Five years ago, this month, the world said no to the Iraq War, with massive demonstrations all around the world involving 10 million people. In the United States, more than 100,000 people came to New York City to challenge the Bush/Cheney rush to war–and one of the speakers, one of the very few elected officials to speak that day, was Dennis Kucinich.

So what, you say? Well, maybe it’s time to give Dennis his due.

Compare the outpouring of affection and respect for John Edwards with the snark and abuse offered Kucinich when they each bowed out of the presidential race last month. Most liberal columnists and progressive bloggers offered kudos to Edwards for forcing and/or encouraging Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to move left on healthcare, on trade issues, on poverty and inequality. John and Elizabeth Edwards did exactly that, and I offer my own thanks for the issues they ran on, especially given everything that was going on in their family. They deserve our appreciation for boldly putting good issue positions on the table, fighting hard for them and opening the door for the other candidates to get bolder, too.

But why stop there? Why not ask who opened the door for Edwards? Because on almost every issue that John Edwards battled hard on in 2007, helping move Obama and Clinton closer to the light, it’s indisputable that Dennis Kucinich pushed on those same issues back in 2003, again in 2007 and every year in between. In other words, Kucinich was against the war, for fair trade, against NAFTA and the WTO, against the Patriot Act, for single-payer health care, for an infrastructure plan to rebuild America and put forward a plan to bring the troops home–all long before not just John Edwards, but long before almost anybody.

Consider the Patriot Act vote, cast by the Congress in October of 2001, only a few weeks after 9/11, in a scary time of threats and intimidation from the Bush/Cheney Administration. This vote had our lawmakers so scared that only a few brave House members stood up to oppose it, and in the Senate, only Russ Feingold had the guts to say no. But Kucinich voted no. Why? Because he read the bill. He risked his political career to oppose an intrusive, liberty-violating, fundamentally un-American bill. Very few others did, especially House members from ethnic urban districts.

So give John Edwards his due. But give Kucinich his due, too.

Because the truth is, Dennis Kucinich has the best voting record in Congress of anyone from a mostly white, ethnic district. No one else who shares most of Kucinich’s positions–even those who are much less outspoken than he is–also has a district like his. He’s not from Berkeley or Madison. He doesn’t have a huge, liberal base constituency. Dennis Kucinich is consistently braver than his district would suggest he should be; and perhaps no other progressive is as brave compared to the people they represent. If you disagree, I offer impeachment as an example. Or gay marriage. Or animal rights. Or the abolition of nuclear weapons. Or a ban on weapons in space. Or his early opposition to pre-emptive war.

Maybe those brave votes are a big part of the reason that Kucinich currently has four opponents for his House seat, including at least one who’s being massively funded by outside corporate interests. Maybe his tough race is not all due to his absences, but to his outspokenness. Maybe it’s not his ears but his votes. Maybe it’s not his size that irritates the big corporate boys but his willingness to act on his beliefs.

Maybe the special interest money that’s pouring into Cleveland these days for his opponents is not really because they’re dissatisfied with his constituent service but because they don’t like his commitment to ending the war economy; because they’re irritated by his feistiness on behalf of canceling NAFTA, for fair trade, for living wages, for card-check union organizing; or because they hate his years of leadership on behalf of getting the insurance and drug companies out of people’s healthcare.

Think about this: Kucinich campaigned in 2007 on almost exactly the same key issues he ran on in 2003–ending the war, fair trade and single-payer health care for all. Since that time, the Democratic Party as a whole has moved more towards his early positions on these issues, as have all his opponents (to greater or lesser degrees) in the presidential primary last year–but he hardly moved at all. He was right then, and he’s right now, on most of the fundamental issues that base Democratic voters care about.

Here’s a fun experiment. Go to ActBlueright now, pick out any House candidate randomly, and see if their proposed issue positions outdo Kucinich’s existing votes. And then think about the fact that progressive groups will in the coming months spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the blogosphere will correctly exalt and extol many of these challengers, and activists will offer up thousands of words and hundreds of hours and dozens of dollars each, all to elect people who do not now–and likely never will–measure up to Kucinich’s existing track record.

Then consider treating him with a bit more respect.