“Running for President? Health Care Better Be Your Priority” is the hard-to-miss slogan on a poster in the Des Moines, Iowa airport. Dreamt up by the Service Employees International Union, the largest health care workers’ union in the nation, the billboard seems to be already having an impact on the Democratic presidential debate. Instead of squabbling over who is most electable, most of the contenders are competing over who can best address the nation’s escalating health care crisis.

Now, it’s true, as Robert Kuttner recently pointed out in the Boston Globe, that with a few exceptions, the health plans released by the democratic presidential contenders are inadequate to dealing with the crisis. “They leave the current system largely intact,” Kuttner notes, “and use subsidies and tax credits to reduce the number of uninsured–as if the whole system were not broken.” And he rightly argues, to have any chance in 2004, the Dems will “need something bolder to get real political traction from health insurance, let alone to solve the problem.”

So it surprised me that he failed to mention Dennis Kucinich in his roundup of the candidates. Kucinich fully supports government-financed health care for all Americans, something Kuttner presumably favors. The Wall Street Journal‘s Alan Murray also omitted Kucinich when he wrote that, “What’s interesting about the Democratic proposals is that none of them, so far, endorse a government-run ‘single-payer’ health-care system–the solution on which most other developed countries have settled.” Well, Kucinich’s plan is just that, Mr. Murray.

Kuttner has it right when he says that even incremental proposals by Democrats will be attacked as too costly and entailing too much government. So, they “might as well do it right,” he adds. Kucinich may not be electable, but he’s trying to “do it right.” The least he could get is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Kuttner, Murray and a media that seems more interested in marginalizing Kucinich than exploring his policy proposals.

And while universal health care is attacked by both party’s strategists as utopian, costly and wasteful, the largest and most wasteful defense budget in the country’s history just sailed through Congress with little discussion of the costs or debate about the rationale for a slew of new weapons systems.

Instead, Republicans and most Democrats vied to outdo each other in praising the defense package. Only that latter-day dissident, Senator Robert C. Byrd, voted against the bill. And only Byrd raised tough questions about why a country which now spends more on defense than “all other 18 members of NATO, plus China, plus Russia, and plus the remaining rogue states combined,” needs to spend billions more while stealing from investments in health care, education and retirement security that helped make America strong in the first place.

“In an age when we talk about smart bombs and smart missiles and smart soldiers,” Byrd declared, “any talk of smart budgets has gone out the window.” Is Byrd the last sane person in Congress?