July 29, 2004,
Boston, Mass. On Wednesday afternoon, just hours before he was to address the Democratic National Convention, Rep. Dennis Kucinich delivered an impassioned version of his old stump speech to a group of liberal activists gathered in a Cambridge, Massachusetts hotel. As Kucinich finished his talk which included a call for his favorite campaign proposal, the creation of a federal Department of Peace one fan in the audience yelled out, "Say it tonight, Dennis! Say it tonight!"
But when the time came to speak to the convention, Kucinich didn't say it. Forced by the Kerry campaign to refrain from talking about favorite proposals like the Department of Peace, Kucinich faced a hard reality for so-called "progressive" Democrats: In order to fit the image that John Kerry wants to present to a national audience, Democrats on the left end of the political spectrum have had to, in essence, shut up. And this year, that means the candidates who brought energy to the primary season, the ones who focused Democratic anger about George W. Bush, the ones who made it possible for John Kerry to be in a competitive position today, have found themselves silenced at the convention.
But they don't stay quiet all the time. In front of friendly, like-minded audiences at the forums and meetings that go on outside the convention, the "progressives" are free to speak. And what they say stands in stark contrast to what they say before the delegates at the Fleet Center.
For example, speaking to left-wing activists at a gathering organized by the Campaign for America's Future on Tuesday, former Vermont governor Howard Dean let loose with a shouting, campaign-style speech full of the kind of controversial statements that characterized his campaign. He said the Bush administration is "an administration where they like book burning better than reading books." He jokingly urged Democrats not to call President Bush a fascist, saying, "You're not supposed to do that this week, anyway." He repeated his charges from the campaign that capturing Saddam Hussein had not made America any safer. He repeated his contention that southern whites vote on the issues of "guns, God, and gays." And he finished his speech with the kind of intense, high-volume, run-on shouting that brought audiences to their feet during the campaign. It did the same thing Tuesday afternoon.
But when it came time to speak Tuesday night, much of the life had been drained from Dean's speech. He did not mention George W. Bush by name. He obviously did not mention Kerry's vote to authorize the war in Iraq a key element of Dean's old campaign speech. When he came to one of the signature passages from the old speech "You have the power to...take our country back" he delivered his lines without the buildup and enthusiasm of the Howard Dean who won so much "progressive" support. And finally, he abruptly said, "Thank you very much" and left the stage.
There was a similar contrast between Kucinich's speech, also to the Campaign for America's Future, Wednesday afternoon and his address to the convention Wednesday night. In the afternoon appearance, Kucinich described his theory that the Bush administration had long planned war in Iraq and simply used the September 11 attacks as a pretense to begin the fighting. "This war was preconceived," Kucinich said. "Wait for an opportunity, use 9/11 as an excuse to prosecute it, and then from that build a whole architecture of fear and military spending to try to lock it far into the future to continue to insulate this argument of the inevitability of war."
There was none of that in Kucinich's speech to the convention Wednesday night. The talk included one hard hit on the Bush administration over Iraq "This administration rushed into a war based on distortions and misrepresentations" but it pulled its punches elsewhere. For example, in Kucinich's prepared text, there was a passage in which he was to have admonished the crowd: "Courage, America! Courage to replace an administration which has dishonored our Constitution and attacked our Bill of Rights." When it came time to deliver the line, Kucinich changed the second half of the sentence to "and once again honor our Constitution and respect our Bill of Rights."
All the punch pulling has frustrated some "progressive" leaders. One called it "the Kerry Effect," meaning the process by which strong political statements are muted, ostensibly to broaden their appeal. But from a "progressive" point of view, that makes no sense: After all, what was it that made the Democratic appeal popular in the first place? "Why you would have your lions acting like pussycats is beyond me," said one activist.