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International Socialist Review Issue 37, September–October 2004

Kucinich: Kerry's Bagman


Paul D'Amato is the associate editor of the ISR.

DENNIS KUCINICH was always a long-shot for president, but he was able to attract dedicated followers on the basis of addressing key left-wing issues: bringing the troops home from Iraq, repealing the Patriot Act, and developing a universal health care plan–all issues that Kerry’s candidacy won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. That’s why a group of Kunicich supporters planned to converge on the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in July and at least put their agenda on the table.

"Democrats should stand for getting out of Iraq, single-payer universal health care, ending the death penalty and withdrawing from NAFTA," said Dan Brown, a forty-four-year-old attorney from St. Paul who was one of nine Minnesota delegates who went to Boston supporting Kucinich. "I’m hoping to show Kerry that [these] members of the Democratic Party, whether new or old, are more significant than he might believe." 1

Kucinich supporters wanted to stick to their candidate in order to act as a pressure on the party and push it in a better direction–in the words of Brown, to "have a Democratic Party that moves toward traditional Democratic working-class values."

"People should vote how their values and heart dictate," said Faith Kidder, state coordinator for the Minnesota Kucinich campaign. 2

The peace and union activists who came to pull for Kucinich were disturbed by Kerry’s hawkish acceptance speech. "To those horrified by (President) Bush’s adventurist war, it has been difficult that the Kerry campaign has chosen to emphasize primarily his military leadership," said Charles Underwood, a fifty-eight-year-old kindergarten teacher from Minneapolis. 3

But when the convention was over, only one of Minnesota’s nine Kucinich delegates, Charles Underwood, voted for Kucinich. He stood with thirty-seven other delegates who stuck with Kucinich to the end (out of his original sixty-four). "I just couldn’t vote for a guy who spoke so fondly about a more international and more efficient occupation of another country," Underwood said after the convention. "It just doesn’t fit with what Mrs. Walker taught me back in the 3rd grade, about self-determination, the Declaration of Independence, and who has the right to rule a people." 4

But even Underwood, after voting how his "values and heart dictate," spoke to his fellow Minnesota delegates the next day and surrendered to the pressure. "If you could persuade the Kerry campaign to mention peace from time to time, it would be easier for us.… We will work with you, if you will have us." 5

What happened?

First, Kucinich himself bolted in the name of party unity to the Kerry camp and pressed his supporters to follow suit. "Unless we have a firm and unshakeable resolve for John Kerry, we will have no opportunity to take America in a new direction," he urged. 6 In effect, Kucinich’s message was: In the name of party unity we must back the candidate who supports war and free trade to defeat the other candidate who supports war and free trade.

Kucinich employed much of the same rhetoric he used during his campaign, criticizing Bush for lying his way into war, demanding economic and social justice. This rhetoric, as Kucinich himself explained after his speech, was employed not to provide an alternative to Kerry, but to swing voters behind Kerry: "This speech to me was about reaching out to those Democrats who may not have supported John Kerry during the primaries and caucuses," he said. "My job in this election is to bring them in, and I will do that." 7 He made the same point earlier in his campaign: "The Democratic Party created third parties by running to the middle. What I’m trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy." 8 Kucinich, in other words, was the party’s secret weapon against the Left who swung toward Nader in 2000.

The process was painfully on display in Portland, Maine last August. According to the Portland Press Herald:

Mariah Williams wept the first time she heard presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich speak. His words in Portland last August echoed her interests, and helped transform her from political neophyte to party activist. "I feel like we have one party in this country and it’s the party of corporations," said Williams of Liberty, who switched from being a Green to a Democrat because of Kucinich. "We need a party of the people." 9

This is indeed the role of all left-leaning Democratic candidates. George McGovern in 1968 and Jesse Jackson in 1988, to mention a couple, did the same thing: corraling millions of votes by making a Left or populist appeal, and then handing those votes to the centrist party choice at convention time. The process is predictable. First the Left-Democrat presents his candidacy as one that can push the party to the Left and pressure it to take on issues it otherwise would not. Then, on the fateful convention day, it is revealed that the dynamic is actually the opposite: the party co-opts the Left, drags it to the right, and neuters it. In the end, it has absolutely no influence on the party’s platform or trajectory. All the talk about campaigning for the Democrat as being "part of the movement" for labor rights, against war, for women’s rights, and so on, is revealed to be a lie. The truth is that backing the Democrat is aimed at defusing the fight for a genuine alternative. Those who realize this become demoralized and depressed, and when the next presidential election roles around, a new crop of enthusiasts are found who can be convinced that this is the "most important election of your lifetime," and the whole process begins again. It is a seamless trap.

This is a textbook case of how to kill any attempt to build a third-party alternative that really represents working-class interests. The Mariah Williamses are right to believe that we have virtually one pro-corporate party. And it is the job of the Dennis Kuciniches to make sure that the Mariah Williamses fail to break from that party by wagging a left tail behind the mainstream dog.

It is instructive to see how this process took place. After the convention, Minnesota delegates complained of being "strong-armed" into supporting Kerry. All homemade signs were confiscated. Delegates report being browbeaten for hours to change their vote. The day after he returned from the convention, Charles Underwood posted his impressions on a Web log. They are worth quoting extensively here. Underwood described how delegates felt isolated and "sleep deprived," and describes the efforts to get him to change his vote as "brainwashing." 10

Delegates were told before the voting that Kuninich’s name would not even appear on the ballot and that any vote for him would be recorded as "present." (This was a lie, since the Underwood vote was announced for Kucinich in the end.) The Minnesota delegation relented after they were promised that the issue of peace would be mentioned when the turn came for Minnesota to cast its votes. But the promise was only honored in the breach. The Minnesota delegation’s statement, read by former Vice President Walter Mondale, stated á la George Orwell’s 1984 that "peace can only be achieved through strength and wisdom." 11 And these are the people that accuse Bush of engaging in "dirty tricks."

Underwood was quickly disabused of the idea that the convention would be a place for real give and take:

The first thing I want to say is that the entire convention was a sham. Perhaps I was naïve, but I went in with the perspective of Duluth (the MN Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party State Convention in May), where there was lots of expression from the delegates, including wrangling over platform, motions from the floor, significant interactions with other delegates. None of that was true in Boston; there were no discussions of platform, no microphones on the floor at all, no negotiations of any kind, no input of any kind from the delegates. By the end of the first night, I was very deeply upset, muttering things about "Stepford delegates" and wondering why they didn’t just get the crowd as extras from Central Casting, instead of going through the delegate selection process they did. 12

Convention operators immediately confiscated Underwood’s homemade sign, which simply said "peace," and then later confiscated the pink scarves that some Minnesota delegates had brought which said, "Give Bush The Pink Slip; Delegate for Peace."

Underwood concludes that

this convention had absolutely nothing to do with grassroots politics or representative democracy. It was designed as a high-end infomercial. There was a constant drumbeat for ‘unity’ and ‘message.’ Sadly, the message was entirely about how qualified John Kerry was to lead our nation in war. 13

Underwood attended a teachers’ union meeting, where from the floor he asked Kerry’s pollster Mark Milner if he wasn’t worried that Kerry’s prowar message might alienate millions of voters who want to end the occupation, and prompt them to stay home on election day. According to Underwood:

He replied that it was all the fault of the God-damned Republicans who were paying to get Nader on the ballot. I came back, saying that I was not talking about Nader or Republicans, but loyal Democrats who wanted to vote for somebody against the war in Iraq. He repeated his Republicans/Nader mantra again.

In other words, they have their plan: Run like Bush-lite, then blame Nader when you lose. 14

Anguished over the election, Underwood concludes:

The question arises: Should we now support Kerry? It’s a hard one. How can we support someone whose idea of progress is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist of colonialism? How can we support someone who speaks of a willingness to support unilateral wars (under the right conditions) and whose campaign is so overwhelmingly military in his values.15

Perhaps it would be better to step back and ask this question: Should the Left continually place its faith in a party that is marginally different, each time subordinating the real needs and desires of the working-class majority for the sake of electing a capitalist party that is diametrically opposed to everything we stand for? When do we get off this electoral merry-go-round and start building a real alternative?

In this little convention drama lies the entire historical travesty of the Left and the Democratic Party. It is precisely this that makes Mariah Williams’ call ringingly urgent (though she may not realize again until this election is over): "We need a party of the people." The sooner we realize that party isn’t the Democratic Party, the better.

1 Anitra Budd, "Kucinich Delegates Take Fight to Convention," Pulse of the Twin Cities, available online at"article.php?op=Print&sid=1219.

2 Ibid.

3 Tom Webb, "Minnesota Delegate Went with his Heart," Pioneer Press, July 30, 2004, available online at"mld/twincities/news/politics/9277052.htm.

4 Charley Underwood, "A Kucinich Delegate in Boston and the Totalitarian Democratic Party," August 1, 2004, available online at

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Quoted in Katherine Dwyer, "Candidate of the_Left?" International Socialist Review 32, November—December 2003.

9 Bart Jansen, "Support for Kucinich Hints at Party Divisions," Portland Press Herald, Friday, July 30, 2004, available online at

10 Underwood.

11 Kevin Duchschere, "Kucinich delegates feel voice wasn’t heard," Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 30, 2004, available online at

12 Underwood.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

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