By David Swanson
Jan. 31, 2004
Back in September I quit the only steady job I’d ever loved to work as press secretary for the Dennis Kucinich for President campaign. In November I published a column explaining why I would do such a thing:
Last week I quit the Kucinich campaign in order to search for a job. I now speak only for myself, not the campaign. I did not quit because I had finally been swayed by the people who thought I was foolish to join the campaign to begin with. I did not do so because I had finally recognized the wisdom of letting Ted Koppel just decide the race for us. I did not do so because enough people to fill a medium-sized town had already voted in Iowa and New Hampshire. I did not do so because of internal failures in the Kucinich campaign. And I did not do so because my estimation of Dennis as compared to the other candidates had shifted – not exactly. I did so because of a conversation that Dennis had with Howard Dean in the back of a sandwich shop in South Carolina and which I have transcribed below.
The fact that Dennis Kucinich’s campaign has advanced as far as it has is remarkable. The left in this country is collectively poisoned and believes it can win by doing what the right does, namely pushing the national agenda toward the right. While this works for the right quite well, for reasons that are obvious to some of us, it doesn’t work well for the left. Although it got Bill Clinton elected to a second term, it did not get Al Gore elected or maintain seats in Congress two years ago or even advance a progressive agenda under Clinton. Nor has it stopped the decline in voter turnout and participation or the increase in corporate influence in our government.
Several months ago, I attended a national convention of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at the Hinkley Hilton in D.C. I was there with Dennis 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 Dennis. When the SEIU later issued a vague press release omitting any mention of Dennis and indicating without any concrete details who some of the candidates were who had allegedly scored high in the members’ voting, I called the head organizer of a large SEIU local. He told me that it just hadn’t been Dennis’ day – that Dennis hadn’t connected, but wouldn’t tell me what the results of the voting had been. This is what we’ve come to: one pro-labor American lying to another in order to adopt a losing strategy as a matter of conscious abandonment of principle. The SEIU’s key issue is health care. Its members support single-payer universal health care. Its Iowa locals built a thorough website comparing the candidates’ health care plans and ranking Dennis’ 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 president decides.
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.
A primary is not the time for our most powerful progressive organizations to deny their own capacity for effecting change and jump on what they ignorantly perceive to be an unstoppable bandwagon. A primary is the time to push for the strongest candidate, the one we believe in, a time to recognize that in a democracy – and we must fight to make this a democracy! – there can be no distinction between the candidate we like and the candidate who is “electable.” The general election is the time to put your power to use for the nominee and begin the talk about spoilers and pragmatism with some sense and logic (and not just the usual self-loathing) behind it.
When we draw a line between what we support and what we believe is achievable or who we believe is “electable,” we have insulted or fellow citizens’ wisdom and internalized a sick subservience to our televisions. But our televisions do not vote and we should not be forced to vote on their behalf. If we want to reduce corporate power in our government, as over 80 percent of Americans say they do, we simply cannot do so following the guidance of the corporate media.
The media made a god of Howard Dean because to them that was an exciting story. They then tore him down and stomped him in the mud because “Frontrunner Stays in Front” is not exciting to people who think they are covering a horse race. Dean didn’t know what hit him, and he started firing the people without whose skill the media never could have lifted him up to begin with. Dennis Kucinich did not have as impressive a field operation and he started later and insisted on doing his job in Congress while others blew theirs off in order to campaign. (A conservative group is suing Congressman Gephardt to recover his salary since he missed over 90 percent of his votes last session.) It would have been harder for the media to make Dennis the frontrunner, but it could have been done.
Dean began 2003 with low poll numbers and little name recognition. Through the Spring, Dean’s and Kucinich’s ratings were within the margin of error of each other. But, beginning in May, Dean received a burst of TV news coverage. That month he was mentioned in thirty TV stories, while Kucinich was not mentioned in any. What followed was a surge by Dean in the polls, making him the frontrunner by the Fall.
A comparison with Sen. Edwards also creates problems for the notion that the media covers the candidates high in the polls and has no effect on which candidates rise in the polls. For much of 2003, both Kucinich and Edwards were stuck in the low-to-mid single digits in both national and Iowa-only polls. Journalists might have written Edwards off as a long-shot and stopped covering his campaign, as they have done with Kucinich. But instead, Edwards received serious, respectful coverage in the months leading up to the Iowa caucus. In November, December, and January he was mentioned in almost 2.5 times as many network TV news stories as Kucinich. By January it paid off, with higher poll numbers and a strong showing in the caucus. It was an impressive victory for Edwards, but it was also a clear illustration of the press’s tendency to arbitrarily exclude some candidates from coverage: The previous summer, with Kucinich and Edwards at similar levels in polls, pundit Joe Klein had called Kucinich a “vanity” candidate while labeling Edwards and Lieberman “serious candidates who have yet to catch fire.” The pattern of media coverage showed that many journalists held similar attitudes.
In fact, when Clark and Lieberman dropped out of Iowa, the New Republic said they were doing so in order to avoid losing to “fringe” candidate Dennis Kucinich. But if he was going to beat them, then what made him “fringe”?
Dennis’ platform is anti-corporate media, and the media knows it. But, thanks to the media, much of the public does not. More people probably know that Kucinich is vegetarian than know that he plans to break up media monopolies and require free air time for political campaigns.
Voters have had little opportunity to consider his message, and as a result his poll numbers have lagged. Journalists have in turn pointed to those same low numbers to justify their unbalanced coverage. Almost a year ago, when Kucinich’s poll ratings were not much different than Dean’s or Edwards’, New York Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney wrote an article suggesting that certain candidates ought to be excluded from future Democratic debates. Who should be left out? Nagourney found a political science professor who hinted that Kucinich should be among the excluded: “Kucinich and Moseley Braun have no chance of getting the nomination,” the professor said.
From then on, the Times largely ignored Kucinich, and most major media outlets followed suit. Over the next three months (March-May), Nagourney’s stories mentioned Kucinich only 13 times. Howard Dean was mentioned 111 times. Yet during those months, polls of registered Democrats showed the two candidates running so close that their levels of support were within the margin of error.
Worse, given that only a fraction of campaign reporting focuses on policy issues, a candidate who receives little coverage receives even less coverage of his policy positions. For example, the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine have each published a “feature” on Kucinich, but neither has seriously addressed his policy proposals. The Washington Post has published one serious policy article on Kucinich, which focused on only a single area of his platform, as well as a couple of dismissive “feature” articles.
A study by MediaChannel.org found that CBS Evening News devoted only 21.4 percent of its overall campaign coverage to policy issues, such as the candidates’ respective stances on the War on Terror, economy, health care, jobs, and education. ABC and NBC newscasts rated little better –33.4 percent and 32 percent, respectively. (The study looked at the period January 1-15.) Yet in a December 2003 poll, American voters told Harris Interactive that the subjects listed above were the five “most important issues for the government to address.”
Another common excuse for biased coverage is a comparison of bank accounts. But Dennis has always been closer in money to some of the “top-tier” candidates than to the others who have been shut out, Ambassador Carol Mosley-Braun and the other progressive in the race Rev. Al Sharpton. In addition, Dennis has long had the highest percentage of his contributions in small amounts and has long had the second highest number of small-money (under $200) donors, behind Dean, but ahead of all other “top-tier” candidates.
Including matching funds, Dennis has raised about $10 million. This is another remarkable achievement and a reflection of the power of his message. He has undoubtedly raised by far the most dollars per media mention of any of the candidates, including the President, and done so despite addressing his message to ordinary Americans and refusing to accept corporate PAC money.
Dennis has reached people through the internet, through the alternative media, through the presidential debates, and – especially – face to face. People who hear him in person and meet him are often so impressed that they volunteer to work long hours for him. And rightly so. He is that admirable a statesman. There is no phony front. There is no pretense. There is no cowardice or calculation in Dennis Kucinich. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from working with him.
Sadly, another of the obstacles that he and his volunteers have overcome is a less than ideal campaign that has often failed to schedule events more than a few hours before they were set to happen and often cancelled them at the last minute. In fairness to the media, it is hard to cover a guy who won’t tell you where he’s going to be tomorrow. Dennis has never had a field operation or a fundraising team or an advertising plan to match the other campaigns or command reluctant respect from the media. And yet, he has created a movement of hundreds of thousands of active volunteers ready to reshape this country in exactly the way that is needed.
Why? Because his platform on key issues stands in contrast to those of most or all of the other candidates, including the President. On various issues he has moved some of the other candidates toward his position, but not yet far enough. If we nominate Dennis, then when the majority of the public finds out that they have a real alternative to Bush, we will unavoidably elect both him and a new Congress. We will effect real reform, including campaign finance reform – complete public financing of elections, a total end to legal bribery. Admittedly, this is a big if. But think about what’s riding on it.
The peace of the world, the lives of our soldiers and Iraqi civilians, the level of Muslim hatred for America, the financial basis of our entire domestic agenda, and our energy strategy which will determine the viability of this planet for human and other life is on the line in Iraq, and all of the candidates and the President (except Rev. Sharpton) stand united in support of continuing an illegal and destructive occupation for years. We may see an attack on Pakistan in hopes of producing Bin Laden as an October surprise. A Bush-lite candidate who voted for the war or supported it three days a week (like Dean) will not defeat a President Bush who has just found Osama. Dennis is the only one with a plan to steer a different course.
Our jobs, the future of the labor movement, the standards of workplaces around the globe, the fate of slave labor, and the rising pollution of our atmosphere are at stake in our trade policies, yet all of the candidates and the President (except the admirable Reverend Al Sharpton) are united in their support for NAFTA and the WTO. Dennis is the only one who will make replacing those agreements with fair bilateral trade policies his first act in office.
We pay more for health care than any other industrialized nation and leave 43 million uncovered and cause 18,000 to die each year while we pour our money into the executive salaries, stock options, lobbying, marketing, advertising, and paperwork of the for-profit health insurance industry – our proud American creation, one that has the full support of all of the other candidates but Sharpton. Only Dennis has a plan, developed with Congressman John Conyers, to end this untenable and reprehensible system and create single-payer universal health care. By universal he actually means universal – covering everyone in the country.
Dennis will end the death penalty, end the war on drugs, shrink the prison-industrial complex, move us to 20 percent renewable energy by 2010, repeal the “PATRIOT Act,” support only justices committed to upholding Roe v. Wade, cut the Pentagon budget by 15 percent without jeopardizing security, create universal preschool for any family that wants it, provide free college tuition to state colleges and universities, shrink primary and secondary class sizes while boosting teacher salaries, prevent the privatization of Social Security and return the retirement age for full benefits to 65, lower and simplify most Americans taxes, close corporate tax loopholes and repeal tax cuts that went to the super wealthy, create a cabinet-level Department of Peace, and create a WPA-type jobs program to restore infrastructure.
It’s far from too late to read about this platform at www.kucinich.us and influence the eventual nominee – be it Dennis or someone else – by voting for Dennis in the primary. That’s what a primary is for. And I intend to vote for Dennis. I’ve changed my registration from Green to Democrat in order to do so. But I won’t work for this campaign anymore because of a conversation Dennis had with Dr. Dean in the back of a sandwich shop in South Carolina. This was the conversation, word for word:
DENNIS KUCINICH: We must put the UN in and pull the US out of Iraq, Howard. The plan I published on October 9th would bring all of our troops home in 90 days. Over what period would you leave our troops in Iraq?
HOWARD DEAN: Over a period of a few years, until the Iraqis really are able to have a democracy which is strong enough not to allow Al Qaeda to emerge and has a constitution that’s widely enough respected so they will not have a fundamentalist Shiite regime. [Exact same words Dean had used live on ABC on Dec. 9, 2003, during presidential candidates debate.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: That’s remarkable. You would leave our troops there for a few years. The lives of over 500 American soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians have already been lost, and we’ve spent $155 billion in Iraq since March 17, 2003. If we stay there for a few more years, as you and the other Democratic candidates and President Bush want, thousands of more lives will be lost, and half a trillion dollars or more will be spent. How will you pay for anything at home? How will you handle the instability that our troops’ continued presence is increasing, not decreasing?
HOWARD DEAN: I do not agree with you that we ought to just pull our troops out. I don’t actually think that’s what you are saying, you want the U.N. to go in. I do, too, but it’s going to be a gradual process, and it is not responsible to simply withdraw our troops from Iraq because the President has created a national security danger in Iraq when none existed before. [Remarkably, the same words that Dean had used in the Des Moines Register presidential candidates debate, Jan. 4, 2004.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: All right, so you’re opposed to a position that you admit I don’t hold. But why should we continue creating the danger that you recognize we’ve been creating? When will it end?
HOWARD DEAN: You don’t have a timetable in something like this. You leave when you can. I’m with you — I don’t believe we can pull out in 90 days. I believe we should pull out as soon as we can, but I can’t give you — it’s not responsible to give you a deadline because there’s work to be done, and until the work is done we can’t leave. [Same words from NPR debate Jan. 6, 2004. Dean is remarkably consistent.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: All right. You’ve made clear that you won’t end this war — it is still a war — any time soon. What do you tell your supporters who favor peace and believe that you are an anti-war candidate? And can you give me an example of what you say to them with a straight face?
HOWARD DEAN: A hundred and thirty thousand troops in Iraq, with no end in sight and a price tag that goes up daily and the best my opponents can do is ask questions today that they should have asked before they supported the war. I opposed the war from the start because I want a foreign policy consistent with American values and I want to reclaim our rights and our liberties that were taken away in the name of patriotism. I’m Howard Dean and I approved this message because only you have the power to restore the dignity and respect that our country deserves. [Incredibly, the exact text of a Dean Campaign television ad.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: Thank you. Maybe I am the only one with that power. I’ll leave that to the voters to decide. But are you now complaining about the occupation that you just finished saying you’d continue for a few years? Have you reversed your position while we’ve been talking here? And are you suggesting that I ever supported the war? Are you claiming that you consistently opposed it?
HOWARD DEAN: Only you had the courage to vote against the war. [From the Nov. 24, 2003, presidential candidates debate.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I appreciate your saying so. But a minute ago you said that your opponents supported the war. I’m having a hard time following. As you know, I was one of the most vocal opponents of the build-up to the war. In fact, a speech I gave in February of 2002 called “A Prayer for America” opposed the build up and flooded my office with requests that I run for President. I was able to organize nearly two-thirds of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote against the war. I sued the President to try to prevent the war. I’ve opposed the war and occupation with everything I’ve got at every step.
HOWARD DEAN: I am the only one who opposed the war from the start and opposed spending another $87 billion there. I have offered up a blueprint to succeed where Bush and the Administration’s Democratic supporters have failed. [A Dean campaign brochure.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: Why are you denying a fact that you just acknowledged? Is it because we’re in the back of a sandwich shop? Would you tell me during a national debate that I supported the war, the war that you now want to continue for a few years, the war that I have devoted the past two years to opposing? The other night in the South Carolina debate you were careful to say “except Dennis,” although you left out “except Reverend Sharpton” when you claimed to be the only war opponent.
HOWARD DEAN: I am the only major candidate for President who opposed the war from the start. [From a Dean campaign brochure.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: Oh, you’re the only major candidate. I’m the only one who had the courage to vote against the war, but I’m not a major candidate? Let me ask you this: You told CNBC that we have no choice about funding the $87 billion. And in the New York Times, you wouldn’t take a position on the $87 billion but said you were for keeping 70,000 troops in Iraq. Do you believe in spending $87 billion to keep our troops in Iraq? Because I don’t. Do you? [From Oct. 10, 2003, presidential candidates debate on CNN.]
HOWARD DEAN: Yes. [From Oct. 10, 2003, presidential candidates debate on CNN.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: You’re for and against the $87 billion. Are you also for and against keeping our troops in Iraq for years, because that will cost more than another $87 billion?
HOWARD DEAN: Well, as you know, I have a reputation for saying exactly what I think. And while the words may not be precise, the meaning is not hard to figure out. [Des Moines Register presidential candidates debate, Jan. 4, 2004.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: You say that you were against the war but are for the occupation, but how do you draw that line, since more soldiers have died since President Bush declared the mission accomplished than prior to that point? What was it about the war that you opposed?
HOWARD DEAN: I think it was a mistake to go into Iraq in the long run. Now that we’re there, we’re stuck there, and the Administration has no plan for how to deal with it, and we cannot leave because losing the peace is not an option. We cannot leave Iraq. [Aug. 12, 2003, on ” Buchanan & Press” on MSNBC]
DENNIS KUCINICH: Losing the peace? We’re destabilizing the region. Muslim leaders — leaders of many more people than we have on the ground there — are calling for free elections. Our Army has already refused to discharge 40,000 soldiers at their expected dates, effectively drafting them on the day they fulfill their obligations. If the insurgency continues to expand, we will see a more traditional draft as well. Now, I understand that you want to extend draft registration to women.
HOWARD DEAN: I disagree with you, Dennis, because the reason is, yes 18 year old young women should be able to register, and the reason for that is that if you have different standards, that begins the path towards discrimination. [Planned Parenthood Forum on Nov. 5, 2003.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: You’re right, my friend. We do disagree. I think that the militarization of this society presents a real challenge to our future. We need to make a transition away from a society that spends $400 billion dollars a year on the military, away from a society that puts aside programs for education, health and housing in favor of the military. I want to encourage all young people to serve their country, in the same way that President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But we have to move away from the militarization of thought, and that’s what’s behind my proposal for the cabinet level Department of Peace, which I have introduced in a bill in Congress.
HOWARD DEAN: I’m not in Congress. [Spoken to a reporter on Sep. 8, 2003, when asked whether he would spend $87 billion more on Iraq. Cited by Tom Curry of MSNBC in Dec. 18, 2003, column.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: I know you’re not in Congress, but you still have to make decisions on important issues before Congress. Would you agree that the war and occupation has been the most important issue before Congress in the past two years?
HOWARD DEAN: I doubt that very much. I’m running for president. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to tell you how I face an issue that is not of my making. [Quoted by Tom Curry of MSNBC in Dec. 18, 2003, column.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: Frankly, Howard, it seems that you either try to avoid making decisions or you blurt out what you think your immediate audience wants to hear. When you have had to make decisions, such as when you were a governor, you try to keep those decisions secret. Can you imagine if Congressional voting records were secret what this campaign would look like? But your record as Governor of Vermont is secret. Why is that?
HOWARD DEAN: I want a foreign policy that is consistent with American values. I find it hard to believe that I’m the only major candidate running, who’s in reasonably good shape in the polls, who voted “No” on the Iraq Resolution. [Take Back America Conference, June 5, 2003.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: I find that extremely hard to believe, Howard, since you were not a member of Congress and did not have to vote yes or no on that resolution. This is what I mean about just blurting things out. You didn’t have to vote, Howard. If you had, we could avoid all your endless shifting of position for and against the war. You would then be on record, either supporting the war as Senators Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman did, or opposing it as I did. Now, do you believe that Iraq really posed an imminent threat to the United States or not?
HOWARD DEAN: I agree with President Bush — he has said that Saddam Hussein is evil. And he is. He is a vicious dictator and a documented deceiver. He has invaded his neighbors, used chemical arms, and failed to account for all the chemical and biological weapons he had before the Gulf War. He has murdered dissidents, and refused to comply with his obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolutions. And he has tried to build a nuclear bomb. Anyone who believes in the importance of limiting the spread of weapons of mass killing, the value of democracy, and the centrality of human rights must agree that Saddam Hussein is a menace. [February 17, 2003, statement on Dean campaign website.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: But the weapons of mass destruction have not been found. And Saddam Hussein has already been captured. Why stay in Iraq now?
HOWARD DEAN: I never said Saddam was a danger to the United States, ever. [Dec. 10, 2003, news conference in Concord, N.H., quoted in Dec. 18, 2003, Los Angeles Times.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: You didn’t?
HOWARD DEAN: There’s no question Saddam was a threat to the U.S. and our allies. [Sep. 29, 2002, “Face the Nation” on CBS.]
DENNIS KUCINICH: So, he had weapons that could reach the United States? And we’re safer with him captured?
HOWARD DEAN: Senator Lieberman said that we were safer now that Saddam has been caught; I beg to differ. Since Saddam Hussein has been caught — who’s a dreadful person. I’m delighted to see him behind bars, and I hope he gets what he deserves. But the fact is, since Saddam Hussein has been caught, we’ve lost 23 additional troops; we now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace. [Des Moines Register presidential candidates debate, Jan. 4, 2004]
DENNIS KUCINICH: What would you propose we do now?
HOWARD DEAN: A NATO-led coalition should maintain order and guarantee disarmament