Kucinich was just playing hard to get

The goofy Ohio congressman was trying to drive a hard bargain. Liberals should be (sort of) proud

Published March 17, 2010 1:18PM (EDT)

This morning, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, will hold a press conference to announce how he’s voting on healthcare reform. Since he has up to this point been a "no" vote, the fanfare presumably means he’s changed his mind.

First of all: good move, guy.

Kucinich first appeared as a nationally noteworthy politician when Studs Terkel, the incarnation of old-school New Deal working-class politics, touted him as a presidential candidate in the Nation. It hardly would have served Kucinich’s legacy -- or that of the late Terkel -- for him to oppose the most significant piece of welfare state legislation since the 1960s.

Opposing the bill would have ended any future he might have had as an influential figure in the progressive movement. Kucinich was hoping for a more progressive bill, and thought that by holding out he might pull his party leftward on the issue. If he'd ended up voting against reform, he almost certainly would have had the opposite effect.

At the New Republic, Jon Chait chalks up the apparent change of heart to the Ohio congressman’s sympathy for the uninsured. "Kucinich may be crazy but he's not... well, he is kind of stupid. Okay, he may be crazy and stupid, but he's not completely indifferent to the plight of the disadvantaged. So he's got that going for him."

I get that Kucinich invites this kind of snide condescension: the city of Cleveland defaulted on its debt while he was mayor (an issue on which he was later vindicated, by the way). He looks like an elf, and not in the sexy Cate Blanchett and Orlando Bloom way. He’s a vegan -- the horror! He talked during his presidential campaign about seeing UFOs. So yes, he is, shall we say, odder than your average miniature left-wing Cleveland ex-mayor bear.

But let's give some credit here. The ostentatious way that Kucinich held out, with President Obama following him to Cleveland to court his vote, suggests that he was maybe in it for the publicity all along. So does his showy press conference this morning -- not exactly Kucinich’s usual style. This is to say -- unbelievably -- that a liberal acted with savvy.

Think of it this way: if you were interested primarily in passing healthcare reform, and secondarily in trying to force your party to acknowledge the better ideas on the left that it had abandoned, how would you behave?

You’d behave like Kucinich.

The guy held out as long as possible. He tried to make Obama and the House leadership sweat his vote. Maybe he thought he could force a vote on the public option. And, eventually, unwilling to play the liberal House equivalent of Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., he came around. What else could he do?

If he ultimately voted against reform, he'd deserve to be laughed off any progressive stage he tried to get on. But it looks like he won’t. Instead, he seems to have played exactly the kind of pragmatic game that liberals have been so unable to do this past year, as the Obama administration has drifted to the right to accommodate Senate centrists and conservatives. Kucinich’s effort was, by far, too little and too late to bring any real countervailing pressure to bear. So he’s short, and uses words like "holistic." He still shouldn’t be mocked for trying.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Dennis Kucinich D-ohio Healthcare Reform