A Progressive Case for Dean?
Not Yet, Kucinich Is Still Our Man
by John Turri
August 26, 2003
To Dean or not to Dean: that is the question.
Should progressives be supporting Howard Dean? In a recent article on Common Dreams News Center, Nico Pitney argues that they should. Pitney's article has been reprinted on left-leaning and progressive websites. His case is being repeated on discussion boards and across the blogosphere. We probably all have progressive friends and acquaintances who share Pitney's view, if only tacitly. It is worth our time, therefore, to carefully consider Pitney's intelligent and energetic "progressive case for Dean."
I will argue that Pitney fails to make a persuasive case. Rather than Dean, progressives should be supporting Dennis Kucinich.
Let's take a look at Pitney's argument.
First, Pitney addresses the question of party allegiance. Greens who refuse to support a Democrat just because he or she is a Democrat rather than a Green are making a mistake. Greens should keep an open mind.
Second, progressives should only support a candidate who supports publicly financed elections and instant run-off voting. These electoral reforms are critical to the future success of third parties and will make it easier for progressive candidates to run and win elections. Dean supports these measures, so progressives can still support him.
Third, progressives should not waste their "precious energy and resources on [a Democrat] with no chance of defeating Bush." Dean has a chance at defeating Bush, whereas Kucinich does not.
Fourth, only Dean, Gephardt, and Kerry have a chance at defeating Bush. Of these three, progressives should support the one with the best platform. Dean's platform is at least as good or better than Gephardt's and Kerry's, so Dean is the best choice.
Fifth, progressives supporting Dean "share a visceral passion to purge the White House of George Bush and his dangerous administration." Pitney describes this as "critical."
Sixth, of all the Democratic candidates, Dean does best among swing voters. This shows that he is "electable."
Finally, Dean is running a "web-focused campaign [that] has the potential to revolutionize the way American politics operates." Pitney believes that this is very important.
On the basis of these points, Pitney concludes that progressives should support Dean now, through the primaries, and in the general election. Let's consider each of Pitney's premises in turn.
Regarding the first premise that Greens should keep an open mind, Pitney is not alone in claiming it. Norman Solomon, Ted Glick, and Ed Garvey among others have recently made the same point. I happen to agree. Politics is a means to an end. We believe that certain values or principles should be embodied in our public institutions. We survey the situation and try to determine which, of all the courses of action we could choose in good conscience, offers the best chance of achieving the most of what we want. Voting is not intrinsically valuable; joining or supporting a political party is not intrinsically valuable; supporting a particular candidate is not intrinsically valuable. These things have value insofar as they are effective means to our ends.
Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize this. For example, a few weeks ago Dennis Kucinich wrote an open letter to Greens, asking for their support and pointing out all the many important issues on which they agree. In his response, Kenny Mostern gets things backwards when he says that he will not support Kucinich because his "choice of registration" is "itself a principle." Registering in the Green party is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The fact that Kucinich is not running as a Green is not, in itself, a reason for Greens to not support him.
The same goes for Dean, or any other Democratic candidate for that matter. If they're wise, Greens and other independent progressives will not peremptorily rule out supporting a Democrat or engaging the Democratic Party.
Let's grant Pitney's second premise: progressives should only support a candidate that supports public financing and instant run-off voting. In that case, progressives should not support Dean. Dean says he supports publicly financed elections, but he is unwilling to lead by example. Back in March, Dean said he would accept federal matching funds, and argued that all Democratic candidates should do so as well. Public financing is "a huge issue" that "most Democrats believe in," Dean said. Dean also said he had "always been committed to" public financing because it is "just something I believe in." Now that his fundraising is picking up, he's thinking about going back on his earlier commitment. "Could we change our mind? Sure," Dean said a week ago. What's more, Dean has rejected public financing before. In his bid for re-election as Vermont's governor in 2000, Dean "ended up rejecting the [spending] limits altogether and helped set what was, up to then, an all-time record level of spending on a governor's race [in Vermont]."
Dean has been less than outspoken in his support for instant run-off voting (IRV). During a Google search and a Lexis-Nexis database search, I was able to find exactly one quote from Dean supporting IRV. "You have to have instant runoff voting," said Dean at an Iowa fundraiser in January 2003. However, a search of Dean's official website yields zero results for "instant run-off voting." Does he really support IRV? If so, is he willing to make it part of his campaign platform? For progressives who share Pitney's penchant for IRV, it would be nice if Dean clarified exactly how committed he is to IRV.
By contrast, Dennis Kucinich is crystal clear about his support for IRV. IRV is part of Kucinich's platform (see the section of his website entitled "Campaign Reform and IRV"). Kucinich also supports "comprehensive campaign finance reform and Clean Money public financing of the public's elections." Importantly, Kucinich has not wavered in his commitment to accept public financing of his campaign. Consequently, if he were to win the Presidency, he could, without hypocrisy, pressure Congress to move on the issue. What's more, Kucinich's support for electoral reforms goes far beyond Pitney's demands. Among other things, Kucinich supports proportional representation (PR). In light of the Texas redistricting debacle, and the problem of gerrymandering more generally, PR is arguably just as important as IRV is for the development and flourishing of viable third parties and achieving fundamental reform.
Moving on to Pitney's third premise, what should we make of the claim that progressives should only support someone with a chance at defeating Bush? There are at least two reasons to doubt it. First, as Jonathan Schell remarks, "Victory does not come through the ballot box alone. It sometimes comes by circuitous paths. Electoral politics should be played to win, yet changing hearts and minds can at times be as important as changing the President.... When in doubt, it's best to err on the side of speaking the truth." Schell points to George McGovern's candidacy in 1972. McGovern lost, but his candidacy helped force an end to the Vietnam War. Second, one might justifiedly believe that supporting a long shot with passion, energy, and a superlative platform is worth taking the chance that he or she will likely lose.
Nevertheless, my guess is that most people will agree with Pitney here. So let's grant that progressives should only support an "electable" candidate. That still doesn't rule out Kucinich. An August 23 Newsweek poll of registered voters indicates that only 44% believe Bush deserves re-election, whereas 49% believe that he doesn't. That's a six-point swing from the previous month, and the worst re-election numbers for Bush yet. According to an August 20 Zogby poll, 48% of likely voters believe we need to elect a new President in 2004, as opposed to 45% who think Bush deserves re-election. Strikingly, 43% of likely voters would prefer any Democrat to Bush, while 43% would prefer Bush. That "any Democrat" is an empty vessel. Progressives should seize this opportunity to help pour progressive contents into that vessel.
And Bush's tax cuts won't save him if faced with a progressive challenger. According to a recent Pew Research poll, "72% of Americans agree that the government should provide universal health care, even if it means repealing most tax cuts passed since Bush took office." Democrats support it by an impressive 86% to 11%. Republicans even favor it 51% to 44%. (In light of those numbers, support for universal health care among progressives must be running about 99% to 1%!) Dean does not support a universal health care system. Kucinich does. According to Dean's website, Dean's plan would leave at least 10,000,000 Americans uninsured. Single-payer, universal health care is the centerpiece of Kucinich's platform, and he has a proposal in legislative form ready to go. It doesn't hurt that we can accuse those who oppose Kucinich's plan as big-spending conservatives because a single-payer plan will actually cost less than what Americans currently spend on health care.
If we cannot hope to field a viable progressive candidate in light of those poll numbers, the Bush administration's calamitous foreign policy, rapacious tax cuts, abysmal environmental record, civil rights record, sputtering economy, etc., then progressives might as well pack up and forget about electoral politics for a generation or so.
The poll numbers just cited suggest that Pitney's fourth premise is false. Progressives need not restrict themselves to Dean, Kerry, and Gephardt; they need not choose the least unpalatable of a centrist lot.
Pitney's fifth premise is true, but of no significance. Progressives supporting Kucinich also share a "visceral passion" to unseat Bush.
Pitney's sixth premise is only partially accurate. There is some reason to think that Dean can gain support among independents and moderates. However, it is unclear whether Dean has a definite advantage here because there is also some reason to think that Kucinich can attract swing voters as well. Kucinich has been elected to Congress five times from a district in Ohio rife with Reagan Democrats, where he carried 74% of the vote in his 2002 re-election campaign. Kucinich argues that being a success in his district "may be a better predictor of national success than holding statewide office in a liberal stronghold like Vermont or Massachusetts."
At last, coming to Pitney's final premise, it is true that Dean has an impressive web presence for which he deserves credit. However, I find it difficult to take seriously the idea that progressives should support Dean because his campaign is Internet savvy. Why isn't this instead a reason to support Dean's web-strategist? Seriously, the other candidates also have web presences. At best, Dean has a slight advantage on this score, and one that will likely not last very long as others in the field follow suit.
Pitney's argument that progressives should support Dean fails. At present, progressives don't have to compromise. Kucinich is still a viable candidate. Progressives should support Dean only if Kucinich's candidacy falters. Let's work to make sure that doesn't happen.