George W. Bush's repeated threats to start a war on Iraq has sucked the oxygen out of public affairs debates since last fall. In the meantime, we had a general election that managed to ignore corporate corruption and the failing economy, the new Republican Congress passed a $397.4 billion spending bill with all sorts of mischievous riders that we are only now finding out about and the Bushites secretly are preparing more legislation to reduce the Bill of Rights to a dead letter.
As we go to press, Bush is still sending troops and materiel to the Mideast even while the UN Security Council appears intent on continuing boring but effective inspections instead of approving an Anglo-American military intervention. The US may be the world's last superpower, and Tony Blair desperately wants to be associated with a superpower, but even W's father, George I, who actually served in a war once, has told his son it would be a mistake to go into Iraq without the UN's blessing and multilateral support of the sort that wiser heads built up before the 1991 Gulf War.
Dubya's foreign policy fiasco is starting to resonate with the public which already was leery of his inattention to the economy. People keep hearing that Dubya is a popular president but hundreds of thousands more Americans find themselves out of work each month just as hundreds of thousands more find themselves rallying to stop a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Polls are finally starting to puncture the myth of Bush invincibility. A generic Democrat led Bush by 48 to 44 percent in a nationwide Quinnipac University poll released March 3.
But progressives cannot simply react to Bush's mistakes. Democrats expected last fall to capitalize on the economic problems to pick up seats and perhaps regain the majority in the House and pad their slim lead in the Senate, but Karl Rove and George W. Bush never let the debate stray from the need to secure the homeland. Democrats, some of whom had served honorably and were wounded in Vietnam, found their patriotism questioned by candidates who had ducked military service. And enough voters bought it. That is why Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist are calling the shots in the House and Senate instead of Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle.
Bush is vulnerable but now is the time to support candidates who will raise progressive and populist issues next year. While pundits groan at the bunch of candidates who already are testing the political bellwethers of Iowa and New Hampshire for support, at least five merit your attention.
Dick Gephardt opted to forgo his quest to become House speaker to run for president (see dickgephardt2004.com). Gephardt worked hard trying to win back the House and was denied by circumstances that were largely out of his control. He would have made a great speaker, promoting progressive populist values even as he listened to centrist Democrats. His hawkish foreign policy may be a canny reading of the presidential electorate, but we doubt it. Gephardt's efforts would be better spent unseating Republican Sen. Christopher Bond in Missouri.
Anti-war progressive populists have an excellent candidate in Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat and chair of the House Progressive Caucus who is running an exploratory campaign for president (kucinich.net). From a working-class, inner-city family, Kucinich first came to national prominence as the "boy mayor" of Cleveland in the 1970s, where he fought the business establishment to keep the municipal power utility. He won that fight but lost the mayor's office in 1979 after bankers forced the city into financial default. He won a state Senate seat in 1994 and defeated a Republican congressman in 1996.
Since then Kucinich has become a standard-bearer for unions (he introduced a bill to repeal the notorious Taft-Hartley restrictions on unions). He has been a harsh critic of "free trade" deals that do not protect workers or the environment but simply send manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries overseas. He opposed President Clinton's call in 2000 to grant permanent normal trade status for China because of that nation's human rights record. He opposed a Republican effort to let companies offer comp time in stead of overtime pay. He also is concerned about genetically modified foods and proposed legislation mandating labels on "biotech" foods, saying, "If we are what we eat, shouldn't we know what is in our food, so we know what we will become?" He also has been a consistent critic of foreign interventions, opposing the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and joining two dozen other lawmakers who went to court seeking to stop Clinton from committing troops without congressional approval.
As a congressman he has opposed abortion, reflecting the attitudes of his district. When he shifted to a pro-choice stance, saying, "I would be a pro-choice president, but would also work to make abortions less necessary," some professional pro-choicers sniffed at his change as opportunistic. The smart pro-choice position would be to embrace Kucinich as a candidate who could bring back to the Democratic fold Christians who believe that respect for life does not end at birth.
Howard Dean (deanforamerica.com) gets applause for using the late Paul Wellstone's line that he represents "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," but his terms as Vermont governor marked him as a political maverick. He is a fiscal conservative but calls for universal health care and expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. He also takes the sensible view that gun control should be left up to the states. "Just as we resist attempts by President Bush to dictate to the states how we run our school systems and what kind of welfare programs to have, we need to resist attempts to tell states how to deal with guns beyond existing federal law," he said, though he supports closing the gun show loophole. He also thinks he can win back rural white voters, "because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too!"
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. (johnedwards2004.com), is an attractive candidate and perhaps the one the White House fears most, if GOP attacks on him are any indicator. The son of a textile worker, he was a successful trial lawyer. When the GOP tried to vilify him, Edwards pointed out he has spent his adult life as "an advocate for people, mostly children and mostly families." In four years as a senator he has worked to protect Social Security and Medicare and improve public education and health care but he has staked out a centrist position in the Senate, aligning himself with the Democratic Leadership Council and the bipartisan Centrist Coalition. His campaign so far has largely discussed issues in general terms.
John Kerry, D-Mass. (johnkerry.com) has staked out liberal positions with the occasional touch of populism. As top Democrat on the Small Business Committee, he supported efforts to cut federal regulations of small businesses while expanding other federal assistance, such as the micro-loan program for businesses that have a hard time getting bank financing. He calls for guaranteed health care coverage for every American and supports rural health care and education. He first gained attention as a decorated Vietnam veteran who became leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and in a January speech at Georgetown he called for a "new approach to national security ... a bold, progressive internationalism that stands in stark contrast to the too often belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush administration."
Of the other candidates, if the Democrats want to revive the Green Party, they could nominate Sen. Joe Lieberman (joe2004.com). Sen. Bob Graham is popular in Florida but other than his criticism of Bush's foreign policy as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee there is little to recommend him to progressive populists. Former Sen. Carole Moseley Braun might be a more serious contender if personal and professional choices, including aligning herself with a notorious African dictator, had not brought about her defeat by conservative Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998. Al Sharpton, trying to rise above his race-baiting past as he seeks a national stage, will raise issues that other candidates won't. And, friends of democracy, that's a good thing. -- JMC