When the AFL-CIO organized a presidential debate at Chicago's Soldier Field, leaders of the labor federation quietly went out of their way to make sure that Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich would be on the stage.
While some debate organizers have talked about excluding so-called "lesser" candidates -- those like Kucinich with low poll numbers and small bank accounts -- from the debates, the AFL-CIO wanted progressive populist from Cleveland front and center Tuesday night. Why? Because leaders of the labor organization recognize the importance of candidates who stand on principle rather than merely engage in political calculations.
They also recognize that Kucinich's determination to express his principles -- which happen to parallel those of labor activists on worker rights, health and safety concerns and, above all, trade policy -- would put frontrunners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on the spot.
The senators from New York and Illinois and the former senator from North Carolina have shaky records on a host of issues that of high priorities for union members. Clinton's close ties to Wall Street have led her to support much of the free-trade agenda favored by multinational corporations -- a fact highlighted by Edwards when he referenced a recent feature in a financial magazine on Clinton's appeal to big business by saying, "You will never see a picture of me on the front of Fortune magazine saying I am the candidate that big corporate America is betting on."
Edwards may be "the angry populist" now. But he has not always been on labor side. Edwards -- who supported North Carolina's anti-union "Right-to-Work" law when he ran for the Senate in 1998 -- broke with the AFL-CIO to cast several key votes in favor of the Bill Clinton administration's free-trade agenda when he served in the Senate.
Kucinich, a longtime union member who has maintained a 100 percent AFL-CIO ranking during his years in Congress, broke with Clinton to side with labor on those critical votes. In fact, he's often been more aggressive than union leaders when it comes to challenging trade pacts that are stacked against workers, communities and the environment in the U.S. and abroad.
On Tuesday night, Kucinich wowed the crowd of 15,000 union activists in Chicago when he promised to use a little-known provision in the North American Free Trade Agreement to pull the U.S. out of the deal.
"In my first week in office, I will notify Mexico and Canada that the United States is withdrawing from NAFTA," declared Kucinich. "I will notify the WTO, that the United States is withdrawing from the WTO."
As the applause rose from a rumble to a thunderous roar, Kucinich shouted, "How about it America? Do you want out of NAFTA? Do you want out of the WTO? Listen to the workers of America, let them hear from you!"
It was the most rousing moment of the night, perhaps of all the Democratic debates up to this point.
Kucinich did exactly what the AFL-CIO's leadership had hoped he would. He showed the most cautious frontrunners -- all of whom continue to back NAFTA, albeit with apologies and calls for reform -- just how much enthusiasm there is for a radical shift from the misguided trade policies of Bill Clinton and George Bush. That's a lesson that 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry never really got, to the detriment of his bid for blue-collar votes that year.
None of this is meant to suggest that Kucinich will win any official endorsements from the individual unions of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, which as of this week are formally freed by the federation to start picking their favorite contenders. Labor organizations tends to go with perceived winners rather than allies who are trailing.
But on Tuesday night, Kucinich won the hearty applause of one of the largest crowds ever to listen to a presidential debate. And he earned high marks from analysts like Hotline's Chuck Todd, who says the AFL-CIO forum was: "Easily (Kucinich's) best debate."
He also proved the vital importance of including non-frontrunners in presidential debates that, without candidates like Democrat Kucinich and Republican Ron Paul, would be a lot shorter on ideas and a lot longer on empty political positioning.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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