I detect a consensus that Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton are focused like laser beams on core progressive principles, compared to what are considered the more pragmatic choices of Dean, Kerry, Gephardt and Edwards. On this account they should enjoy the bulk of progressive support, but they don't. Of course, there is doubt that such principles would aid a Democrat bucking our emerging one-party state. So we have the old pragmatism vs. idealism quandary. Or do we?
I suggest not. I stipulate the obvious, that in a head-to-head election with George Bush today, a progressive would get slaughtered. But the election is not today. The primaries are six months or more away. The candidates thought to have a realistic chance against Bush maneuver as if everything they say will cause them to be held up to withering scorn by the Bush machine, and no one can blame them for such caution.
Some are driven to emulate many of Bush's positions, a different matter. They are driven by presumptions about what the public thinks, by calculations of popularity. Perfectly understandable, but fundamentally wrong-headed in another sense.
The problem right now is not the president's popularity. It's what most Americans think. I don't mean they are stupid, or even misinformed. I mean they have come to unwarranted conclusions, sometimes with the benefit of great sophistication, sometimes not. In either case, these conclusions are subject to change.
The job of an opposition is to challenge those conclusions on the most fundamental level possible -- to unravel the intellectual logic of Republican ideological supremacy, such as it is.
The potential of a "radical" candidate is not to run against Bush or the pragmatic candidates. It is to run against the zeitgeist. The conventional wisdom is a moving target. We can see it changing now with respect to the Iraq war. A progressive candidate has the vision to stick to principles he or she knows to be right, confident that events will carry opinion towards those conclusions. A progressive candidacy can radicalize the public by speaking truth to power, by advancing positions that are right on the merits but unpopular at the moment.
The power of such a candidacy should not be doubted. Nobody thought Eugene McCarthy had a chance of altering Democratic Party politics, and we know what happened. McCarthy made Kennedy and unmade Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy could have been president. I was around then; trust me, nobody thought McCarthy would have any such impact.
More recently, in 1992, we had the example of Jerry Brown. His campaign was energized by a radical, innovative, very bad idea -- the flat tax. The radical, innovative aspects pushed his candidacy further than anyone had expected it to go, and the shortcomings of the idea helped to sink him in the end. So we need proposals that are radical and innovative without the bad part. There are plenty available.
Winning or losing, such a candidacy can elevate the Democrats' prospects. Insofar as that candidacy moves the borders of what is perceived as tenable thinking, all Democrats become more mainstream and Bush becomes more extreme. How might this be done?
I think the key task is to have the discipline to focus oneself on a limited number of major issues, coupled with a handful of dramatic, large-scale, well-substantiated proposals. This in my view was a huge problem for Nader and is also one for Kucinich. Their minds are perpetually scanning the horizons for issues -- identifying them, figuring them out, articulating them, adding them to the repertoire. It's a lot for the ordinary person to absorb.
Just to get the juices flowing, I will suggest three areas for emphasis. On the surface, they are obvious enough. The difference is in how they are handled.
War. George Bush has committed impeachable offenses in the conduct of foreign policy. Lies the likes of which have never been seen were used to justify the Iraq venture. It doesn't matter what WMDs Saddam has, or had. He was not a threat to the US, nor was he implicated in anti-US terrorism. The other side of the problem, now emerging in daily episodes of fatal US casualties, is the administration's incapacity to determine whether Iraq would be governable, and if so, to effectively plan to govern. The right policy now is a pre-emptive withdrawal -- bring the troops home, and leave Iraq to the UN.
Taxes. We need an explicit shift in tax burden from the non-rich to the rich, basically reversing what the regime has done since 2001. Only a new regime (leadership of Congress and the presidency) will do this. Among other motives, raising employment requires a basic reconfiguration of the tax cuts, in the direction of more progressivity and equal taxation of investment and labor income. So the flagship proposal: a working-class tax cut, combined with clawbacks of the Bush tax cuts that more than pay for the tax cut. The proceeds of this package address concerns about deficits and new spending needs, because they reflects the audacity of proposing to actually raise money. The closest approximation of this position right now is John Edwards, but the tax cut side of his proposal -- for a saver's credit -- is cold potatoes. When people hear "tax cut" they expect to see more money in their pocket. The best way to provide such a tax cut to families below the median is to expand refundable credits in the income tax.
Health care. There are two problems with health care, not one. It's not just access; it's also cost containment. In the latter regard, single-payer has profound implications for wages, the fiscal condition of state and local governments, and long term fiscal solvency. The problem is not profit per se. It's fragmentation in the context of privatization. In other words, to reduce (not eliminate) the growth of health care spending, we need "global" budgeting for health care through a single payer system. Some savings can be wrung from reduced administrative costs and lesser rewards for new drugs, but the major opportunity here is to grasp the nettle of cost containment -- to propose to economize on health care spending growth, not to promise universal benefits without regard to sustainability of such benefits over the long term. The watchwords of progressive health care reform are sustainability (in other words, affordability in the long run) and universality.
To be certain, assorted echoes of these points can be found among other candidates. But echoes are not enough. We need strong voices. The greater the din, the more the public mood will shift and the other candidates will be encouraged to follow along.
Much of what I've said could apply to a generic progressive candidate. But it happens that Kucinich and Sharpton are the only two progressives in the race now. Sharpton's problem is that he is dogged by his past. Whatever you think about that past, it's hard to see his ideas given the consideration they might deserve in light of the distractions. Imagine Bill Bennett trying to give a speech on the unconstructive personal behavior of the poor.
Kucinich's record -- in terms of the Cleveland default -- has a positive, boomerang-like quality. Once you know the story, you think better of him, not worse. His potential ability to connect with working-class Reagan Democrats is notable. I think this is an advantage relative to Dean, though not to Gephardt, Edwards or Kerry. Otherwise he is a skillful politician with a progressive message. At this point in time, that is what should be encouraged. It's not February, when we will start to obsess about who's up and who's down in different states. Nor are we in the eleventh hour of the convention where minute tactical calculations come to the fore. Now is the time for Big Ideas to get a chance to bloom.
Another consideration is that if you are liberal but pragmatic, your argument is that the realistic candidates will get the center or swing voters. The best way to test that is to deny them progressive votes. Let's see how good they are in proving their own argument. That would demonstrate "winnability." Their burden, after all, is not persuading liberals they can get non-liberal votes; it is in actually showing they can get non-liberal votes. So let them stew in their own juices, fighting amongst themselves for the center. Meanwhile liberals and progressives should take a unified stand and show their strength and potential for growth.
Cynicism is a poor guide to politics when a public is or could become increasingly mobilized against the Bush dynasty. Now is the time to stretch. There will be plenty of opportunities to get desperate later on.
Max B. Sawicky is a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a member of the National Executive Committee of Americans for Democratic Action and the editor of the "MaxSpeak" weblog at maxspeak.org/gm. Opinions reflected here do not represent those of the Economic Policy Institute or Americans for Democratic Action.