The media managers of the 2008 presidential contest worked for months to get Dennis Kucinich off the stage and out of the running. And they have finally succeeded, as the Ohio Congressman says he is now "transitioning out of the presidential campaign" and into a tough Democratic primary race for reelection to his Cleveland-area U.S. House seat.
Kucinich's decision to quit the Democratic presidential race is an acknowledgement of reality. Never flush with the funds needed to buy paid media, he has lately been denied access to the free media that is the lifeblood of insurgent candidacies. The congressman was excluded from the last few debates by the television networks, and his campaign events -- even those that drew substantial crowds in New Hampshire and Michigan - had gone largely uncovered.
The casual dismissal of what for Kucinich was always a sincere, issue-oriented endeavor made it easy for critics at home -- led by the virulently anti-Kucinich Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper -- to ridicule a campaign that raised critical issues as little more than an ego trip. That encouraged challengers to enter the March 4 Democratic primary contest for Ohio's 10th District House seat.
The critics claim that Kucinich has neglected his constituents in order to pursue what Bill Clinton might refer to as a "fairytale" campaign for a nomination that was never realistically within reach. "Our district is heading in the wrong direction because we have an absentee congressman," says Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose primary challenge to Kucinich has been generously funded by special-interest groups that disdain the incumbent's independent streak.
Kucinich, who flew to Cleveland rather than to South Carolina or California after the New Hampshire primary in which his campaign received more votes than the "serious" candidacy of debate-regular and one-time media darling Fred Thompson, was anything but an absentee congressman during his presidential run. If anything, the congressman neglected the national race in order to spend time in his district and on the floor of the House -- where he maintained a far steadier attendance record than the senators against whom he was running for the presidential nomination.
The congressman's greatest attention to his district during the course of the presidential campaign took the form of his focus on the economic issues that are most important to a working-class district that includes portions of the city of Cleveland and neighboring blue-collar suburbs. Even as he discussed the essential subject of the war in Iraq, Kucinich usually did so in the context of a discussion about the cost the war was imposing not just on the distant battlefields of Iraq but on the American cities from which needed federal funds have been diverted to fund a fool's mission in the Middle East.
Much is made of the populist turn the presidential race has taken as economic conditions have worsened. But when none of the other candidates were taking pointed stands on trade policy, the mortgage crisis and real health-care reform, it was Kucinich who staked out precise positions and forced the other candidates to offer working Americans more than mere rhetoric.
The AFL-CIO extended an enthusiastic invitation to Kucinich to participate in the labor federation's August debate in Chicago because union leaders knew that he alone would guide the debate toward specifics on questions of how to reform free-trade agreements, renew industries and protect the rights of workers to organize. At that debate, it was Kucinich who earned the loudest applause. And rightly so. He was bringing the concerns of cities like Cleveland to the national stage.
One of things that most debate moderators found so frustrating about Kucinich was his determination to talk about the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to working Americans, rather than to play their games. Kucinich forced the anchormen and the reporters, as well as the other candidates, to pay a little attention to the problems of factory workers, shop clerks and farmers. There is no question that the Ohioan's determination to do this influenced more prominent and well-funded contenders, especially former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
Kucinich never got much credit from the media or the other candidates. But he influenced the national debate for the better, and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is diminished by his exit.
It is not just Kucinich who is leaving the national stage. It is the discussion about cities like Cleveland and Detroit and Milwaukee. Mayors have bemoaned the neglect of urban affairs in this year's campaign, but the former big-city mayor never allowed that neglect to become complete. Now, it may be, as least as far as the presidential race in concerned. But the congressman's determination to retain his House seat points to the likelihood that Congress will still be called upon to consider the concerns of a city on Lake Erie and the so frequently-forgotten people who live there.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.
© 2008 The Nation