Progressives' Dilemma: K, K or E?
By Bernard Weiner, The
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of us about to vote in our state primaries -- Super Tuesday
a week from now, with more large-state balloting coming right
on its heels -- have some important pondering to do.
The dilemma is this: We want our candidate, the one who goes
up against Bush, to come into the official campaign with a
full head of steam, a monumental momentum that will put these
neo-con extremists back on their defensive haunches, not let
them get their breath, pushing them into the sea of defeat.
At the moment of this writing, that candidate looks like
But, and it's a potentially big but, Kerry may not be our
He's the one we'll settle for and support, because, with
his experience and war-hero credentials, he's the one who
seems to be most "electable," who appears to show up the best
against AWOL Bush Boy and his mean-spirited handlers, who
seems primed to fight back against the dirty-tricksters.
But Kerry, let's face it, is a kind of centrist liberal:
Clinton lite, as it were. He voted to give Bush a blank check
to invade Iraq; he voted for the Patriot Act, he's voted for
numerous bills that would embarrass most progressive Democrats.
(In all fairness, he also has supported and pushed some righteous
liberal bills, and when he wants to fight for a cause, he's
a good scrapper.)
He certainly was not my #1 choice among the ten, then nine,
then eight...now four remaining major Democratic contenders.
But presumably he can win; the early polls indicate as much.
The American populace is so tired of, and appalled by, Bush&Co.
-- their lies, deceits, manipulations, incompetencies, and
their policies that endanger the economy, the workforce, our
national security, the lives of young men and women sent to
fight abroad for corporate profits and global aggrandizement
-- that they're ready to replace Bush with more competent,
less extreme candidate.
In this equation, Kerry is good enough.
But, for many, Kerry doesn't fire the belly. We're behind
him because he's the non-Bushman. He may be the one to break
the back of the neo-con juggernaut currently causing such
havoc domestically and around the globe. If it comes to it,
we'll take him, work for him, send him money, and so on.
And, if he gets elected, he'll probably do OK as President,
a little bit liberal, a lotta centrist, a little bit to the
right. No great initiatives, no shockwaves, no major embarrassments.
But he's not my guy. Not really. And I suspect I may be speaking
for a lot of progressives and independents.
"KUCINICH CAN'T WIN"
My candidate, he of the progressive wing of the Democratic
Party, is Dennis Kucinich, from the beginning unafraid to
stand squarely against Bush's imperial war policies, who will
bring the troops home as quickly as possible, who will create
a Department of Peace in the Cabinet, who favors universal
health-care, who supports true educational reform, and so
But Kucinich -- reminding one of a modern, short Abe Lincoln
-- is too good and pure for the electorate in 2004. He can't
win. He knows he can't win. We know he can't win. Everyone
knows he can't win.
So, the logic goes, why not vote for him?
Here's the reasoning: By voting for Kucinich, we would be
telling whoever does win the upcoming primaries -- be it Kerry
or Edwards -- that there's formidable progressive strength
within the Democratic party, and they risk feeling the wrath
of that bloc if they stray too far to the middle and middle-right.
In other word, a vote for Kucinich is another variant on
the "send-them-a-message" theme, except this time rather than
sending a message to our leaders in Washington, we'd be sending
it inside the party to the contenders for the nomination,
one of whom eventually will turn out to be the Democrat standard-bearer.
If we can generate a large turnout for Kucinich -- say, 20
per cent -- we'd be telling the Democratic nominee: "Both
before and after the election, we want you to know that a
large part of your Democratic support comes from us, the progressive
wing of the party. Don't push your luck by tacking so far
to the center that you wind up on the right. Remain true to
the Democratic party's best principles of fair play, economic
justice, respect for civil rights and civil liberties, and,
in international policy, re-energize a determination to move
in the world by relying on diplomacy and international accords
rather than on reckless, imperial adventurism."
THE EDWARDS OPTION
But, you might say, all this talk about voting and working
for Kucinich in the primaries assumes that Kerry has a lock
on the nomination, and ignores the possibility that John Edwards,
more of a "centrist-populist" kind of candidate, could move
up fast and overtake the frontrunner. Voting for Kucinich,
in this thinking, ensures that Kerry wins, because Edwards
wouldn't get that 20% Kucinich vote that he needs to overtake
Kerry's negatives are starting to leech out into the body
politic. He barely won Wisconsin, for example. Edwards was
right on his heels, nearly pulling off an amazing upset, drawing
in a healthy slice of Independents and even moderate Republicans.
If Dean were to throw his support to Edwards -- as he seemed
to be intimating just before the Wisconsin voting -- you could
imagine a scenario where Edwards, with that 15-20% Dean vote,
joining forces with the Kucinich bloc, and overtaking Kerry
in state after state.
Kerry is a known quantity, a Democratic centrist who brings
with him all sorts of establishment baggage over the decades
he's been in politics.
Edwards, with not even a full Senate term under his belt
-- and thus less there for the dirty-tricks forces in the
GOP to latch onto -- is a dynamic campaigner, with a charismatic
charm that many voters, especially in his native South, find
compelling. Plus, he's an up-by-his-bootstraps kind of guy,
who spent a good share of his lawyering life taking on the
big corporations and winning, and now he's aiming his shots
at NAFTA's deficiencies and Bush's ruinous, job-losing economic
Of course, Edwards also voted to approve Bush's blank-check
for war in Iraq and for the Patriot Act, and his lack of experience,
especially with regard to foreign relations, doesn't give
us much to go on as to how he might move in international
And then there's the question posed by the possible presence
of Ralph Nader in the presidential debates in the Fall. Who
would be better poised to take on both Bush and Nader? The
steady but dullish scrapper Kerry, or the less-experienced
but more "likeable" Edwards?
If it's a Bush v. Kerry race between two men of great privilege,
Nader's run may take on more legitimacy for some voters --
you know, Nader's old tune about there not being all that
much difference between the two parties.
(Tell that, Ralph, to the 500+ Americans dead, the 15,000+
U.S. troops sent home with injuries, the many thousands of
Iraqis killed, and the U.S. military getting prepped for invading
more countries after the election if Bush wins. Nader simply
refuses to see that the differences between the parties, though
minimal in normal times, are huge these days when measuring
Bush&Co. against any Democratic candidate. Nader's reform
issues are often right-on, but we don't have the luxury of
considering a third-party candidate this time out; the stakes
simply are too great for our democracy and for the world.)
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In sum, things in the Democratic primaries are not so cut
and dried as they looked at first. True, Kerry has the momentum,
and leads in the delegate count, but the biggest states have
yet to be heard from, and in those states Edwards -- even
without the big money and massive number of troops on the
ground -- may very well be competitive. Conceivably, if he
wins a few of those big states (Georgia, New York, California,
Ohio), he could overtake Kerry's delegate lead.
In this scenario, voting for Kucinich might make one feel
good, and morally pure, but might well serve to put Kerry,
a centrist, in power (just as voting for Nader would increase
the likelihood of a Bush victory), whereas Edwards conceivably
might be the more effective candidate and make a better, more
What's a voter to do?
I sit here in California on the horns of that dilemma, only
a week away from having to make my decision in the polling
My inclination at the moment -- and it may be a possible
strategy for others in the coming primary states -- is to
wait until the last minute to solidify the choice. If the
final pre-election polls show Kerry way, way ahead of Edwards,
my vote goes to Kucinich, in hope that if enough of us progressives
vote similarly, the message gets through to the winning candidate
and to the party leaders that the progressive point of view
is vital for success.
If, right before the primary vote, the race is neck-and-neck
between Kerry and Edwards, I go for Edwards, guessing that
he might be a stronger, more electable, more progressive candidate
In any event, my gut tells me that the two of them, Kerry
and Edwards, will be on the Democratic ticket together, though
it's not clear in what order.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., is co-editor of the progressive website,
The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org),
and has taught American government and international relations
at Western Washington University and San Diego State University.