The Dennis Kucinich Debacle

At 4 a.m. Saturday morning, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald put up a 2,500-word blog post that excoriated my post from earlier in the week, “So Long But Not Farewell to Dennis Kucinich.” I'd written four paragraphs that amounted to a light-hearted farewell for the congressman, quickly noting both his most famous political efforts and two of his more well-known personal stories. Greenwald portrayed the article—along with pieces at The Washington Post and The New Republic—as a contemptuous and mean-spirited celebration of Kucinich's defeat in last week’s Ohio Democratic primary. While he focused largely on my description of Kucinich as “among the wackiest members of Congress,” Greenwald framed his critique as an institutional one, neither mentioning me by name nor noting prior coverage of Kucinich's electoral plight. He wrote as though my blog represented The American Prospect’s editorial consensus rather than my own report. Still, he speculated errantly about my opinions of the Ohio congressman and the intentions of my post.

To Greenwald, the post was an effort to dismiss Kucinich's political agenda by highlighting some of his more colorful personal stories, like his experience with UFOs:

Neither the Prospect nor the Post would ever dare mock as “wacky” the belief in invisible judgmental father-figures in the sky or that rendition of life-after-death gospel because those belief systems have been deemed acceptable by establishment circles. ”Wacky”, like its close cousin “crazy,” is a term of establishment derision exclusively reserved for those who deviate from such conventions. And that’s the point worth making here: the real reason anyone with D.C. Seriousness, including many establishment liberals, relished mocking Kucinich is because he dissented from the orthodoxies of the two political parties. 

Saying Kucinich is “wacky,” Greenwald argues, is the same thing as calling him a nutcase. My one use of the term frames his lengthy critique. From my assertion that Kucinich is “among the wackiest,” he infers that I not only dismiss Kucinich but also oppose his political goals, like bringing to light the Obama administration's deeply troubling record on civil liberties. By the end of Greenwald's piece, you could easily think that my post had celebrated the end of the "crazy” Dennis Kucinich while adulating President Barack Obama and his most disturbing policies. That was certainly not my intent nor my belief.

If I were to critique Kucinich, my issue would not be with his ideological agenda but with his political competence. In my piece, I quoted from The Daily Show, where Kucinich chose to perform his ventriloquism act and answer questions about his electability with rhymes and a discussion of the "Age of Aquarius." John Oliver asked if he was quoting the musical. I did not highlight the exchange because I disapprove of harmony and understanding. Rather, I cited it because it illustrates the extent to which Kucinich has fostered his image as an out-of-the-box and, yes, pretty darn wacky, kind of politician. It certainly has its appeal.

But to me it seems that image has hurt Kucinich's efficacy as a liberal champion. Kucinich fought a lot of political battles worth fighting. But he lost almost all of them, and in the meantime, he made his concerns appear to come from farther and farther out in left field. Whether it's speaking out against U.S. assisted killings or filing articles of impeachment, what I find problematic are not Kucinich's initiatives; it’s the fact that he allowed his eccentricities to muddle his message. 

Those who love the congressman say that because he spoke hard truths and argued vociferously against the bad policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, he should be venerated. Often implicit in that argument is a notion that Kucinich's lack of political victories almost amounts to a badge of honor. One of the Salon commenters, mattwa33186 argues just that:

Kucinich didn't get much done in the way of legislation for the same reason Ron Paul doesn't get much done in the way of legislation—he never went along to get along. Never traded one principle to advance another. Never voted for something he thought was wrong so he could get votes for something he thought was right.

His lack of success in that area is simply a reminder that principled men can't get anything done in Washington any more. 

But effectiveness does matter, and other principled liberals have been able to have more relevance. Take Representative Keith Ellison, who was undoubtedly at risk of being dismissed as “radical” or “extreme.” The Minnesota Democrat is both African American and the first Muslim member of Congress. When he was sworn in, he asked that he place his hand on a Quran rather than a Bible. The right wing flipped out. But Ellison showed a shrewd political sense, using Thomas Jefferson's personal copy of the Quran. It was a move that helped change perceptions of Islam in America and helped to establish Ellison as a formidable politician. Since then, Ellison has successfully pushed for consumer protections from credit-card companies, and he co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Far from being dismissed, he now also sits on the House Democratic Steering Committee.

And Ellison, I should add, co-sponsored Kucinich's bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. 

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