Like many progressives, I’ve felt torn between Howard Dean’s and Dennis Kucinich’s respective strengths. I’ve resolved this conflict so far by embracing my indecision and giving money to both. Kucinich has spoken out, eloquently and thoughtfully, taking stands that challenge the conventional wisdom of our time, and point toward powerful long-term alternatives. Dean’s stands are more cautious, but he’s revived the Democratic Party by being willing to challenge Bush on a host of key issues, and brought more ordinary citizens into electoral politics than any Democratic politician in years. When Dean says, “America is not Rome,” it contrasts starkly with an administration that’s tried its best to make us the world’s imperial policeman.
A year ago, a surging global peace movement offered hope, but I saw little to cheer me on the U.S. electoral front. The most prominent Democratic candidates — Kerry, Gephardt, and Lieberman — had just finished helping give Bush his victory on the war vote. In Gephardt’s case, he helped write the resolution, line up the House votes, and take the political postures (literally standing with Bush in a supportive photo op) that made resistance from the Senate far more difficult. Kerry lambasted Bush’s unilateral policies, then turned around and supported them-a piece of political calculation based solely, as far as I can tell, on some astonishingly craven notion of Presidential electability. If possible, Lieberman was more hawkish than Bush on Iraq from the beginning — which shouldn’t surprise us, since Lieberman gained his Senate seat by using the financial support of William F. Buckley to bait moderate Republican Lowell Weickert for being soft on Cuba, and no Democratic Senator north of the Mason-Dixon line has a more conservative record than Lieberman. Although Edwards seemed a decent new face, he also voted for the war and belongs to the Democratic Leadership Council, which has counseled endless accommodation ever since Bush was handed the White House.
I’d vote for any of these candidates over Bush, especially since it seems like we’ll mercifully be spared the choice of Lieberman. But their timidity has carried a cost. From the beginning of Bush’s term, I saw leading Democrats, including these candidates, cave time and again, from refusing to filibuster ultra-right cabinet nominees like John Ashcroft, to equivocating on massively regressive tax policies, to voting for the Patriot Act without even reading it. They might as well have rewritten the classic words from Martin Luther King and the Book of Amos to say, “Let meekness roll down like tepid waters, and politeness like a flowing stream.”
In the November 2002 elections, as Democratic leaders repeatedly capitulated to Bush, ordinary citizens, who would have made a difference had they volunteered to get out the vote, instead stayed home. Everywhere I went, traveling throughout the country lecturing, I saw morale plummeting among those who rejected Bush’s agenda. How could people enthusiastically back a party that seemed terrified to move more than a fraction beyond Bush’s ever more damaging positions. Without the commitment of passionate volunteers, race after critical race went Republican by the narrowest of margins.
Dennis Kucinich, to his profound credit, was bucking this trend. As the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he did his best to organize opposition to Bush’s domestic and foreign policies. He organized significant numbers of Democratic Senators and Congressional representatives to oppose the Iraq war. He’s continued to speak out on the need for equitable tax policies, justice in global trade rules, and how a $400-billion-a-year military budget makes us less safe, not more. He’s helped give voice to a vision of a different America that I find compelling and powerful.
But it’s hard to imagine Kucinich winning the nomination, let alone the Presidency. He’s served only briefly in the House, and as he’s acknowledged, no House member has been elected President since James Garfield. Kucinich’s stands, though they’d be unremarkable in Western Europe, are probably too radical for our corrupted political culture. And I keep having nightmares of potential Republican attack ads hammering away at his being a vegan-using this stand to make the 99% of Americans who aren’t vegans and the 95% who aren’t vegetarians feel like he looks down on them for eating a piece of chicken or drinking a glass of milk: “This is a man who’s so far out of the mainstream,” they might say, “he wants to confiscate your macaroni and cheese.”
Although Kucinich has defeated Republican incumbents for the state legislature and for his Congressional seat, this was in a local context where people knew him personally, and recognized his integrity, intelligence, and track record. National politics is far more susceptible to manipulation. Kucinich’s campaign has continued to raise important issues, in the most far-reaching way. He’s articulated a powerful vision of where we need to go as a country. But his support base has been largely confined to those who voted Green in 2000 or seriously considered doing so. Kucinich is raising critical issues as long as he is in the race, and this may influence the nomination of someone else who’s decent. But backing him will have only an indirect impact on who that someone else will be.
When Howard Dean first challenged the then-pending Iraq war, it was a welcome contrast from the front-line Democratic contenders. But his campaign initially seemed almost as improbable as those of Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley-Braun. I was hoping for someone with greater visibility to jump in-like Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois or Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. But as Dean continued to speak out, he began building a citizen’s movement. By challenging Bush in a way that he presented as utterly mainstream (being a doctor helps), by challenging the Democratic party to return to its roots, and most importantly, by refusing to take a path of timidity, he’s galvanized people’s hopes, giving them something to believe in and act on. He’s succeeded less because of particular policy positions (which, aside from the war, are not so different from those of the other “mainstream” Democratic candidates), than because he’s willing to fight for them, and challenge Bush’s astonishingly regressive path.
Combined with a clearly expressed belief in the power of ordinary citizens to make history, Dean’s momentum has been a direct product of his feistiness. Rather than concentrating on focus-group-honed minutiae that the Republicans can easily switch to their advantage (think of the prescription drug bill), he’s taken on the core questions of who pays our taxes, how we treat our environment, whether we have health care, and how we relate to the rest of the world. He’s challenged Bush on basic premises, not just minute particulars. He’s offered a clear choice instead of the usual blurred one. And with the help of an Internet-savvy campaign staff, he’s emphasized again and again that his campaign will prevail only through the massive participation of ordinary citizens, which has made people feel valued enough to participate.
In recent years, grassroots Democratic campaigns have been fueled almost entirely by participants from existing citizen movements, like environmental and labor activists. The Party has added almost nothing. That Dean’s campaign is actually drawing new people in, as well as mobilizing old stalwarts, is a powerful contribution to democracy, the kind that’s essential if we’re going to turn this country around.
Dean or Kucinich?
January 2004 Issue
Movement-based campaigns aren’t always electable. That’s the critique levied by the pundits and the Democratic right, together with the laughable baiting of Dean as a crazed leftist. But there’s no way a Democratic candidate can beat Bush without vast numbers of ordinary people going beyond their normal routines and comfort zones to help take key issues to their fellow citizens. Beyond this, Dean differs from defeated Democratic standard-bearers in a way that vastly increases his chances of winning: He’s willing to fight. Critics keep raising the specter of George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. McGovern was indeed the candidate of a powerful social movement, but was strangely inept at fighting back. As Nixon baited him unmercifully over his presumed lack of patriotic courage (Republicans have been playing that game for years), McGovern never even mentioned that he’d flown 35 missions as a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II, risking his life every time. Maybe he felt that responding to such despicable attacks was beneath him, but he allowed Nixon to define the terms of debate, and that, combined with the withdrawal of key Democratic sectors like organized labor, made his loss almost inevitable.
Neither Walter Mondale nor Michael Dukakis represented social movements. Both were mainstream candidates backed by party leaders in opposition to Jesse Jackson’s insurgent campaigns. But again, neither was willing to stand up and fight when unfairly baited. They yielded, equivocated, and spent most of their energy grasping for salable images, like Dukakis’s ill-fated attempt to create a photo-op by peeking out of the turret of a tank. They neither stood up to the Republican attacks, nor presented clear and passionate alternatives.
Howard Dean, by contrast, is willing to fight back — an essential quality when facing a political machine as ruthless as the current Republicans. He may sometimes shoot from the hip too much. But from the beginning, he’s stood up for his beliefs. He’s challenged the Republicans on base premises, which will be necessary to have even a shot of unseating Bush. And he’s done this, by and large, without apologizing or equivocating — without giving legitimacy to policies driven by greed and arrogance rather than wisdom. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to unseat Bush with any of the candidates. If we defeat him, the forces that put him in power are hardly going to disappear from the scene. But the best chance we have is to speak the blunt truths about how radically destructive this administration has become to our democracy, and that’s what Dean is doing. He’s passionately involving enough ordinary citizens to have a shot at defeating the politics of money, manipulation, and fear.
I gave my first contribution to Howard Dean last June, then several others since. I’ve also contributed to Kucinich. We’re all going to have to give a whole lot more in time, money, and creativity to overcome Bush’s massive support from the greediest interests in our country. In a month, my state (Washington) holds its caucuses, so I have to make a choice. Wesley Clark has now joined the other candidates as a new alternative, and I appreciate Clark’s willingness to stand up for dissent and think he’d make a fine Vice Presidential candidate. But I’m leery of his praising the Bush tax policies just three years ago (though consider his current tax proposals excellent), wary of his votes for Nixon and Reagan, and worried that he’s equivocated just a bit too much on Iraq. The other major candidates have shown no more courage in the past year that they’ve been running, and in some cases quite the opposite, like Kerry’s and Lieberman’s baiting Dean for favoring an even-handed stance toward Israel and the Palestinians.
This leaves me with Dean or Kucinich. If Kucinich’s role is to raise the best possible issues, even if he’ll never get nominated, I can see arguments for helping him stay in the fray, particularly in states where delegates are allocated proportionately. If Howard Dean wins, there will still be plenty of work for ordinary citizens in building grassroots support for the best of his proposals and challenging him on those we don’t support. I don’t agree with his every stand, but I’m tremendously heartened that a Democratic candidate who stands for something is actually leading the pack. It’s a vast improvement from a year ago, and to the degree the other major Democratic candidates are now speaking out against Bush, Dean deserves much of the credit. If he can keep building enough momentum and lock up the nomination early on, this gives him a much greater chance of winning. And because he’s willing to fight and involve new people, he has a decent shot. To me, that’s a gamble worth risking. Whether its promise is fulfilled may depend on what the rest of us do from this point onward.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. This August, Basic Books will publish his new anthology on political hope, The Impossible Will Take a Little While. See www.paulloeb.org. To receive Loeb’s articles directly, send a blank message to firstname.lastname@example.org