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International Socialist Review Issue 32, NovemberDecember 2003
The Dennis Kucinich phenomenon
Candidate of the left?
By Katherine Dwyer
EVEN THOUGH Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich is widely viewed as an unrealistic option for president, he appeals to the left because he has taken the most consistent and liberal positions on most of the main issueswith the glaring exception of abortion rights. Kucinch promises a single-payer universal health care plan, cutting military spending, lowering the retirement age, stopping privatization of social security, ending Taft-Hartley, scrapping NAFTA, withdrawing from both the WTO and IMF, adhering to the Kyoto Treaty, supporting gay civil unions and affirmative action and endorses a number of other progressive positions.
Kucinich gained the most support from the left with his vocal opposition to Bushs war. His speech "A prayer for America" on the West Coast in February 2003 was widely circulated over the internet and won him support from movement activists in particular. In Congress, Kucinich voted against both the invasion of Iraq and the USA PATRIOT Act, and introduced legislation calling for a "Cabinet of Peace" to foster negotiation as an alternative to war.
Yet in 1998, under President Clinton, Kucinich voted for the Iraq Liberation Act which called for the U.S. to militarily remove Saddam Hussein from power. A recent press release regarding Kucinichs opposition to Bushs latest war on Iraq suggests that the 1991 Gulf War was justified because at that time the U.S. was part of an international coalition defending Kuwait and disarming Iraq.1
Even now, Kucinich is no pacifist (despite his veganism). His Web site points out that he stands for a "strong and efficient military." He argues that the U.S. occupation of Iraq should be replaced by a UN occupation. In a February 2003 interview with "Meet the Press," he argued for the continuation of sanctions on Iraq as an alternative to war, despite the fact that sanctions killed over one million Iraqis, many of them children.
Regarding Israel and Palestine, Kucinich argues against violence on both sides. He gained some Arab support inside the U.S. for declining to vote in favor of a bill proclaiming solidarity with Israel and for his support of a two-state solution. Yet Kucinichs criticisms of Israel are hardly radical. As he told Tikkun magazine, "I support the existence of the democratic state of Israel, for what it represents as a beacon of hope and as a bastion of democracy. I also support the creation of a Palestinian state."2 While his position is to the left of many other Democrats, Kucinich doesnt deal with the fact that there is no way to achieve peace without complete justice for Palestinewhich means withdrawing support for the state of Israel. A state founded on the expulsion of another people, in which the military occupies their land and the state excludes from equal status Palestinians living inside Israel, cannot be defined as a "bastion of democracy."
Kucinich has been a long-time opponent of abortion rights for women. His voting record on abortion has earned him a 95 percent score with the National Right to Life Committee. As Katha Pollitt points out,
In his two terms in Congress, he has quietly amassed an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like proportions. He supported Bushs reinstatement of the gag rule for recipients of U.S. family planning funds abroad. He supported the Child Custody Protection Act, which prohibits anyone but a parent from taking a teenage girl across state lines for an abortion. He voted for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a crime, distinct from assault on a pregnant woman, to cause the injury or death of a fetus. He voted against funding research on RU-486. He voted for a ban on dilation and extraction (so-called partial-birth) abortions without a maternal health exception. He even voted against contraception coverage in health insurance plans for federal workersa huge work force of some 2.6 million people (and yes, for many of them, Viagra is covered)
. He voted specifically against allowing Washington, D.C. to fund abortions for poor women with nonfederal dollars and against permitting female soldiers and military dependents to have an abortion in overseas military facilities even if they paid for it themselves. Similarly, although Kucinich told me he was not in favor of "criminalizing" abortion, he voted for a partial-birth-abortion ban that included fines and up to two years in jail for doctors who performed them, except to save the womans life.3
Kucinich also supported banning funds for female prisoners seeking abortions.4
After a long "personal journey," which conveniently coincided with his run for president, Kucinich now claims that he opposes abortion but supports a womans right to choose. In an effort to show how much he means it, and to outflank his opponentsDean has always been pro-choice, while Kerry and Edwards also took the personal journey to arrive at their pro-choice positionKucinich boasts that he is the only candidate to support choice as a "litmus test" for Supreme Court nominees. Kucinich also acknowledges that his thinking will continue to "evolve" on the issue, which suggests that he could change his mind again at any time.
Kucinich also changed his mind on the issue of gay marriage. Whereas in his 1996 congressional campaign he opposed changing the law to allow for gay marriage, he currently supports gay civil unions.5 When asked about the turn-around, he simply replies that the issue wasnt important in the 1996 race.
Kucinichs record is also less than consistent regarding racism and criminal justice. While Kucinich was reprimanded for being one of the many Democrats to skip the NAACP convention this year, he is campaigning on support for affirmative action (including quotas for university admissions), opposition to the death penalty and to key elements of the racist criminal justice system.
Yet in 199798, he voted in favor of a juvenile justice bill (HR 3) that would allow children as young as 13 to be tried in adult courts and sent to jail in adult prisons.6 He also introduced an amendment to another juvenile justice bill in 1999 (he ultimately voted against the bill, which passed) that called for expanding record keeping and broad dissemination of information about juvenile offenders. The amendmentwhich was strongly opposed by the ACLU and other human rights and civil liberty groups but supported by the Fraternal Order of Policeinstituted statewide computer systems for compiling and sharing youth offenders records. The new system helped spread youth offenders records to federal and state officials including the FBI, the National Crime Information Center, courts, police and schools around the countryincluding schools to which offenders sought admission.7
Kucinichs days of running for city council and later mayor of Cleveland in the 1970s also reveal his checkered past on the issue of racism. Kucinichwho used to wear a long black trench-coat and carry a gun for fear of being muggedregularly used the race card in order to appeal to white immigrants in his district. In the early 1970s, Kucinch handed out campaign literature featuring a photo of Black City Council President George Forbes leering at one of Kucinchs white female opponents with the title "Whats Going on Here?" As the Cleveland Plain Dealer describes, "It showed a lascivious-looking picture of Forbes gazing at a picture of Oakar, who is white. According to accounts in the Plain Dealer, it said Oakar was a pawn of Forbes and elements "east of the river," a reference to Blacks and the racial dividing line of the Cuyahoga River." In fact, Kucinich regularly attacked white politicians who supported Blacks in office as "puppets." In 1974, Kucinich criticized political rival Ron Mott for voting in favor of instituting Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a legal holiday.8
Kucinich opposed busing programs to integrate Cleveland schools. Before the issue had even taken hold locally, he made a point to introduce a resolution in the city council asking Congress to oppose busing as a means of integration. While Kucinich supported social and economic programs that would benefit the white immigrant neighborhoods that made up the majority of the district he represented, he disparaged similar improvements in Black neighborhoods. One of his campaign workers remarked in 1972 that Kucinich has "learned to play dirty pool
. Its a racial issue. There are a lot of bigots in that district and someone has to represent them, lets face it."9
Kucinich once told a reporter, "I think the federal government has a role in providing for the poor and disadvantaged who have no means to provide for themselves, but I dont think the role should include spreading out public housing into just any areas."10
Kucinichs pandering to racism and his recent flip-flops over abortion rights and gay rights precipitated by his run for president should raise questions in peoples minds about what else he might "change his mind" about if he actually reaches higher office. Of course, the fact that he does not have a chance of actually winning the presidency makes it easier for Kucinich to say whatever he wants because he knows he will never actually have to back it up with action. For example, Kucinich made huge promises to workers at the AFL-CIO Democratic debate in August, including ending Taft Hartley, raising the minimum wage and lowering the retirement age. But he knows that the political establishment and their corporate backers would never put up with such sweeping reforms coming from the White House. In fact, he knows from his own experience. One time when he did stick to his guns, on the very controversial issue of refusing to sell Clevelands energy to a larger corporation, Kucinich was nearly recalled and then finally lost his bid for re-election.
Kucinich has gained support from the left by promoting the idea that he is an outsider in the Democratic Party. But nothing could be further from the truth. Kucinich has been a Democratic Party politician since the tender age of 23. Those on the left who are considering voting for him should ask themselves why Kucinich has spent his entire political career participating in and supporting a party that he claims to oppose on so many major issues.
Kucinich isnt in the race to win the presidency. Hes in the race playing the vital role of pulling the left back into the Democratic Party fold. As he recently told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "The Democratic Party created third parties by running to the middle. What Im trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy."11 Similarly, Kucinich recently told the Progressive, "I have no interest in a third party candidacy. None. I want to do it the other waybring third-party candidates into the [Democratic] Party and get support in the primaries."12
No one should be fooled, therefore, by Kucinichs recent campaigning alongside former third-party candidate Ralph Nader. Unfortunately, this is not a signal that Kucinich is breaking with the Democrats, but that Nader is allowing himself to be used to swing former Nader supporters behind the Democrats he so rightly skewered in the last presidential race.
Since Kucinich has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, he will take whatever support he does gain and funnel it into whoever does win the nominationregardless of how right wing that candidate is. By making sure opposition has a small space to occupy inside the Democratic Party, candidates like Kucinich serve as a buffer against the very real threat of support going to an actual third-party candidate who would not be beholden to either the Democratic or Republican Partiesboth of which support war, big business and the priorities of the rich over the priorities of poor and working people. That some Democrats feel the need to tack left in order to gain support is a good sign that American politics is shifting in our direction. But those of us on the left who would like to see a real debate over these issues inside mainstream politics need to look beyond the boundaries of the two-party system.
Katherine Dwyer is a member of the ISR editorial board.
1 Dennis Kucinich, "Analysis of joint resolution on Iraq," October 2, 2002, available online at www.house.gov/kucinich/press/pr-021002-analysisoniraq.htm.
2 "An interview with Congressman Dennis Kucinich," Tikkun, March/April 2003.
3 Katha Pollitt, "Regressive progressive," Nation, May 27, 2002.
5 Tom Diemer and Sabrina Eaton, "Kucinich supports marriage for same-sex couples," Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 16, 2003.
6 See ACLU Web site at http://archive.aclu.org/vote-guide.
7 "House debates juvenile justice," American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Web site, at www.aacap.org/legislation/106-7.htm.
8 Sabrina Eaton and Stephen Koff, "Kucinich called racist, opportunist," Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 12, 2003.
9 Terence Sheridan, "Denny the Kid," Cleveland Magazine, April 1972, available online at www.clevelandmagazine.com/editorial/thismonth_features.asp?docid=267.
11 Mark Naymik, "Many Kucinich backers are out there, way out," Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 9, 2003.
12 Ruth Conniff, "The peace candidate," Progressive, April 2003, available online at www.progressive.org/april03/conn0403.html.