Kucinich battles on

May 14, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has the Democratic presidential nomination sewed up, but that isn't stopping Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio from making an all-out effort to win Tuesday's Oregon primary.

The obvious question: Why? "The decision on the nomination may be decided," the intense self-defined peace candidate says, "but the direction of the Democratic Party is not decided. It's absolutely critical that there be a debate going on inside the Democratic Party on who we are as a party," especially regarding the war in Iraq.

It's hard, though, to get a debate going when you only have about 35 convention delegates and the other candidate is already over the top. But Mr. Kucinich insists that the only way to defeat President Bush is to challenge him head-on and without qualification on the war, so he continues to make the argument with the bark off.

In contrast to Mr. Kerry's insistence that the United States must keep its troops in Iraq until the situation is stabilized, Mr. Kucinich clings to his mantra familiar to debate-watchers earlier this year: "U.N. in, U.S. out!" - and the sooner the better.

Whether now or a year or more from now, he argues, bringing U.S. troops home has to happen. So why spend thousands more American lives and billions of dollars more in American wealth delaying the inevitable?

For the last two months, Mr. Kucinich has been focusing this message on Oregon, an independent state that was home to Sen. Wayne Morse, one of the two Senate Democrats who voted against Lyndon B. Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964. It also supported anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene J. McCarthy over Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

Even if Mr. Kucinich could win in Oregon, however, the message might be muted by Mr. Kerry having already clinched the nomination.

In any event, how Mr. Kucinich could persuade the party to adopt a troop pullout now is the dilemma. The Bush campaign would immediately pounce, charging the Democrats with "cutting and running."

But Mr. Kucinich argues that President Bush won't be beaten unless the party is "ready to bring a full-scale challenge to the administration on the basis that the American people were lied to, to take us into a war. That could be sufficient in itself. I don't know what more we would need. By not challenging him on the war, we are forfeiting the election to him."

The Ohio congressman calls it "absolutely mind-boggling" that the president "is asking to be re-elected based on his actions in Iraq. It's a trip through the looking glass, because what he has done is to seek re-election on the very thing he could be defeated on. How in the world a president who took us into war based on lies can offer himself up as the president who's going to protect this country stretches credulity."

But how does Mr. Kucinich, as a candidate with limited public support, get the Democratic Party to confront Mr. Bush's war policy more forcefully? "By the unrelenting assertion of truth," he replies, almost pleading. "We're not doing that as a party. ... Timidity is not the way to win an election. What more revelation has to take place?"

What his party also needs to win the election, he says, "is to have a peace plan and an exit strategy" that turns Iraq over to the United Nations and brings U.S. troops home. "That's the path out," he insists.

Mr. Kucinich says he has talked to Mr. Kerry, and while Mr. Kerry has advocated putting an international face on the occupation, "the flaw is in the assumption that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is a stabilizing factor. It is not. ... The longer we stay, the more reviled our country becomes."

The recent disclosure of prisoner abuse, he says, "makes it more urgent that we have an exit strategy."

Other Democrats share Mr. Kucinich's lament, but few believe he has the stature to rally the party to it himself. And with Howard Dean on the sidelines, more and more questions are being asked within the party whether even a more aroused Mr. Kerry has the passion and the persona to capitalize on an administration thrown on the defensive by new revelations of scandal and indecisiveness in Iraq.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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