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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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.)
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 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.