By David Swanson
When someone whose opinions I respect as much as John Nichols’ joins those who have been saying since 2003 that Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich should announce that he’s not REALLY running for president, I feel compelled to reply.
Nichols, like most Americans, supports the same policy positions that I do and that Kucinich does. Nichols would end foreign occupations, cancel NAFTA, create single-payer health coverage, invest in education and green energy, bust media monopolies, and impeach Bush and Cheney. Nichols believes, in fact, that Kucinich is too good a candidate to succeed in our electoral system. But he believes that Kucinich can have a major impact on the other candidates and on Congress if he continues to run while telling everyone that he does not intend to win.
Nichols lists Bill Richardson as one of the “more prominent and moneyed” candidates who is supposedly stealing Kucinich’s thunder, even though Richardson has been trailing Kucinich in the polls. In fact, the demand that Kucinich not be a real candidate has never quite held up even on its own terms, namely that candidates trailing in polls and cash should step back. If Kucinich were merely trailing in polls and cash, I doubt any progressives would be urging him to concede. What Kucinich has always decisively trailed in is support from the corporate media.
Imagine if G.E. and Disney and Viacom all shut Kucinich out, mocked and ridiculed him, and “reported” on his non-viability, exactly as they’ve done for the past four years, but that nobody who agrees with Kucinich played along. Imagine if labor unions backed the most pro-labor candidate. Imagine if peace activists backed the most pro-peace candidate. Imagine if health advocates backed the candidate with the best health coverage plan. Et cetera. And imagine if progressive media outlets and bloggers refused to take their marching orders from the corporate media. Of course, this is not the world we now live in, and that’s not John Nichols’ fault. But the progressive proposal that Kucinich concede is a reworking of the corporate demand that he concede and would not exist without it. Last time around, the New York Times asked Kucinich to quit the race before the race had started and before the New York Times had told anyone what Kucinich proposed for the presidency. The progressive demand that Kucinich back down is a direct descendant of that New York Times article.
Fox News would love for Kucinich to agree that he is not a real candidate, but Fox would hate for Kucinich to disappear altogether. Having him around to attack serves Fox’s purposes. Nichols would have Kucinich do exactly what Fox would have him do, announce that he is not running to win but running to influence others. Nichols and others who take his position do not see this as backing down, but as being smart and strategic. It’s probably neither.
Of course, for any given individual debating whether to send money to Kucinich or support him in any way, the primary motivation should be influencing the other candidates and the Congress. There is an urgent need to influence our national politics, and giving Kucinich’s campaign a boost would be one of the easiest and, indeed, most viable ways to do it. Flooding Congress with phone calls and Emails and faxes doesn’t work very well. Marching a half million people around the Capitol on a Saturday has no noticeable impact. Boycotting your most hated corporations tends not to change Nancy Pelosi’s mind on anything. Creative civil disobedience can work very well and requires minimal resources, but most people prefer to write checks, letters to editors, and blogs.
But here’s the thing: People who want to support Kucinich in order to influence Pelosi or Clinton or Reid or Edwards can do so RIGHT NOW. They always could. If Kucinich announces that he’s not trying to actually win, strategic support for him will gain nothing. But other support for him will be lost, including his own support. There are those, including the candidate himself, who are motivated by either the belief that he can win or the belief that our democracy can be defended through a principled refusal not to bow down to our televisions.
By all means, Kucinich should ask people to support him in order to impact the national conversation. But Kucinich reduced to a one-man activist organization would lose what little impact he has as a full-fledged candidate. How often do you see spokespeople for progressive activist groups on TV?
By all means, Kucinich should stop predicting with absolute certainty that he will be the next president. But he should not make the fatal mistake (fatal for our electoral system) of conceding that he will NOT be the next president. He should leave the predictions to the pundits, as we citizens should do as well.
Here’s something else we should do. Get up every morning and write a check for $5 to Kucinich for President. In the little note line in the corner, write “Thanks for Impeachment.” Photocopy the check and send the copies to Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Paul, Pelosi, Conyers, and Schumer. Then send the original check to Kucinich. Repeat daily until satisfactory results achieved.
Democracy for America (DFA) is a grassroots group closely tied to the Democratic Party and born out of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, many of the supporters of which favored positions like those of Kucinich. Kucinich is currently leading in DFA’s unscientific online poll. Last spring, Kucinich finished third in a DFA poll, third in a Moveon.org poll, and second in a poll at Democrats.com. If a good fraction of the people who say “I’d back Kucinich if he had a chance,” were to send him $100, he would indeed have a chance. He would also, more importantly and with greater likelihood, impact the agenda in Congress where Pelosi currently follows Clinton’s lead. But you don’t often hear people remarking “I’d back Kucinich if I thought Pelosi would notice.” That’s not how most people tend to think about elections.
People do, however, think (if that’s the word for it) strategically about backing the candidate who will win, rather than the candidate they agree with. And the corporate media sells them on the idea that right-wing “swing voters” decide everything. But, did you ever wonder why the Republicans seem so much less obsessed with swing voters? Chris Bowers has presented a strong case that these mythical creatures do not actually exist. [ http://www.alternet.org/blogs/peek/50646 ] Only 4.7% of voters changed their mind during the last election from Bush to Kerry or Kerry to Bush. Kerry may have been swiftboated, but hardly anyone changed their mind from backing Kerry to backing Bush. What did happen, of course, is that millions of supporters of Kerry (and of Bush too) didn’t bother to vote or to register to vote. What would it take for the Democrats to register and turn out likely Democratic voters in sufficient numbers to beat election fraud? It would take a candidate who wasn’t for the war before he was against it. The mushy middle turns potential voters away.
You can refuse to back Kucinich for fear of being teased for backing a loser. But backing a corporate Democrat who has voted to fund the occupation of Iraq is actually a good way to lose the general election. So is impeachment avoidance. As John Nichols lays out so brilliantly in his book “The Genius of Impeachment,” the party that brings impeachment wins. When the Republicans tried to impeach Truman they won. When the Democrats tried to impeach Nixon they won. When the Democrats refrained from impeaching Reagan they lost. When the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton against the will of the public, they won the White House and kept both houses of Congress.
There are peace activists and other progressives who favor the creation of a third party, and who argue against backing Kucinich because they think he’ll lose and then endorse a less desirable candidate. Those worries would be bolstered by Nichols’ proposal. As soon as Kucinich says he’s not really running, the only question he’ll be asked will be “Who are you backing?” Sure, his answer could be used to nudge the other Democrats, but an honest answer based on his platform would include the possibility of not backing a Democrat. And that would be the end to Kucinich as any sort of candidate, as he would be locked out of Democratic debates.
Kucinich is less likely to lose and more likely to influence the other candidates if he refuses to concede and if those who agree with him support him. Supporting him now will serve primarily to help end the occupation of Iraq prior to the election. And supporting Kucinich will not make the task of building a third party any more or less daunting. A third-party peace candidate would need everything Kucinich has and much more in qualifications, and much, much more in money in order to have a chance. Not backing Kucinich because he’s not “viable” can lead only by the most twisted logic to backing the virtually impossible candidacy of a third party progressive.
And here’s something interesting about Kucinich. He supports all the reforms to our election and campaign finance systems that would make it possible for third parties to compete, and he does not go back on his word after he wins elections. When Kucinich was elected mayor of Cleveland at the age of 31 on a promise not to privatize the city’s electricity, he stuck to his word in the face of an all-out assault from the city’s media and corporate rulers. When his decision was vindicated years later by the fortune he’d saved the city, he re-entered politics. When the Democratic leadership pulled out every trick to pressure congress members to vote for the Supplemental war spending bill last spring, Kucinich voted no. Efforts to build decent third parties like the Green Party are to be applauded, but backing Kucinich is one way to do that. Check out Kucinich’s substantive and specific positions on a hundred and one issues facing this country: http://kucinich.us/issues
And remember: Kucinich’s height may be hard to change, but he doesn’t fall off everything he rides, give inappropriate shoulder massages, or shoot his buddies in the face. He may have seen a UFO, but he didn’t see any WMDs.
David Swanson is the Washington Director of Democrats.com and co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and of the Backbone Campaign. He serves on a working group of United for Peace and Justice. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. In April and May 2007, Swanson consulted part-time for Kucinich for President 2008. His website is www.davidswanson.org.