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Who’s the Real Peace Candidate?

AS THE UNITED STATES SLOUCHES toward a unilaterally declared war, the polls show that most rank-and-file Democratic voters yearn for a presidential candidate who will speak unambiguously against it and fight Bush on the issue. Yet nearly all of the major Democratic contenders — Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, Richard Gephardt and John Edwards — voted for the resolution (co-authored by Lieberman) that gave away Congress’ constitutional responsibility by handing Dubya a blank check to declare war on Iraq whenever he likes. And anyone who thus voted to dismantle the separation of powers profaned their sworn oath to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution (as ol’ Bobby Byrd told them at the time on the Senate floor) — and is therefore unfit to be president.

Now comes Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who announced this week that he’s joining the contest. Kucinich has been a tireless opponent of the war from the get-go and an articulate critic of first-strike in a series of well-argued, extemporaneous speeches on the House floor. As chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, he has a credible pro-labor track record on economic issues and, as a son of the working class, knows how to speak to what used to be called Reagan Democrats. But the focus of his presidential campaign announcement was clear: “I am running to oppose this unjustified war in Iraq,” he proclaimed. “I am a candidate for peace.”

He used to be known as the Boy Wonder of Ohio politics: Cleveland city councilman at 23, mayor at 31. Kucinich inherited a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and governed as a populist against the vested interests. Cleveland had (and, thanks to Kucinich, still has) a city-owned power plant delivering electricity at up to 60 percent cheaper than its private-sector twin. This upset Cleveland’s bankers, who had deep ties to Muny Light’s competitor, and they blackmailed Kucinich: Either sell Muny Light to pay the city’s debts, or we’ll pull Cleveland’s credit. Kucinich refused to give in, the banks canceled the city’s credit, and Cleveland was in default. Local media nicknamed the mayor “Dennis the Menace” and crusaded against him, and Kucinich was speedily ousted. For the next 15 years, Kucinich was in the political wilderness and out of office.

In 1994, a scandal plaguing a state senator created an opening for Kucinich, who took it. Two years later, Dennis the Menace snatched a seat in Congress. Now, “the passage of time has shown that Kucinich may have been more right than he was wrong,” acknowledges veteran political columnist and editorial-page director Brent Larkin of Kucinich’s hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

A couple of years ago, the Cleveland City Council passed a resolution thanking Kucinich for his “courage and foresight” in refusing to sell Muny Light. Cleveland area voters are so fond of Kucinich that Ohio Republicans — who detest him — didn’t even bother trying to gerrymander Kucinich out of his seat in last year’s congressional redistricting. “Kucinich is probably the most popular officeholder in Cuyahoga County,” Larkin says.

Kucinich’s late entry means he doesn’t even have the bare bones of a campaign yet, and there are other problems. Although he’s a passionate orator with red-white-and-blue rhetoric who can bring audiences to their feet, the diminutive, excitable Kucinich’s demeanor provokes references to what journalists usually demurely call his “gravitas problem.”

Then there’s Kucinich’s long record of voting against federal funding for abortions in Congress: A believer in “life from the moment of conception,” Kucinich has gone so far as to vote against allowing female soldiers and military dependents to have an abortion in an overseas military hospital even if they pay for it themselves.

Kucinich is also considered a little flaky by the national media (a reputation not helped by his public embrace of New Age guru Marianne Williamson).

Kucinich is not alone in competing for the anti-war vote. There is, of course, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who scores points with anti-war audiences by scolding his opponents for voting the blank check. Yet Dean’s shifting positions on Iraq leave one wondering if they aren’t propelled more by his desire to position himself against the rest of the field than by deep analysis and conviction. Last fall, Dean limited his criticisms to the need for the war to be waged by an international coalition with U.N. approval — without taking on the pernicious new Bush doctrine of “preventive” first strikes. Dubya’s chilling repetitions of America’s right to go it alone in invading Iraq (or, for that matter, any other sovereign country) — in other words, the right to wage aggressive war without any overt act by the “enemy” as a casus belli — make Dean’s silence on first-strike problematic.

As anti-war sentiment has grown, Dean has notched up his criticisms a bit, but when operating without a script his knowledge of foreign affairs seems a bit thin. Take his last Meet the Press appearance: Tim Russert ran rings around Dean. For example, when Russert claimed that Europe was now supporting the war, Dean didn’t have the facts to refute Russert’s inaccurate assertion. Nor does Dean’s discourse contain much reference to preserving and extending the international rule of law.

Dean sometimes seems to want to have it both ways: The week after having attacked Kerry for his pro-war vote, Dean — at a Roll Call editorial-board meeting at the end of January — gave the Capitol Hill weekly a rather hawkish declaration that if Bush presented “evidence that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction, then I’d go back to the U.N. and get a new resolution that [Hussein] either disarms in 60 days or we go in.” That’s roughly the current U.S. position (if one accepts Colin Powell’s mendacious U.N. speech as “evidence”). Dean has neither the substance nor the gumption to conduct a fully articulated educative campaign against the war (probably because the poor chap thinks he can actually win).

Then there’s Al Sharpton, whose opposition to the war in Iraq is without nuance (nor is it his principal message). Sharpton is weighted down by too much baggage. Whenever he is grilled by the news media, Rev. Al has to spend much of his time explaining his false accusations in the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, his years as an FBI informant, his past financial scams, and his previous remarks tinged with anti-Semitism — so much so that his substantive message just can’t get through.

His vote will be further undercut by former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile’s scheme to run “favorite son” black candidates in those states where Sharpton is expected to make an important effort, to dilute Rev. Al’s appeal. Brazile has now found a favorite daughter: Former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (who was chased from office by the voters in a hail of money and ethics scandals) is — at Brazile’s urging — about to launch a presidential candidacy that would pit her against Sharpton in all the states. She, too, says she’ll run as an anti-war candidate.

With Dean weak, Sharpton unpalatable and Kucinich unknown, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and his phalanx of fat cats and Clintonistas have created a near-insurmountable problem by front-loading the political calendar in a deliberate strategy to stifle any insurgent presidential candidacies. The battle for the nomination will now be over, for all intents and purposes, in record time — by March 2004. By forcing candidates into simultaneous primary campaigns within a truncated time frame, McAuliffe & Co. ensured that only those with instant name recognition (like Lieberman, after his 2000 veep race — or, for that matter, Hillary in ’08) or a huge money advantage (like Kerry, whose wife is worth some $800 million) can meaningfully compete.

Kucinich will likely have even less money (his chief fund-raiser is his sister, Kim) than the woefully underfunded Dean. And all candidates save Kucinich and Moseley-Braun are already on the ground in the earliest primaries with staff and organization. So Kucinich’s candidacy might do so poorly in the early voting that it demonstrates the weakness of anti-war Democrats, not their strength (especially with four competitors trying to seduce war-doubting Dems). There are only two reasons that make a “peace candidacy” worthwhile: first, to educate more folks about the folly of this war; and, second, to succeed where previous insurgent campaigns, like those of Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown, failed — by leaving an institutional political residue to fight against what Paul Wellstone used to call “the hostile takeover of the Democratic Party” by corporate America. In other words, a sort of left-progressive cross between the Democratic Leadership Council and Christian Coalition models. Dean has no interest in such a proposition, Sharpton is a one-man band, and Kucinich — who undoubtedly would favor such an effort, although it’s not part of his campaign plan — is probably the wrong man to lead it. No left coalition or candidate failing to support a woman’s right to an abortion can succeed — nor should they.

As of now, it looks as though anti-war Democratic primary voters will have to choose among the unacceptable and the merely flawed.