Shortsighted Longshots

Every election cycle has them: those pesky people who are determined to run for president no matter what the polls or more rational people say.

Even though it's only February, some of these Steve Forbes-esque candidates have already made their way into the race. This week, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) announced their intentions to run. Neither, of course, stands much chance of winning, and while they might bring new ideas and energy to the party, their candidacies will also hurt the eventual nominee.

Kucinich, a four-term congressman from Cleveland, is making the central issue of his campaign the need to stop a probable war with Iraq. To be sure, this is an issue that needs more attention from the Democratic Party. Former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) -- until now probably the most anti-war candidate -- never voted on the resolution authorizing force against Iraq; and of the six candidates who now serve in Congress, Kucinich is the only Democrat who opposed it. Unfortunately, most Americans have never heard of Kucinich, and that's not likely to change in the next 12 months.

Moseley-Braun, a one-term senator who became embroiled in scandal and lost her seat in 1998, is targeting her campaign to two groups: African Americans and women. Until now, the voluble Rev. Al Sharpton seemed to have the best chance of gaining African American support. And all of the candidates have been aggressively seeking the backing of women because they know no Democrat can win the White House without women's support. Moseley-Braun was able to benefit from excitement about women candidates in 1992 when she ran for the Senate during the "Year of the Woman." But being a black woman isn't going to be enough to get her through the primaries. (And it's not as if Moseley-Braun is creating history here: Shirley Chisholm ran for the White House in 1972.)

Kucinich and Moseley-Braun join a field that already includes six candidates -- besides Dean and Sharpton, there's Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- and could soon have three more: retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.). On some level, it's a good sign when a race sparks so much interest; obviously, the candidates believe that the incumbent is vulnerable. But it also means that they believe the current field of challengers is beatable. And, if they work hard enough, they may ensure that Bush gets a second term. That's because peripheral candidates take money and resources away from the candidate with the best chances.

This wasn't as big a problem in the case of Forbes, who could afford to finance his own Republican primary campaign. But it could wreak real havoc for the Democrats next year. By focusing on Iraq, Kucinich is likely to win support from those liberals -- including a significant number of college students -- who see war as the most important issue. Sharpton and Moseley-Braun can draw support from African Americans, support that will be critical for candidates in primaries. Gephardt, who also doesn't stand much chance of winning, will be backed by labor. Pretty soon Democrats will be fractured into a bunch of interest groups. None of the candidates will have formed a winning coalition. And that will make an uphill battle against Bush all the more difficult come November 2004, especially because the Democrats will no longer be able to tap into the soft-money donor base that has funded their recent campaigns.

Of course, one hopes that when these candidates lose they will endorse the eventual nominee -- and that the votes of their supporters will follow. But there are always sore losers who make their support contingent on some request. Sharpton is unlikely to turn over his supporters without a fight -- and keeping African-American voters away from the ballot boxes would almost certainly hand Bush his re-election.

Perhaps all Kucinich and Moseley-Braun want is a platform so that their ideas are heard. And it's true that we need more debate on the question of Iraq, and we need to pay more attention to issues of concern to women and blacks. But we also need a candidate who can win the White House in 2004. Kucinich and Moseley-Braun have every right to take part in the debate over whom the nominee should be and what issues the party should focus on. But they can do that in a constructive way that doesn't strip a more realistic candidate of possible resources and support.

We learned in 2000 that every vote counts. That's why the nominee is going to need all the help available. By promoting their own unlikely candidacies, Kucinich and Moseley-Braun are putting that goal at risk -- and making Bush's re-election all the more likely.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.