U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio says his blue-collar Cleveland background helps him stand out in the crowd of Democratic presidential contenders and allows him to connect with Americans' practical aspirations: jobs, housing, health care and decent educations. But Democratic voters aren't connecting yet with Kucinich, 57, who remains at the back of the pack of his party's aspirants.
In another of an occasional series of interviews with presidential candidates, Kucinich this week discussed his positions and political insights with USA TODAY's editorial board. Some excerpts, edited for length and clarity:
Q: Are Democrats turning away from President Clinton's 'new Democrat' ideology and back to more traditional Democratic credentials?
A: The Democratic Party doesn't have a compass. What does the party stand for? The only reason why people would want to vote Democratic is if there were real alternatives offered. What's the alternative being offered by some of the Democratic front-runners? President Bush would keep us in Iraq; many of the Democratic front-runners would keep us in Iraq. Bush would keep a privately run health care system; many of the Democratic front-runners would keep a privately run health care system. Bush would keep us in the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement and let the trade deficit grow, and many of the Democratic front-runners would do the same.
I reject where the Democratic Party has gone. I think the Democratic Party has abandoned its roots. I think it has abandoned the cities. I think it has abandoned people of color. I think it has abandoned blue-collar workers, and it has abandoned the practical aspirations of people for peace. I'm ready to help redefine the party. Frankly, if we don't do that, there's no way this party is going to be able to defeat Bush.
Q: Do Democrats need to embrace the issue of gay marriage, even if it costs some votes?
A: It's a civil rights issue, pure and simple. The Democrats ought to stand for everyone's civil rights — and that includes gays.
Q: If Democrats don't choose you to lead them, will you run as an independent?
A: No, I have no interest in doing that.
Q: Your critics say you spend too much time focusing on the impossible at the expense of getting things done. A Cabinet-level department of peace comes to mind. How do you respond?
A: I wonder what the Founders heard a couple of hundred years ago when they were thinking about creating a new America. We're forgetting the kinds of dreams that help found a nation. I don't think there's anything impractical about advocating a full economy, about advocating that everyone in this country have health care, about advocating that every young person be entitled to go to public college or university tuition-free, about advocating that young families have a chance to send their children to a five-day-a-week day-care program for free. It can be paid for. The question is what our priorities are. If our priorities are war, then we don't have resources for the things that need to be done. I come from the inner city; I lived in a car when I was a kid. No one can tell me that you can't achieve something with the resources of this country. But as long as we give tax cuts to people in the top bracket, as long as we give $87 billion — and more — for a war, as long as we have a Pentagon budget that is $400 billion, totally driven by fear, then you can say that all of this is impossible. But it isn't a question of whether someone's a dreamer or not. The question is: Is someone ready to address the practical aspirations of people? Everything I talk about is practical. I can't think of anything more impractical than this war. I can't think of anything more impractical than continuing the occupation of Iraq. I can't think of anything more impractical than a draft. What to me is practical is nuclear abolition, working cooperatively with the world community.
So I consider myself the most practical politician in the whole contest. Am I a dreamer? You bet I am. But my dreams are informed by the reality of our conditions, which can be changed through the human heart and the human spirit.
Q: You say you're a pragmatist, even as you talk of your dream for world peace. As a pragmatist, how would you get North Korea to give up nuclear weapons? And how would you deal with India and Pakistan?
A: Let's start with North Korea. Let's go inside Kim Jong Il's skin for a minute. ...
Q: Scary thought.
A. ... But we need to do that. As president, I need to be able to see how that other person views the world so I can understand what I need to do to meet his fears and resolve these questions. Kim heard the United States' president describe North Korea as part of an axis of evil. Remember, during the Korean War that country was leveled. To have the United States making bellicose statements about North Korea has to be pretty scary. As president, I'd have a new policy of engagement. Go talk to him! Not isolate him and make him believe that he has no ability to deal with the United States other than to rattle a nuclear saber.
In our development of new nuclear weapons, we're not only breaking our own pledge in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but we're also creating a basis for nuclear proliferation — which brings us to India and Pakistan. We have no credibility telling the Asian subcontinent not to go ahead and arm with nuclear arms when we ourselves are doing that.
Q: You want to end American involvement in Iraq. How would you do that without causing more problems?
A: The presence of the United States in Iraq is a source of instability, not stability. The conflict is deepening, not lessening. The casualties are increasing, and the cycle of violence is spreading. Not only did America make a mistake by going in, but we have separated from the world community. The United Nations wants no part of this. We need to take a new approach.
I would go to the U.N. with a resolution with the following principles: First, the U.S. would turn over to the U.N., on a transitional basis, responsibility for handling the oil assets of Iraq and the contracting process in Iraq. The U.S. would turn over to Iraq the responsibility for helping the Iraqi people develop governance.
That kind of resolution would indicate a profound shift of U.S. policy. It would gain the support of the member nations, who would then be asked to commit troops — again, on a transitional basis so we could rotate the U.N. troops in and the U.S. troops out. The U.N. would have to stay there until such time that the Iraqis can be self-governing and self-sufficient.
Alternatively, we face a deepening struggle and a long-term commitment that can lead only to more loss of life and tremendous loss of U.S. integrity, not to mention a continued drain on our financial resources.
Q: What is your top priority for the nation?
A: My priority would be a domestic agenda that would really be met. We're not asking the right questions. We just accept that war is inevitable, and that this fear that's over the country is something we're stuck with. My presidency would be about the end of fear and the beginning of hope — to try to regain that essential American optimism that really gives us that can-do attitude. We've lost a little bit of that since 9/11. I think I can help the country regain it.
© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY