Flip-Flop Into Oblivion

How Dennis Kucinich aborted his chances to be the peace candidate.


Yet another Democrat has entered the presidential election of 2004: Florida Senator Bob Graham, who only a month ago was undergoing major heart surgery. (Credit Dick Cheney for blazing that particular trail.) There are now nine candidates for the Democratic nomination, more if you count those who are still merely "exploring" the possibility of a bid, fewer if you ignore those whom Serious Opinion, as it styles itself, deems unworthy of consideration.

I'm a sucker for lost causes, which makes me more sympathetic to the also-rans than I probably should be. Some of them only seem to be in the game for ego reasons. The craftier ones presumably hope for some payoff when they exit the race: In exchange for Candidate X's endorsement and his 1 percent of the delegates, the future President Kerry or Edwards will award him a diplomatic post in Spain, or the regency of occupied France, or the federal funds to build a new dog track back home. And some are there, in theory, to be the consciences of the party, sticking up for their principles while the frontrunners assemble their cynical coalitions.

Please note the phrase "in theory." In actual practice…well, let's consider the case of Ohio's Dennis Kucinich.

Rep. Kucinich is a Catholic populist with what used to be called "ethnic" political roots. Part of that ideological mix is a skepticism toward the national security state, which has led him to oppose the impending war with Iraq. Another part, less acceptable to the Democratic left, is opposition to abortion. And so this week, after years as a reliably pro-life voice, he suddenly discovered the rights of she who owns the womb. "People want to make sure that their president has a capacity to grow and a capacity to evolve," he explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. "I've been thinking about this for years…None of us have all the answers on a given day."

Who does he think he's fooling? There have been signs that Kucinich might change his stance on abortion for about a year—that is, for about as long as he's been seriously mulling a presidential campaign. Obviously, the reversal was intended to curry favor with the party power-brokers, who would never allow a pro-lifer to head the Democratic ticket. (Years ago, Dick Gephardt and Al Gore made the same switch for the same reason.)

Less obviously, it was meant to curry favor with the protest community. After all, Kucinich has virtually no chance of winning the nomination, whatever his stance on abortion. He does have a shot, though, at winning a smaller contest: the race to represent the antiwar constituency. Without his switch, the peace vote might otherwise fall in behind a less fetally friendly candidate—Howard Dean, or Al Sharpton, or Gary Hart. Heck, even Bob Graham voted against the Iraq resolution last year. (Granted, Graham also used his perch atop the Intelligence Committee to help pass the USA Patriot Act. His chances of becoming this year's Eugene McCarthy are about as high as Kucinich's chances of becoming this year's Hubert Humphrey.)

But there's a political miscalculation here. The implicit message to Kucinich's flip-flop was not "I believe in abortion rights." It was "I'm willing to sell out my principles to survive." Given how strongly the Washington winds are blowing toward war, this is not the sort of impression that will win you the peace vote. If protesters wanted a candidate who bends with every gale, they could just vote for John Kerry and be done with it.