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
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
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.