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Conscience of the Convention

For a candidate who failed to win a single presidential primary, Dennis Kucinich has an impressively healthy sense of his own importance. Last month, Kucinich – the only Democrat other than John Kerry still actively running – opened his Democratic National Convention headquarters in a cramped fourth-floor office on Temple Place, just off Boston Common. Addressing his assembled supporters by speakerphone from Oregon, where he was campaigning in the run-up to the May 18 primary, the Ohio congressman promised to push the party to the left when the convention opens in July.

"We'll have dozens of delegates inside the convention, but we'll have thousands of people in the streets of Boston," Kucinich declared. "We can put pressure on the party to take the right positions on civil liberties, health care, Iraq, and the Patriot Act. We're going to be the conscience of the party. And that will help the Democrats win."

Strong words, coming from someone who's heading into the convention with 68 of the party's 4300-some delegates. When the battle for the Democratic nomination was still going strong and televised debates gave Kucinich regular access to a national audience, few voters saw his agenda – which includes immediate American withdrawal from Iraq and NAFTA, and the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Peace – as viable. There's no reason that should change during a convention focused on selling John Kerry as an electable centrist.

But Kucinich's self-assurance is equaled – and perhaps enabled – by his distinct lack of pragmatism. In a recent phone interview, I asked Kucinich if any Democratic leaders had urged him to quit campaigning. He answered with a loud guffaw and a prickly, pedantic rejoinder that spoke volumes about how and why he persists. "Never," Kucinich said after he finished laughing. "I mean, not at all. I don't even think in those terms. If you don't think in those terms, somehow it just doesn't happen to you." After a pause, he continued: "I want you to think about that now. I don't live in a world like that. Maybe other people do."

It was clear early in the Democratic-primary campaign that Kucinich faced long odds. Some of his problems were substantive: when Howard Dean seized the anti-war mantle, Kucinich – who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and led opposition to the Iraq-war resolution in the House – saw his most appealing stand co-opted by a competitor. Low poll numbers, small fundraising totals, and a string of poor finishes didn't help his cause, either. Other problems, however superficial in nature, were no less damaging. Kucinich is a small man with lank, unkempt hair and large ears; rather than fitting the standard image of a presidential candidate, he looks like a dour elf – one whose manner is often brittle and who, for good measure, just happens to be a vegan.

Still, Kucinich persevered. And though few pundits or voters ever saw him as a serious contender, his doggedness earned the grudging respect of some once-skeptical observers. Kucinich's shining moment came in a University of New Hampshire debate last December, when he scolded moderator Ted Koppel for his fixation on inside-baseball questions and was cheered by a grateful audience. The relentlessly idealistic congressman also engaged in some old-fashioned horse-trading in the Iowa caucuses, engineering a vote swap with North Carolina senator John Edwards that added intrigue to the event and may have helped Edwards, who finished second, increase his margin over the third-place Dean. And in the "Who Wants To Be a First Lady" contest sponsored by PoliticsNH.com, Kucinich signaled a William Shatner-esque willingness to refashion himself as an ironic pop icon.

Kucinich wasn't the only long-shot candidate in the Democratic field, which included the Reverend Al Sharpton and former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. But he never seemed to realize that he almost certainly wouldn't be the nominee. Quite the contrary – on the day of the Iowa caucuses, Kucinich pondered a scenario in which he would emerge from a deadlocked convention as the Democratic Party's nominee, telling the Associated Press: "It is inevitable, really." As other, more viable candidates bowed out, Kucinich stuck around, only conceding after Super Tuesday that he would not, in fact, become president.

The cynical explanation for Kucinich's persistence is that he came to crave the media spotlight and the adulation showered on him by die-hard supporters, and merely said what was necessary to justify his continued presence in the race. "This is a guy who would eat publicity morning, noon, and night," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "I like to call him the House equivalent of John McCain. He can't get enough press or enough TV time."

Even some of Kucinich's ideological compatriots were annoyed by his apparent obliviousness. "The thing that bothered me about Dennis was that he would never admit the unreality of what he was doing," says former Nation editor Micah Sifry. "Had he done that, he would have been more real right away – 'You know what, folks, this is a long-shot bid. I know how hard this may be, and we may not get there.' But he was always saying he was going all the way, that he was going to be the next nominee. And it made a lot of people say, 'This guy is nuts.'"

But neither Sabato nor Sifry takes into account Kucinich's zealous faith in the power of positive thinking. For Kucinich – who surmounted occasional homelessness as a child to become mayor of Cleveland at the age of 31 – conceptual frameworks rather than practical considerations dictate what can and can't happen. The congressman cites the Romantic poets as major personal influences. He keeps an anthology of Percy Bysshe Shelley's work – open to Prometheus Unbound – on the desk of his Capitol Hill office, and often closes stump speeches with a line from Tennyson's "Ulysses": "Come, my friends,/ 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." In addition, Kucinich is close to Marianne Williamson, a prolific New Age author whose organization, the Global Renaissance Alliance, advocates the creation of a Department of Peace.

(The Global Renaissance Alliance also champions the use of "peace circles," in which participants use prayer, silent meditation, and visualization exercises to create a "grid of mystical power that will shield the world from its own insanity, and move through the fear to the love." The group's former peace-circles coordinator served as California coordinator for the Kucinich campaign and later as an assistant to Kucinich's national-campaign manager.)

These views haven't hurt Kucinich in his congressional district, which includes Cleveland's liberal West Side: in 2002, he was re-elected with 74 percent of the vote, and tallied 85 percent in this spring's Democratic congressional primary. But for most of the nation's voters, this New Age tinge made it easy to dismiss him as a marginal eccentric. Yet Kucinich insists he never finds it frustrating or disheartening to advocate views that don't jibe with the cultural mainstream. "You just have to keep your heart open," he says. "And as long as you do that, anything can happen. Success always comes to those who have the ability to envision different ways of looking at things." Before Kerry gained a mathematical lock on the nomination, Kucinich's continued optimism had a neat and unassailable internal logic: he could still become president for the simple reason that he still believed it was possible.

Although Kucinich admits he won't be the Democratic nominee, he now insists that he can become the Democratic Party's ideological architect – an equally quixotic ambition. How, exactly, does he intend to do this? Partly through a Web-based petition drive aimed at shaping the Democratic platform to suit his priorities: immediate transfer of US military authority in Iraq to UN forces; universal health care; withdrawal from NAFTA and the World Trade Organization; repeal of the Patriot Act; creation of a US Department of Peace; and comprehensive affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. (Kucinich, who spoke at last weekend's Boston Gay Pride celebration, has been a consistently vocal supporter of full-marriage rights for gays and lesbians.)

His campaign is also planning daily workshops on progressive issues during the July national convention, as well as evening "street actions" and an anti-war candlelight vigil on the closing night of the proceedings. Asked how observers will be able to gauge whether he succeeds, Kucinich answers – true to form – in doubt-free terms: "When the delegates are canvassed, and it's declared that they stand for getting out of Iraq. For ending the Patriot Act. For health care for all Americans. For fair trade."

Yet again, the jaded might say that Kucinich is milking his Warholian 15 minutes a bit too long. His chances of shaping the party's platform aren't much better than his chances of being elected president were. The vast majority of delegates at the FleetCenter will have one priority – helping John Kerry beat George W. Bush – and while some of Kucinich's positions may exercise considerable appeal, it's a safe bet that this year's Democratic platform will be the one Kerry's camp deems most likely to serve that goal.

If Kucinich had more delegates, something unexpected and dramatic might happen. But even some Kucinich boosters concede their candidate probably lacks the leverage to have much effect. "I hope he raises a fuss, because after all, he represents a very large part of the Democratic Party, which is not represented by John Kerry," says Howard Zinn, who belongs to a long list of prominent left-leaning Kucinich endorsers. "But how he can actually make that representation practical and meaningful at the convention.... Can he have an effect on the platform? I don't know. These conventions are controlled by the dominant force in the party, and Kerry is the dominant force."

Of course, Kucinich himself is more sanguine. As he sees it, a Kucinich-engineered makeover of the Democratic Party is not only possible, but has the potential to spur a revolution in American government. "If our party took a clear and strong stand to support universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care, I think you'd have people lining up on Election Day to vote Democrat," he says. "It's both pragmatic and principled to do that. The question is, will we? I think the Democrats are ready for a real shift. And I think a Democratic sweep" – taking control of the House, the Senate, and the White House – "could be generated out of this convention if it's done right. It's the message that I have been carrying, right from the beginning, that may prove to be the winning combination for the Democrats."

In a statement e-mailed to the Phoenix, Democratic National Convention Committee, chair Alice Huffman praised Kucinich and welcomed his participation in the convention. But while Kucinich dreams of a sort of Gingrichian role, anything beyond a token convention appearance could make him the Democrats' version of Pat Buchanan, who alienated moderate voters at the 1992 Republican Convention by showcasing the GOP's most extreme views. Chances are slim that convention organizers will work to showcase Kucinich next month.

There is one way he might actually manage to affect the 2004 election, however: by convincing potential supporters of independent candidate Ralph Nader to vote Democratic. Last year, Nader urged voters to support Kucinich in the Democratic primaries, and in October 2003 the two headlined a rally in Washington, DC, sponsored by Democracy Rising, Nader's progressive organization. Earlier this month, however, Kucinich said he couldn't remember the last time he and Nader talked. And whatever ideological affinity the two men may share, it seems clear Kucinich sees his role – at least in part – as heading off the challenge Nader poses on the left. "There has to be a place inside the Democratic Party for people who are standing strong for peace, for civil liberties, for health care, for fair trade," he says. "And as long as there are spokespersons inside the party who'll reach out and keep trying to attract people in, as long as we continue to work with the party to try to shape its direction, there's always a chance that we can bring people in to support the Democrats."

If the course of the campaign had unfolded differently – if, say, Dean had decided to remain in Montpelier rather than seeking higher office – might Kucinich have parlayed his anti-war stance into a bigger role, however briefly? It's impossible to say. But it's unlikely Kucinich, even without Dean in the field, could ever have served as this year's Eugene McCarthy, whose near-miss 1968 presidential-nomination bid delivered a stinging anti-war rebuke to incumbent Lyndon Johnson and rocked the Democratic Party. As already noted, Kucinich's look and often testy manner pose serious liabilities. (When I asked him if he might create a new progressive organization, à la Howard Dean, Kucinich offered the following comeback, capped by a derisive snort: "There's no question that I intend to create a new progressive organization. It's called the Democratic Party.")

He also lacks the centrist trappings that helped Dean mitigate his anti-war stance. Instead, his eager embrace of the Democratic Party's far-left elements, as well as his backing from fringe groups like the Natural Law Party, severely circumscribes his appeal. "In many ways, Dennis is an admirable and valiant fellow, and his politics are not the politics of convenience," says Doug Ireland, a veteran left-leaning political journalist. "He is a genuine left populist. But if you're going to run a message campaign, I think he could have had a much more effective strategy for collaring broad swaths of the Democratic electorate. I think Dennis should have spent a lot more time talking to working-class Democrats and a lot less time talking to New Age festivals and vegetarian tofu suppers."

Whatever opportunities Kucinich may have missed, it's almost certain he'll be an obscure footnote when the history of the 2004 campaign is written, a long-forgotten name occasionally dropped by political junkies to showcase their mastery of presidential arcana. "It's irrelevant, it's over, he did miserably," Sabato says. "What else can you say?" Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank – a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – is gentler, but no less pessimistic about Kucinich's chances of influencing either the convention or the general-election campaign. "The problem Dennis runs into isn't just that he didn't get delegates, but that he didn't get a lot of votes," Frank says. "Jesse Jackson made his candidacy work in 1984 and 1988 in the primaries, and I think Jackson did have an impact on the party, in terms of making sure that the Democrats stayed with affirmative action. In Dennis's case, the problem is that he just didn't do well enough in the primaries to get a lot of clout."

Frank's Massachusetts colleague Mike Capuano, also a Progressive Caucus member, suggests that's a good thing. "I like and respect Dennis's enthusiasm," Capuano says. "But we have a candidate. And anyone who cannot see that John Kerry's victory this fall would better serve the progressive agenda than anything else we can do between now and November, I would strongly disagree with. That's exactly why we lost the White House so many times in the last 30 years."

And after the election? Kucinich supporters hope he'll labor for years to energize the Democrats' left wing. "He's fairly young, and the Democratic Party is going to be badly in need of a gadfly for some time to come," Zinn says. "Just the very fact that John Kerry is the Democratic candidate shows that, and the power of the Democratic Leadership Council within the party. There'll be a great need for somebody like him, and I think he's likely to play that kind of role for a number of years, until the Democratic Party begins to move out of its lethargy."

But Kucinich's optimism about transforming the party may gradually be eroded by a general lack of interest in his agenda among Democratic politicians and voters. Time will tell whether he can reconcile the probable disconnect between his lofty expectations and what he's actually able to accomplish.

Not surprisingly, however, Kucinich is bullish about his legacy. Asked what historians will say about him in 50 years, he offers the following: "They'll say, 'How does the guy keep going?'" In 100 years? "They'll say, 'He's slowing down.'" With any other politician, it would be easy to dismiss these comments as hokey jokes. The perplexing thing about Kucinich is that you can't be sure he's kidding.

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