A few days ago I printed my annual picks for the year’s most overhyped and underreported stories. As usual, the column produced an enormous amount of mail.
There was, of course, the usual “why do you hate America so much?” nonsense from folks who don’t seem to understand that it’s possible to love a country and be appalled by some of the policies of public officials. And next, I’ll take a mailbag look at some of the suggestions for stories I missed. There were some good ones, proving once again just how many of our world’s most significant developments are happening without the awareness of most of the people they’ll eventually affect. That’s coming up.
But the most mail of all came from a short item which listed as underreported the policy impact on the race of the Democratic presidential campaigns of Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich. Both have made important contributions to the race and were discussing issues and ideas other candidates weren’t touching. Both, I wrote, had enthusiastic grass roots support despite getting virtually no media recognition, and despite having no realistic chance at their party’s nomination.
Well, this last statement struck a nerve. I’ve been deluged with e-mail from angry Kucinich supporters. (And you thought they were all peaceniks!). My sin? Dismissing Kucinich’s chances of winning, especially before any votes have been cast.
Now, please hold your laughter while I explain why this intrigued me. I understand that no so-called “minor” candidate, or his most fervent supporters, can or should acknowledge that they won’t win. As soon as they do, contributions die and what little attention they get from the country’s political and media kingmakers evaporates.
But of the nine major Democratic candidates, it’s actually highly unusual at this point that so many could win -- Dean, for sure, but Clark still has a good shot going into these first caucuses and primaries, and people like Kerry and Edwards could still catch fire. I highly doubt, though, even now, that Gephardt or Lieberman have a chance. And the candidacies of Carol Mosely-Braun, Sharpton, and Lieberman have never -- ever -- had a chance to win.
Is it, as one correspondent claimed twice, “arrogant” for me, as a media commentator, to say this -- or to make my choices of which candidacies to pay the most attention to based on it? I don’t think so. There are a limited number of column inches in newspapers, or broadcast minutes on TV and radio; more importantly, there’s a limited amount of attention span for most people who see or hear news. We as media pundits, reporters, and editors have to use our judgment as to which are the stories, and aspects of stories, that are both most important and most likely to hold our audiences’ interest.
The latter, of course, leads to the farce of TV news reporters breathlessly doing live standups of a snowflake. But the point is obvious: it’s a big world. The candidates with the most chance of winning, and therefore influencing future public policy, deserve the most attention. That’s why Howard Dean’s every word is getting far more attention than Mosely-Braun’s.
But should I be “dismissing” candidacies like that of Kucinich? (Funny, I thought I was giving him a prop.) The question has a flawed premise -- that Kucinich’s only value as a candidate is if he can win. Any adherent of the Church of Dennis (and there are a lot of you out there, for some very good reasons I’ll discuss in a moment) ought to acknowledge the reality that his candidate won’t win. Even if Kucinich (or Sharpton, etc.) got two-thirds of every primary and caucus held in America, Democratic Party leaders have the final say in who gets nominated. They will never -- ever -- allow the nomination for our country’s highest office of someone they feel is inherently unelectable. And the non-electability of Kucinich is based on exactly the same thing as his greatest appeal: that he is saying things his party leaders don’t dare, and that he is willing to rock the boat and challenge our country’s status quo in a way party insiders never, ever will.
History bears this out. In 2000 and 1996, the White House incumbent limited the Democratic primary field. But in the previous three election cycles -- 1984, 1988, and 1992 -- Jesse Jackson (twice) and then Jerry Brown occupied much of the same ideological niche as Kucinich, Sharpton, and Mosely-Braun do this year. If, prior to the casting of votes, we can read into polling, fundraising, and buzz, Jackson and Brown were far stronger candidates than any of these three were this year -- it’s not remotely close. In 1984, Jackson actually won more primaries than the eventual nominee, Walter Mondale. He also won a string in 1988, and Brown won a couple of important ones in 1992.
Yet they had no shot at the nomination in those years -- just as Bill Bradley didn’t in 2000. In ‘84, Mondale, a long-time senator and Jimmy Carter’s Vice-President, was the safe insider choice. By 1988, Jackson was a party power, but the party’s weight and eventual nomination went instead to a little-known Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis. Brown was a strong contender in a crowded 1992 field -- but Bill Clinton, as a leading member of the party’s centrist Democratic Leadership Committee, gained the momentum and money to shut out Brown’s charge.
In each case, the money and weight of the party leaders, and their ability to influence selection of a large number of their party’s nominating convention delegates, trumped the grass roots and ballot enthusiasm for Jackson and Brown. In each case, the more conservative, “moderate” candidate won out because party leaders wanted to appeal to swing voters who might otherwise vote Republican.
In 1972, George McGovern used a newly open primary process to win his party’s nomination. His candidacy, in Beltway party circles, is viewed as sort of Democrat’s Waterloo. A flawed incumbent, Richard Nixon, won a massive landslide, and Democratic leaders vowed never again to let too “radical” a candidate carry their standard.
They haven’t -- Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, and Gore have all been from the more conservative side of the party. One can argue, fairly plausibly, that this has been the death of the Democrats -- but one can’t argue that the dynamic still has a stranglehold on the party. That’s why Beltway Dems are so alarmed by Dean: he’s not an insider. And even though his record as governor of a small state was, by any reckoning, centrist, Clintonites worry -- and are charging that Dean is too “liberal” to be successful against Bush. If Dean is at the edge of respectability, where does that leave Kucinich?
It leaves him doing two things no successful candidate ever does these days. He’s laying out detailed policy ideas, and he’s challenging powerful institutions. I admire Kucinich. I think he’s one of the most principled and courageous people in Congress. If we had a vote in my state -- we don’t – there’s a good chance I’d vote for him. I don’t agree with all of his ideas, but that’s why I would choose him. He has clear ideas, and as such I don’t need to like ‘em all -- just more of them than anyone else running.
The success of Howard Dean’s candidacy would not be possible without Kucinich and Sharpton at his shoulder, providing the more “extreme” cover that gives his statements context. Their continued presence in the race ensures that ideas like getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, or prioritizing racial justice, aren’t forgotten by candidates otherwise reluctant to go there. There are plenty of reasons to support Dennis Kucinich -- even if he won’t be our next president.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange
(c) Working Assets Online