The Kucinich Question

I want to say upfront that I’m happy there’s a Dennis Kucinich. I’m happy he’s in the Democratic Party. I’m happy he’s in the House of Representatives. I’d be happy if he ever got into the Senate. But he’s not a viable presidential candidate, and I am hugely skeptical he’d make a good president. I am skeptical not because he is a liberal, or a lefty, but for reasons specific to Dennis Kucinich, the individual.

Kos has a post up knocking Dennis Kucinich’s presidential bid, and I mostly agree with his reasons. Predictably the Kucinichistas are unhappy, and overreacting.

First comment: “So, the lefties in the “big tent” really can go hang, eh?” Kucinich’s “leftiness” isn’t the real issue. About a thousand comments later: “Do Liberals still have a place in this party or not?” Kucinich’s liberalness isn’t the issue, either.

And Kos didn’t suggest kicking him out of the party. (1) He’s just saying he’s not ever going to be president, which he isn’t; and (2) if he were to be president he would probably be bad at the job.

On the whole I agree with Kucinich’s ideas — not all of ’em, but many of ’em. But people can have good ideas and be bad presidents. (I have a lot of good ideas — I happen to think all of my ideas are good — and I will tell you frankly I’d make a terrible president. They’d probably ship me off to an asylum less than a week after the inauguration. Even so, I’d do a better job than Bush.)

Part of my aversion to Dennis Kucinich is that I remember him as mayor of Cleveland. The Kucinichistas will tell you that his unpopularity as mayor came about because he refused to sell city utilities to a commercial interest and defaulted on municipal bonds instead. Actually, it might be argued that was the only thing he did right.

The truth is, the screwups began as soon as he was sworn in. Yes, Kucinich was young and inexperienced, but he seems to have lacked an appreciation for these weaknesses. He brought with him a “management” team of personal friends and political supporters who were just as inexperienced as he was. To me, Kucinich’s management “style” as mayor bears an uncanny resemblance to Bush’s — what he lacked in skills and experience he made up for in arrogance and hubris. The team fired a lot of ineffective bureaucrats, but they also fired effective bureaucrats and replaced them with hacks. To make a long story short, Kucinich and his staff took over a city struggling to deliver basic services and made it even worse. By the time Kucinich had left office he had pissed off everyone in Cleveland.

Kucinich’s ideas were not the problem. The problem was a combination of his temperament, bad judgment, and a tendency to be autocratic, showing a lack of respect for the processes of government and management

Now, that was a long time ago, and it’s entirely possible he has learned from his mistakes. But before considering him for the Chief Executive position, I’d like to see a demonstration. If Cleveland won’t take him back as mayor, then give him a toothpaste factory to run to see if he can make a go of it. If after six months the toothpaste is rolling out of the factory on schedule and the middle management staff hasn’t resigned, then I’ll cross my concerns about his executive abilities off the list. Otherwise, no.

Kucinich’s “Department of Peace” idea suggests to me he still hasn’t figured out what government is for, however. Certainly, I’m all for peace. But I have a problem with establishing a government bureaucracy for “creating a paradigm shift in our culture for human development.” We all need to get it into our heads that the party in power shouldn’t be using the government to enforce its notions about morality and social development, whether I like those ideas or not. I don’t like it when the righties try to use government to manage the nation’s sexual behavior, for example.

This gets down some bedrock principles about why there is government at all. We need government to do things that we as individuals can’t do for ourselves (e.g., law enforcement; building interstate highways) or that the private sector probably wouldn’t do well because of conflicts of interest (e.g., meat inspection; security regulation). Righties want to privatize everything in sight. We lefties think this isn’t always a workable idea, and that in some circumstances government really does do a better job than the private sector. But just as there are some functions that shouldn’t go from public to private, there are also some functions that shouldn’t go from private to public. And creating social paradigm shifts is among the latter.

As near as I can tell, there isn’t any tangible thing Kucinich’s Department of Peace would do that some other branch of government — the State Department, the Justice Department, the Education Department — couldn’t do perfectly well if they were directed to do them. At one point in his proposal Kucinich actually says the Department of Peace would be a “counterbalance” to the Department of Defense. It’s as if he doesn’t grasp that, as President, he would be in a position to make changes within the Department of Defense. We need someone who will get inside the Pentagon and begin dismantling the military-industrial complex, not someone who thinks he can fight the military-industrial complex by setting up another bureaucracy outside the Pentagon.

What this tells me is that Dennis Kucinich doesn’t grasp how bureaucracy functions and what it is for. I’m not opposed to the Department of Peace idea because I’m opposed to paradigm shifts to peacefulness. I’m opposed to it because I think Kucinich lacks the grounded and practical understanding of executive process to make it happen. His general ideas are fine; the devil is in the details.

Kucinich has been steadfastly opposed to the Iraq War all along. He called for withdrawal of forces beginning in 2003, as soon as we went in. I admire him for that. However, his plan for withdrawal still involves replacing US troops with UN troops, which I think is a tad impractical. The UN has a proven track record of being utterly ineffectual when faced with actual violence. That Kucinich hasn’t noticed this suggests he’s not ready to direct the nation’s foreign policy. And, anyway, I rather doubt the UN would agree to it.

I very much like his ideas on national health insurance and battling the nasty effects of globalization. I hope he gets to put some of these ideas into real legislation, and the sooner the better.

But, as Kos says, it is a plain fact that not long ago Kucinich was anti-choice and anti-stem cell research, and he flipped his positions on these issues very suddenly just before he declared his candidacy for the 2004 nomination. Maybe he had a genuine change of heart, or maybe it was political expedience. But it concerns me, either way. It tells me he is a person liable to intrude into private matters that ain’t none of the Gubmint’s dadblamed business.

Well, flame away, Kucinichistas.