Voting From the Heart

MY ANNUAL PICKS last month of overhyped and underreported stories produced tons of mail. There was the usual "Why do you hate America?" from folks who don't understand that you can love a country and still be appalled by its policies. And I got lots of suggested additions to the list, like the worldwide shortage and privatization of fresh water, and White House stonewalling on a meaningful 9/11 investigation.

But the most mail came from an item that appeared in a longer version of the column on the national Web site I listed as underreported the impact of the candidacies of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich on the presidential race. Both have discussed ideas and issues other candidates were not touching. Both, I wrote, have enthusiastic grassroots support, despite getting virtually no media recognition and despite having no shot at their party's nomination.

Well, this last statement struck a nerve. My sin? Dismissing Kucinich's chances of winning, especially before any votes had been cast.

Please hold your laughter. No so-called "minor" candidate, or their more fervent supporters, can acknowledge that they won't win. Contributions die, and what little attention they get evaporates.

BUT WITH THE WAY the primary and fund-raising systems have changed in recent elections, it's unusual at this point that so many could win. Howard Dean or Wesley Clark, definitely. Sens. John Kerry or John Edwards could still catch fire. But Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman are at best unlikely, and Carol Moseley Braun, Sharpton, and Kucinich have nevereverhad a chance to win.

Is it, as one correspondent wrote, "arrogant" for me, as a commentator, to say thisor to choose which candidacies to emphasize based on it? I don't think so. It's a big world; any reporter's capacity to tell stories is finite. The candidates with the most chance of winning and therefore influencing future public policy deserve the most coverage. That's why Howard Dean's every word gets far more attention than Moseley Braun's.

Should I "dismiss" candidates like Kucinich? The question has a flawed premisethat his only value as a candidate is if he can win. Any Church of Dennis adherent should recognize that their candidate won't win. Even if Kucinich (or Sharpton, or any minor candidate) got two-thirds of every primary and caucus held, Democratic Party leaders have the final say in who gets nominated. They will never allow the nomination to go to someone they consider inherently unelectable. What makes Kucinich unelectable is his greatest appealhis willingness to speak truths and challenge the status quo in a way party insiders never, ever will. They are the status quo.

IN 2000 AND 1996, White House incumbents limited the Democratic primary field. But in the previous three election cycles1984, 1988, and 1992Jesse Jackson (twice) and Jerry Brown covered ground similar to what Kucinich, Sharpton, and Moseley Braun occupy this year. Jackson and Brown were far stronger candidates. In 1984, Jackson won more primaries than the eventual nominee, Walter Mondale. He also won a string in 1988, and Brown won important ones in 1992.

They, too, had no shot at the nomination. Neither did Bill Bradley in 2000. The money and weight of the party leaders and their ability to influence selection of many of the convention delegates trump grassroots and ballot enthusiasm. In each case, a more conservative, "moderate" candidate was nominated because party leaders wanted to appeal to swing voters who might otherwise vote Republican. Money, votes, and delegates followed.

One can plausibly argue that this has been the death of the Democrats, but one can't argue that the dynamic still has a stranglehold on the party. That's why Beltway Dems are so alarmed by Dean. He's not an insider, and even though his record in Vermont was by any reckoning centrist, Clintonites are charging that Dean is too "liberal" to be successful against Bush. If Dean is at the edge of respectability, where does that leave Kucinich?

IT LEAVES HIM doing two things no successful candidate ever does these days: laying out detailed policy ideas and challenging powerful institutions. I admire Kucinich. He's one of the most principled and courageous people in Congress. If we had a vote in this state, there's a good chance I'd vote for him. I don't agree with all of his ideas, but that's why I would choose himbecause he has specific ideas I can disagree with. I don't need to like them all.

Howard Dean's success wouldn't have been possible without Kucinich and Sharpton at his shoulder, providing more "extreme" views that give his statements context. Their continued candidacies ensure that ideas like getting U.S. troops out of Iraq or making racial justice a priority aren't forgotten by candidates otherwise reluctant to go there. There are plenty of reasons to support Kucinich. Even if he won't be our next president.

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