility of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and all the other war architects who built a case for the war based on lies.
“The very essence of America’s credibility in the world is at stake. Our highest elected officials should be held accountable for actions that resulted in the deaths of more than a million innocent people, particularly when those deaths were based on demonstrable lies.
“It is very important that we start to ask serious questions about accountability. Just as no individual has the right to take another individual’s life, no nation has the right to kill innocent people in another nation. No leader of the United States—in the name of the United States—should be permitted to wage aggressive war with impunity.
“I am preparing a resolution that requests the House meet in the Committee of the Whole to investigate the matter of civilian casualties as well as U.S. troop casualties that have occurred in Iraq. The resolution will recount that the war was based on lies. It will ask the House to consider action, including possibly preferring criminal charges against individuals who in the administrative conduct of office were directly responsible for the war and the consequent loss of life.
“A grave injustice has been done to the people of Iraq and the people of the United States. More than one million lives have been lost. Families have been destroyed. Social networks have been ripped apart. We have had many soldiers killed and injured. This must be acknowledged.
“On a deeper level, the inquiry I am proposing relates to who we are as Americans and what we stand for. I refuse to believe that the American people—people of intelligence and good heart—will not want to see justice done. There must be a measure of justice brought forward so that this deep stain on American history is removed. We must seek the truth, wherever it leads.” –September 19, 2007