Dennis Kucinich rarely gets much airtime in Democratic presidential debates. That was underscored recently when ABC's George Stephanopoulos called on him in an Iowa forum to talk about God. Kucinich said, "George, I've been standing here for the last 45 minutes praying to God you were going to call on me."
With poll numbers at 1 or 2 percent, the Ohio congressman is the nudge kicking at the knees of the Democratic Party to offer more than incremental change. He deserves more attention than he gets. On healthcare, he says what Americans believe, even as his rivals rake in contributions from the industry.
In a CNN poll this spring, 64 percent of respondents said the government should "provide a national insurance program for all Americans, even if this would require higher taxes," and 73 percent approve of higher taxes to insure children under 18. Those results track New York Times and Gallup polls last year, in which about two-thirds of respondents said it is the federal government's responsibility to guarantee health coverage to all Americans.
Such polls allow Kucinich to joke that, far from being in the loony left, "I'm in the center. Everyone else is to the right of me." More seriously, in a recent visit to the Globe, he accused the other Democratic candidates of faking it on healthcare reform.
"One of the greatest hoaxes of this campaign -- everyone's for universal healthcare," Kucinich said. "It's like a mantra. But when you get into the details, you find out that all the other candidates are talking about maintaining the existing for-profit system."
Kucinich quoted the 2003 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine that found that 31 percent of healthcare expenditures pay not for actual care but for administrative costs. That compares with only 16.7 percent in Canada. Administrative and clerical employees make up 27 percent of the healthcare workforce in the United States, compared with 19 percent in Canada.
"With 46 million Americans without any health insurance at all and another 50 million underinsured," Kucinich said, "isn't it really time to look at the other models that exist that are workable for all the other industrialized nations in the world? When you think about it, the only thing that's stopping us is the hold that the private insurers have on our political system . . . corporate profits, stock options, executive salaries, advertising, marketing, the cost of paperwork. . ."
The hold of the healthcare industry on the top candidates is already apparent. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top recipient of campaign contributions so far from the pharmaceutical and health products industry is Republican Mitt Romney ($228,260). But the next two are Democrats Barack Obama ($161,124) and Hillary Clinton ($146,000). The top recipient of contributions from health professionals is Clinton ($990,611). Romney is second at $806,837, and Obama third at $748,637.
The top recipient of cash from the insurance industry, which includes health insurers, is another Democrat, Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, at $605,950. Romney and Republican Rudolph Giuliani are second and third, with Clinton and Obama fourth and fifth. Even though Obama is in fifth place, he still has collected $269,750 from insurance companies.
In a category that is relatively small in money thus far, but huge in terms of healthcare morality, Democratic presidential candidates occupy four of the top six spots in receiving money from death-dealing tobacco companies. After Giuliani's $69,500 from tobacco companies, Dodd has received $45,400, Clinton $32,300, Romney $31,400, Obama $7,885, and Democrat Joe Biden, $4,000.
When the top Democratic candidates take tobacco contributions, it is hard to see them truly believing, as Kucinich says, that healthcare "is the single-most important domestic issue. . . a defining issue in the presidential race."
The top recipient from lobbyists by far is Clinton at $406,300. She is still so badly smoldering from the torching of her healthcare efforts as first lady that she recently asserted to the National Association of Black Journalists, "I have never advocated socialized medicine. That has been a right-wing attack on me for 15 years."
The irony, as Kucinich critically points out, is that Americans are so burned from for-profit healthcare, that they want the government to guarantee coverage. "If people clearly understood that by going to vote on Election Day they would create conditions where they would have health coverage," Kucinich said, "if you could communicate that message, you wouldn't have to talk about anything else."
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2007 The Boston Globe