Who's Afraid of Dennis Kucinich?
The politics of Dennis Kucinich are easy to see but hard to describe, which is why conventional journalism, comfortable only with crass idiocies, has settled on calling him a leftist and burying him in the thirteenth paragraph. But to me the best way to describe Kucinich is to say that he seems to be the only candidate who responds as an intellectually ambitious human being would to the problem of the presidency.
When you think about it--and few people do--no great thinker or leader, no Thoreau or Bertrand Russell or Martin Luther King Jr., would look at the vastly complex problem of the human condition and see as the most urgent solutions incremental numerical adjustments of the type espoused by most candidates. It is hard to imagine a Gandhi feeling passionate about a 30 percent tax credit for investment in renewable energy (Gephardt), or $66 billion for Iraq instead of $87 billion (Edwards), or a Community Oriented Policing Program ("COPS," a Kerry creature) that puts a few more cops on the streets. No, the great leader would see vast sicknesses to tend to, gross misapplications of human effort, problems rooted not in numbers but in society's emotional priorities. And his solutions upon taking a great office would be of commensurate greatness: the elimination of war, the conquest of greed, the restoration of community.
I'm not saying Kucinich is a great man. But he does think in these terms. He is clearly an intellectual who is measuring himself against history, not the other candidates. And it is this disdain for the other kind of ambition that has led observers to describe him as unserious.
The Kucinich platform is simple and unequivocal. Cancel NAFTA and the WTO. An immediate pullout from Iraq. Universal single-payer healthcare, a public program, everyone covered. His campaign literature is the size of a playing card. (The John Edwards "Real Solutions for America" pamphlet, in contrast, is sixty-four feverish pages of gibberish.) The message is a fairly recurrent theme of the campaign: The question isn't what fancy-sounding programs to devise; the question is whether you're going to take the first broad, obvious steps in the much larger fight. And the implication of the campaign, clearly understood by all Kucinich supporters, is that their man is the only one who is even engaged in the actual battle.
Therefore, you see a marked difference in the dynamic of the Kucinich campaign, as opposed to those of the other candidates. Many reporters in New Hampshire refer to the "summer camp" phenomenon on the campaign trail. "I first noticed it in 2000," said Laura Colbert of New Hampshire Public Radio. "In every campaign office, you have one older guy, and he's the counselor, followed by two dozen kids. Four years later, one of the kids is the counselor, telling stories by the campfire."
I spent some time in Manchester with some of those kids, many of whom have thought up cutesy tribal names for themselves ("Liebermaniacs" and "Deanie Babies," for example). Most were mealy college types in identically crisp white T-shirts who appeared ready to march with their candidate all the way to, perhaps, a wet T-shirt contest in Hilton Head. But it is not all that unusual to find someone who seems willing to go to his death, or the political equivalent of it, for Dennis Kucinich. These people are older and tend to have a permanent interest in politics; this is not summer camp for them.
"There's an old saying in martial arts, which is that if you fight to save your life, you die," said David Bright, the candidate's volunteer media coordinator in Maine. "You have to fight regardless of consequence."
"I'd do anything for Dennis," said Amy Hochadel, the candidate's national field coordinator, who has worked with Kucinich for years. Her eyes light up when she talks about Kucinich's efforts to save a hospital in Cleveland; he had threatened to seize it using eminent domain rather than let the insurance companies shut it down. She laughed. "I thought it was wonderful," she said. "But I remember saying to Dennis, This is great, but if we're not careful, we're going to end up owning a hospital." They see the Kucinich campaign as a referendum on the role of principle in our electoral politics.
The candidate talks gloomily about what will happen if--as appears likely, given the current polls--the vote should go the wrong way. "Unless we're motivated by principle in our voting, we walk into a mirrored echo chamber, where there's no coherence," Kucinich says. He sighs and repeats, "Where there's no coherence."