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The Progressive Primary Dilemma: K, K or E?

By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor,
The Crisis Papers

February 24, 2004

Those 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 John Kerry.

But, and it's a potentially big but, Kerry may not be our preferred candidate.

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.


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 on.

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."


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.

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 policies.

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 affairs.

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.)


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 progressive President.

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 booth.

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 elect able, more progressive candidate against Bush.

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.

Copyright 2004, by Bernard Weiner


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances