The Peace Candidate
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Dennis Kucinich is clearly holding down the left end of the bench of Democratic Presidential contenders for 2004. The co-chair of the Progressive Caucus in Congress, an advocate of nonviolence who has proposed that the U.S. government create a Department of Peace, a vegan because he believes in "the sacredness of all species," and a pro-labor environmentalist who marched in the streets of Seattle and Washington, D.C., Kucinich is, without a doubt, the progressive candidate. The argument for his candidacy, unlikely though it may be, is that it represents a point of view the Democrats should be forced to deal with.
The former "boy mayor" of Cleveland, now fifty-six, is the most vocal opponent of war with Iraq in the House of Representatives. A year ago, he began making impassioned speeches on the subject, and lately he's showing up on the talk show circuit as a lonely voice for peace. Meet the Press, Crossfire, Hardball, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, among others, have had him on to debate the Bush Administration's Iraq policy -- though the Washington establishment is not taking his Presidential bid seriously. (The New York Times ranks him somewhere below Al Sharpton as a "viable candidate," and his February announcement in Iowa that he was running was greeted with a resounding shrug by most of the mainstream media.)
Kucinich thinks the pundits are in for a surprise. "They try to make it appear that the positions I'm taking are way out, but they're not," he told me on the phone recently. "As the war effort continues, I think you'll see that more and more people will join in and want to be involved with the campaign."
Steve Cobble agrees. A longtime progressive political strategist who worked for Jesse Jackson, Cobble compares Kucinich to Jackson in 1988. He thinks he could do much better than expected, thanks to the support of people the politicos in Washington don't notice.
"The people who are dismissing Kucinich out of hand are the same people who are shocked by this big anti-war movement that has had such growth in so short a time," says Cobble, who is an adviser to the candidate. Like the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Kucinich is long on big ideas and short on glitz. He is neither tall nor telegenic, neither wealthy nor well connected. And, of course, there's his minimal national name recognition.
But no one voted Ralph Nader "Mr. Charisma" five years ago, Cobble points out, and Nader became a pop star on college campuses during the 2000 campaign. "Young people responded to Nader in 2000," says Cobble. "It was the ideas and the sense of integrity, not blowing in the wind. Dennis is going to give the same vibes."
That's where the comparison to Nader ends, however. "I have no interest in a third party candidacy. None," says Kucinich. "I want to do it the other way -- bring third party candidates into the [Democratic] Party and get support in the primaries." Taking much of Nader's message into the Democratic Party may be a worthy goal. But how far will it get Kucinich?
If a lot of progressives have a hangover from the last Presidential election and are feeling down, Kucinich and his campaign staff are energized by the massive anti-war and anti-globalization demonstrations around the world and by the feeling that a newly active grass-roots movement is rising up and making itself heard.
Kucinich, who opposes NAFTA, is the only candidate proudly giving voice to the fair trade movement. And his opposition to weapons in space and civil liberties violations under the Patriot Act are welcome among a Democratic base eager for a strong opposition to Bush.
"Whereas everyone else says, 'Gee, I'd have used a different airplane, or maybe we should use this missile instead of that one,' he'll be a clarion call for peace," says progressive Wisconsin Democrat and labor lawyer Ed Garvey. Now a supporter of Kucinich, Garvey was moved by the experience of hearing him speak out early against the Iraq war. "The passion and intellectual depth of his speech was really impressive."
Certainly, Kucinich, who quotes long passages of poetry and has a deeply thoughtful, almost starry-eyed quality, is not your usual politician. So is Kucinich the peace movement candidate, as Eugene McCarthy was in 1968?
"This movement precedes a war. The 1968 movement happened years after war began," Kucinich says. His campaign takes on not only war but also a complex array of domestic and international concerns.
Kucinich denounces the Bush Administration's whole political philosophy of "projecting aggression into the world." The issues of his campaign are empire versus democracy, globalization versus equality, war versus peace, a private health insurance system that leaves seventy-five million people intermittently uncovered versus national health care, the Patriot Act versus the Bill of Rights. Get him going, and he'll blow your ears back with a litany of calamitous news.
"People are fearful," Kucinich says. "My candidacy steps forward and says, 'Hey, stop! Hold it!' We're losing what's dear to our country. We have a foreign policy that's setting the stage for new wars. We're talking about first use of nuclear weapons. We still have chemical and biological weapons, which disqualifies us from the chemical and biological weapons treaty. The polar ice caps are still melting. Islands in the Pacific are seeing the water rising. Meteorological changes suggest that global climate change is here to stay. The Kyoto climate change treaty is urgent. The U.S. has to recognize the interconnectedness, interdependence, of the world. We're not doing it. I'm looking at the entire structure of our society and saying, how can government be relevant?"
Whoa! That's Kucinich. Passion and intellectual depth? Yes. Glib pol? Not exactly.
Kucinich has one big problem with a grass-roots, progressive base: His position on abortion. Until last year, he maintained a nearly perfect voting record according to National Right to Life, and scored an absolute zero in the vote tally kept by the National Abortion Rights Action League. Since then, he says, his position has evolved, and he has broken ranks with his former colleagues on anti-abortion legislation.
"I withheld my support on a number of bills in the last year," he says, adding that the aggressive Republican effort to overturn Roe v. Wade persuaded him to help protect women's fundamental constitutional right to abortion.
"I don't believe in abortion, but I do believe in choice," he says.
How does that work?
"I don't believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned," he says. "I've become increasingly uncomfortable with the way the choices are framed in the House of Representatives." He says the Republican assault on Roe v. Wade has become an assault on the Constitution. He now sees the issue as "a question of equality -- whether a woman was going to be equal in society and have constitutional protections. Women will not be equal to men if that constitutionally protected right is denied. Criminalizing abortion is unconstitutional."
Kucinich says he wants to overcome the us-and-them nature of the abortion debate by supporting a kind of nurturing environment for women and children, including full employment, a living wage, universal health care, and affordable and high quality child care. He wants abortion to be legal but rare.
"It's not wrong to support life, and it's not wrong to support a woman's right to choose," he says. "We have to permit both points of view to have expression. But there is a point at which the Constitution cannot be undermined. I've never advocated a constitutional amendment to repeal Roe v. Wade."
Kucinich thinks he can radically change politics in America. He cites his successes as the nation's youngest mayor, standing up to the privatization of Cleveland's public utilities, as well as coming to the aid of its steel industry and its hospitals when they were about to be shut down. "We changed the outcome," he says. "Government presents opportunities for profound creativity."
Cobble cites Barry Goldwater and George McGovern -- dark horse candidates who didn't win the Presidency but transformed politics. "It's worth taking this burgeoning peace movement into the party, whether or not a candidate who voted for the war resolution wins," says Cobble. "We have a group of people in the White House that overtly put empire, first strike, and the occupation of other countries on the table," he adds. "We need a widespread discussion of this, and not many people are volunteering for the job."
Even former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who is running another anti-war candidacy, is not taking on the big picture the way Kucinich is.
"We need someone like Dennis, who has the guts to carry this case," Cobble says.
Says Kucinich: "If I'm able to win some early primaries I'll be able to move these domestic concerns right to the top of the campaign concerns for the party. . . . FDR said in '33 we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We can create a new world. It's possible."
Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.