If Ifs and Buts Were Candy and Nuts

People all over this country over the past several months have told me “Dennis Kucinich is my first choice but I’m voting for someone electable.” The largest group of such overly wise disciples of their televisions have always chosen to back Howard Dean as the “electable” next best thing. Yet Dean has now almost proven to be unelectable.
The same compromise (judging by these unions’ long-standing concerns and how those compare to the platforms of Kucinich and Dean) was made by AFSCME, SEIU, CTA, IUPAT, and the New Hampshire NEA. They stood up for what they didn’t believe in. They fought the bad fight. And all for electability that proved to be unelectability.

Kucinich is, of course, also proving unelectable. However, the question of how well Kucinich would have done in the primaries had the media hyped his campaign for the better part of a year will always remain unanswered. He was effectively marginalized and Dean given superstar coverage last Spring when the two were even in the polls. Senators Kerry and Edwards have also been portrayed as serious candidates by the media. When Edwards was even in the polls with Kucinich, the former was labeled a serious candidate who had yet to move, while the latter was labeled a “fringe candidate.”

The question of how Kucinich would have done had those who liked him but deemed him “unelectable” backed him will always be unanswered as well. People who cared passionately about peace or health care or fair trade or civil rights or gay rights but decided that they couldn’t be too greedy have now helped to marginalize their own positions. Surveys have found that the vast majority of Americans support single-payer universal health care. By refusing to support a candidate with that platform, many Americans have proved obedient servants of the media and fine assistants of the for-profit health insurance industry, but poor democrats and self-defeating Democrats. They have helped to take a mainstream position and make it “fringe.”

When the SEIU and AFSCME went with Dean, I was disappointed not just because they were abandoning their principles (the SEIU’s chief concern is universal health care – a phrase Dean utters but a concept he rejects). I was also disappointed because these large organizations seemed to be primarily picking who they thought was likely to win the nomination, effectively discounting the importance of their endorsements as promises to work to help determine who would win.

Now it’s tempting to say that they were right to view themselves as powerless, that the proper strategy is to jump on a bandwagon and hope it’s the winning one. After all, they worked for Dean and he lost. But there are two problems with this.

First, Dean supporters (and the I-like-Kucinich-but supporters of any of the media-approved candidates) can argue that by “electable” they mean “able to beat Bush in November.” Just as I continue to maintain that Kucinich would have been the strongest nominee against Bush, Dean supporters can continue to claim that title belongs to Dean, even though he won’t get the opportunity. However, very, very few I-L-K-Butters have ever made this argument. “Electability” has always been an ill-defined concept that conflated likelihood of winning the nomination with likelihood of winning the election if nominated.

Second, there are endorsements and then there are endorsements. Just because a union president chooses to endorse a candidate does not mean the union’s members will be motivated to work passionately to turn out support for that candidate. It is entirely possible that members of the SEIU and AFSCME and the CTA and so on would have worked harder for a candidate whose positions they strongly supported.

Several months ago, I attended a national convention of the SEIU. I was there with Kucinich and stayed only for his speech. I didn’t listen to the speeches of the other presidential candidates who came through one at a time. But I did watch 1,000 SEIU members repeatedly stand and cheer and yell and sing for Kucinich. The SEIU’s Iowa locals built a thorough website comparing the candidates’ health care plans and ranking Kucinich’s highest.

But SEIU President Andy Stern backed Howard Dean. So did AFSCME President Gerald McEntee. In May, 2003, after seven of the presidential candidates (including Kucinich, Dean, and Gephardt) had given their presentations at an Iowa “Town Hall” meeting organized by AFSCME, a focus group of 30 AFSCME members led by Celinda Lake had rated Rep. Kucinich best among all the candidates. In July, the President of Iowa AFSCME, Jan Corderman, had told The Des Moines Register that Kucinich was the “up-and-comer” in the race. The President of the Iowa Federation of Labor, Mark Smith, had remarked, “Clearly, (the Kucinich campaign) shows some traction.” But the union presidents decide.

Stern and McEntee have published columns opposite but not opposed to each other in the February 16, 2004, issue of “In These Times.” McEntee laments President Bush’s use of the Taft-Hartley Act against labor and then promotes Howard Dean, without indicating that Dean has committed to repealing Taft-Hartley, since he hasn’t. Dennis Kucinich is the one who has done that.

McEntee gets one thing right. He says that we must insist that any Democratic nominee “support a comprehensive social justice agenda, job creation, quality and affordable healthcare for all, the preservation of Medicare and Social Security, civil rights and much more.”

During the general election we will all support whoever the nominee is and pressure him to adopt that platform including specific proposals. But we could have had a head start by using the primaries for what they are for: supporting the candidate whose agenda we most want to see enacted. I intend to address this criticism especially to the CWA (my former union) and other endorsers of Senator Kerry. If he has your endorsement now, and if he wins the nomination, how do you expect to convince him to support your platform?