OUR QUADRENNIAL political cattle call has begun in earnest, with nine Democrats vying for the dubious privilege of sparring with George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. As usual, the mainstream media have already conveniently packaged the candidates for the American political consumer: There are the ?usual suspects? (Beltway insiders John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Gephardt), the Southerners (John Edwards and Bob Graham), the feisty ?outsider? (former Vermont governor Howard Dean), and the ?race card? (Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun). Then there?s Dennis Kucinich.
Dennis Kucinich for president?
If you?re looking for a word to describe your reaction to that announcement, you might try absurd. Or how about ludicrous? Here?s a 56-year-old congressman from a Rust Belt state with virtually no name recognition, no money, and a political r?sum? that only his opponents could love (Cleveland went bankrupt while he was mayor). He hangs out with New Age notables (Shirley MacLaine is his daughter?s godmother, Marianne Williamson a political adviser), confounds liberals with his pro-life/pro-choice abortion stand (he?s so serious about the sanctity of life that he eats a vegan diet, but does support Roe v. Wade), and believes the cornerstones of civilization consist of ?polka, bowling, and kielbasa.?
And he has said things in public that no sane candidate would repeat: that Bush acted illegally in invading Iraq; that the administration is using 9/11 to ?achieve the militarization of thought in our culture? in a campaign with ?Orwellian overtones?; that the United States should withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); that there should be a Department of Peace; that America needs to develop a ?holistic worldview of interdependence, where diplomacy is used to create a world where we can make war archaic.?
In the murky world that is mass- media presidential campaigning, where speaking vaguely about broader health insurance coverage is considered tantamount to preaching Bolshevism, candidates like Kucinich are typically filed under the category ?hopeless cause.? Yet, in a wide-open nomination race with no clear favorites, ?Dennis the Menace? can?t really be ignored. Kucinich spoke out against the war and Bush?s manipulation of 9/11 as a political tool early?long before Howard Dean raised the issue?and these positions resonate strongly with a significant portion of the hard-core Democratic Party activists who will shape the early primary results. Unlike Kerry, Graham, Lieberman, and Edwards in the Senate, and Gephardt in the House, Kucinich actually voted against the suddenly much-maligned Patriot Act. His opposition to unbridled free trade plays well with the labor crowd (he told labor leaders in Iowa during a March campaign visit that he?d preside over a ?Workers? White House?); plus, he?s green enough to attract attention from the environmental wing of the party.
All of which may still add up to a whole lot of nothing, electorally speaking, because Kucinich is not green in another way: He has raised less than a million dollars at this writing and has opened campaign offices in only three states (Ohio, Iowa, California). Meanwhile, the cries of ?spoiler? are beginning to rise. In a recent column for the liberal Web site workingforchange.com, Alexander Cockburn lamented the arrival of influential leftists Barbara Ehrenreich and Marcus Raskin on the Kucinich bandwagon. ?Though he?s hotly touted across the progressive spectrum, Kucinich hasn?t a prayer of becoming a serious contender,? Cockburn writes, ?and I?m amazed to see people like Ehrenreich acting as the Pied Piper, calling all the erstwhile Greens, the Natural Law Party, and other exiles back under the Big Top.?
Still, Kucinich has surprised his critics before. At 31, the youngest mayor ever to lead a major U.S. city, he was considered finished in politics in 1978, when he couldn?t keep the city from sliding into default. (Kucinich had refused to sell Cleveland?s municipal power company to cover $14.5 million in bond obligations.) But 16 years later, he resurfaced to grab a state senate seat, and then in 1996 surprised almost everyone by knocking off a Republican congressman.
And while the odds are certainly against Kucinich?s winning the big prize next year, his candidacy may be worth watching. After all, it?s Cockburn?s so-called ?exiles? who at one time helped distinguish the Democratic Party from the party of Karl Rove, John Ashcroft, and King George II?a distinction that has faded to near nothingness in recent years and one that Kucinich would like to delineate a bit more sharply this time around. ?I see this election as a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,? he told In These Times in March.
If the former ?Boy Wonder? of Cleveland and his ?unconventional? positions can nudge the debate even slightly beyond the made-for-TV parameters that this campaign would otherwise navigate, then he?ll have done his party?and maybe even the country?a huge favor.
Craig Cox is executive editor of Utne.