Dennis Kucinich concluded his smart, pointed yet good-humored participation in the latest Democratic presidential debate by telling the crowd at Dartmouth College that they

could have a President who has consistently opposed the war in Iraq, defended civil liberties and fought for single-payer healthcare. “Or,” he said, “you can have a President who is tall.” Unfortunately, the next President is likely to be of a different stature than the Congressman from Cleveland. But it is far too early to elbow Kucinich off the debate platform. It is troubling that a former big-city mayor, veteran Congressman and one of the earliest and most consistent critics of a war opposed by the vast majority of Americans has already been excluded from some high-profile candidate forums. And it is unacceptable that political and media “deciders” are beginning to angle for more exclusive debates.

There is nothing evenhanded about our presidential selection process. The system generally regards as most “serious” those candidates who can raise the most money, while it excludes those who offer radical alternatives, even if they hold views that more accurately reflect those of the American people. Party leaders and media stars err on the side of style over substance. This leaves little space for candidates like Kucinich, who stake out positions that are more visionary than those of the ordained front-runners and who inject ideas into the debate that would otherwise be skipped over. It’s not easy to explain the strategic value of disarmament, diplomacy and the need to address persistent poverty in a thirty-second answer to a question about national security. Even Kucinich sometimes stumbles as he tries to leap the hurdles moderators erect to narrow and control the discourse.

Kucinich is not always as flexible or strategically smart as his circumstances demand. And while the candidate has more grassroots support than many senior senators, his seat-of-the-pants organization fails to inspire confidence that he will do much better this year than he did in 2004. But it is a corroded democracy that marginalizes a speak-truth-to-power candidate when so much of the electorate is eager for an alternative not just to the Bush/Cheney Administration but also to the compromises of Democratic Congressional leaders and presidential candidates.

No doubt, it would be easier for Hillary Clinton and her most competitive rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards, to debate without facing the inconvenient truths that Kucinich, Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel have brought to the podium. But avoiding tough questions about how the occupation of Iraq will end and how a war with Iran can be avoided, about failed “free trade” policies, about the advantages of a single-payer healthcare system, won’t make Clinton, Obama or Edwards stronger contenders in next year’s election. Wrapping up the nomination and presenting it to an intellectually untested candidate rarely makes for a better nominee, let alone a better President.

It is for this reason that even Democrats who would never consider voting for Dennis Kucinich for President should recognize the value of his continued presence on every debate stage of this front-loaded, pundit-defined, money-managed primary campaign. Perhaps the Congressman is too idealistic to match our strangled definitions of a nominee or a President.

But Kucinich is standing tall for progressive values, bringing bold ideas, tough questions and a sense of purpose to discussions that require these precious commodities. And he should be a part of the debates for as long as the campaign for the Democratic nomination continues.