Give Kucinich a Chance
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On February 17, 2002, speaking before members of the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich delivered an impassioned, poetic denunciation of the Bush administration's policies and a hopeful, progressive vision of American patriotism. Without his knowledge, the president of ADA afterward e-mailed friends a copy of the speech, titled "A Prayer for America," with Kucinich's e-mail address attached. The speech fanned out across the Web, and soon more than 25,000 enthusiastic fan letters flooded in, with requests to speak across the country.
Precisely one year later, Kucinich was at the Adventureland Hotel just east of snowbound Des Moines, announcing to a group of Iowa labor leaders that he was exploring a presidential run. The field of candidates was already crowded and is likely to grow even larger, including contenders who are better known and better funded than Kucinich. But Kucinich's long-shot candidacy was greeted enthusiastically by Iowa progressives, who hope his forceful critique of Bush's Iraq policy will shape the presidential debate over the coming year. Kucinich's outspoken leadership on Iraq, labor, health care, globalization and other issues has the potential to mobilize a movement to give him a very strong standing in next January's party caucus meetings, where progressives usually have a strong presence.
In the late '70s, Kucinich, the son of a poor, inner-city, blue-collar family, burst on the national political scene as the progressive "boy mayor" of Cleveland, duking it out with the city's establishment to save the municipal power company. He won that fight but lost the mayor's office, spending years as a college lecturer and TV reporter before returning to politics. Elected to the state Senate in 1994, he defeated a Republican incumbent in 1996 to win his congressional seat.
As co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, Kucinich, 56, has been a leader in fights against unfair trade agreements, the USA Patriot Act, the war in Iraq and privatization of Social Security. He also has been a vigorous advocate of unions and workers rights as well as national health insurance. He has departed from a consistently progressive record mainly on abortion, where he has almost uniformly voted against pro-choice positions. He now says that he supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose, but expresses hope that education about sex and personal responsibilities as well as better social and economic policies can make abortion less necessary.
But beyond his leadership, voting record and forthright positions on a wide range of issues, including such political hot buttons as opposition to capital punishment, Kucinich is unusual in the way he links together foreign and domestic policy to a vision of America--and of a revived Democratic Party in the mold of FDR--which he expresses in a prophetic, Whitman-esque style.
Kucinich opposes war in Iraq on a variety of counts. He joined a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a war without congressional authorization. He argues that "the administration has not made a case to attack Iraq, but they set about a course of action that borders on fabricating a case to attack Iraq. The attack on Iraq derives from ideology more than facts."
Citing Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," Kucinich argues that immediately after September 11, 2001, the administration sought to use the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an excuse for war against Iraq. The White House has opposed any inquiry into 9/11, Kucinich says, because it would demonstrate there's no link with Iraq. "I believe the country has a right to defend itself," says Kucinich, who voted to authorize Bush to respond to 9/11. "But the administration seized 9/11 as a way to run an agenda for empire."
"This administration is saying we're going to establish an American imperium, and nobody is going to stop any of our efforts to advance economic interests or military interests," he adds, singling out the administration's National Security Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and the statements of people like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as evidence of this imperial strategy. "This Bush administration is trying to achieve the militarization of thought in our culture. They've achieved a level of fear with Orwellian overtones."
Rather than wage war against Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Kucinich argues that the most effective response would have been "international cooperation in police work, detective work, tracking people down. If police work becomes impossible because governments provide support for the criminals, then it's important for the international community to be involved in other steps to bring criminals to justice. ... That's why I have supported the International Criminal Court."
Kucinich worries that war in Iraq will unleash new terrorist attacks and further isolate the United States. If elected, he would fight terrorism with "bread, not bombs" and by strengthening "a foreign policy which rejects unilateralism, interventionism, preemption and a first-strike option with nuclear weapons."
Instead of pursuing international treaties to control arms and protect the environment, he says, "what's happening now is we're sealing ourselves off from the rest of the world with duct tape and plastic, with orange lights flashing garishly in the night."
Although he supported a resolution calling for regime change in Iraq, Kucinich rejects a war now even under U.N. authorization, since "the United States is clearly trying to drag the United Nations into this war. If the United States worked cooperatively with the United Nations for a peaceful solution, guess what? That's what we'd have."
Saddam can be contained not only with inspection, he says, but the overwhelming deterrent threat of American military force. Despite Saddam's record, which includes years of U.S. support, Kucinich adds, "There are a lot of regimes that need to be changed in the world. It's not the job of America to change any regime, save perhaps our own."
Kucinich's political prospects clearly hinge on the popular response to war with Iraq, but he is not campaigning solely as a peace candidate. "I'm the peace candidate," he says. "I'm the environmental candidate. I'm the repeal-NAFTA candidate. I'm the candidate for international cooperation. I'm the candidate for civil liberties. I'm the candidate for education. I'm the candidate for universal health care. I'm the candidate to preserve Social Security from privatization."
He told Iowa labor leaders that, if elected, he would put his union card on his desk and declare 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as "Workers Local No. 1." In a speech that was elegantly written by Kucinich himself, if not especially well-delivered, he promised a "Workers White House" that would withdraw from NAFTA, emphasize workers rights and environmental protection in future bilateral trade agreements, promote collective bargaining, and eliminate social weapons of mass destruction. "Joblessness is a weapon of mass destruction," he says. "Crushing poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction."
The Bush administration has no money for health care, childcare, living wages, Social Security or Medicare, he says, "only money for tax cuts for the rich and only money for war. That's your money they're spending to send your sons and daughters to war."
"I see this election as a being a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party," Kucinich says. "What I think I can do is not only change the debate in this election, but bring to the White House a presidency that will change the direction of America away from unilateralism and pre-emption to a holistic worldview of interdependence, where diplomacy is used to create a world where we can make war archaic."
As Iowa union leaders gathered in the Adventureland bar after Kucinich and the rest of the panel of presidential candidates spoke, reactions were divided. A few pro-war workers, including a group of firefighters and a Rock Island arsenal employee, liked what he said, except for the war, though one thought he was "kind of a wild man."
But overall Kucinich and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean were viewed more favorably than Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards. "I like Kucinich talking about having a worker in the White House," says Barb Harrington, a Communications Workers local officer.
"I don't know if he can do it, but it's time to support someone you believe in," says state Postal Workers President Bruce Clark. "I think he's the best thing since [the late Sen. Paul] Wellstone came along."
Fred Noon, president of a Laborers local and a Vietnam vet, is enthusiastic about Kucinich's views on Iraq and his support for single-payer national health insurance. "It's not an answer," he says. "It's the only answer."
It's a long slog until the caucuses. Kucinich doesn't even have an Iowa organization, and more prominent candidates have already snapped up veteran organizers. But Iowa progressives seem cheered by his candidacy. "I think his prospects are good because of the war," says David Osterberg, director of the Iowa Policy Project. "Kucinich identifies this as part of something bigger--globalization--that benefits a few corporations and high-paid CEOs and doesn't help Americans in general."
"I think he and others that we're hearing will help move the entire Democratic delegation to a more progressive point of view on war and peace issues," says Chuck Day, chairman of Star-PAC, a politically active peace group. "Howard Dean declared his candidacy before Kucinich, but you'd have to put him right at the top of the list on this issue."
Kucinich will have serious competition, even for the issue-oriented progressive vote, to rise out of what's now seen as the second tier of candidates, let alone become a real contender for the nomination. But as the prospect of war looms, his prayer for a more humane, less imperial America is striking a chord in many Democratic hearts.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. Recently he has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.