February 12, 2007

It's Way Too Early for Campaign '08 Update: Sam Brownback and Dennis Kucinich

Last night found me watching C-SPAN (yes, again), and catching a glimpse of two presidential candidates considered to be at opposite political poles: Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Brownback was a guest on a radio show in South Carolina, and Kucinich was speaking at a bookstore in New Hampshire. Watching the two men speak, I realized why neither one could ever win the presidency, and yet I found both interesting to listen to.

Brownback surprised me with his calm civility. You might expect a guy as staunchly ideological as he is to be vituperative and nasty (a la Rick Santorum), but he isn't. When asked by a caller to give his opinion on the Clinton presidency (which for Brownback is roughly equivalent to asking, "Please share your feelings about Satan"), Brownback displayed a surprising calmness of tone. If you didn't listen to the actual words he said (in which he outlined his total disagreement with Clinton on everything), you'd think Brownback found the ex-president a perfectly decent fellow, a cherished colleague. He also spoke in pleasant tones about the late liberal icon Paul Wellstone, with whom Brownback collaborated on a human-trafficking bill some years back.

On the other hand, Brownback is as starchy as a minister's collar. As a public service, when C-SPAN tapes radio interviews, they leave the cameras on for a couple minutes after the radio program is over, showing the candidate interacting with the host in a more relaxed, off-the-record style. It's an intriguing glimpse of candidates in a more human mode. In Brownback's case, though, he was exactly the same, just as stiff and formal off air as on. Though Brownback is a relatively young man (only 51, a decade younger than Bill Clinton), he's a throwback to the Depression era, in style and substance.

Brownback's electability, such as it is, rests on his true-conservative credentials. The theory is that conservative Republican primary voters, distrusting the front-runners in the field (Giuliani, McCain, and Romney), will yearn for a principled conservative. In despair, they will cast their eyes around the room, and there, in the corner, standing with military-perfect posture, will be Brownback.

Conservative, he is. Without question. But assuming Republcians are actually interested in winning the '08 election, they'll want someone electable. And Brownback, with his unyielding principles and hyper-formal manner, isn't going to be charming any crossover voters. If Republican voters decide they can't abide Giuliani, McCain, or Romney, they're far more likely to turn to Mike Huckabee, who combines conservative politics with genuine warmth and likeability.

As for Kucinich, even though he ran in 2004, I never got a chance to see him speak at length. As such, I was surprised and impressed by his intelligence. Kucinich made wide-ranging allusions, from Tennyson to the Bible to a philosopher whose name I didn't quite catch, and gave a very impressive talk, a secular sermon almost, about the virtues of peace and love as guiding principles and how he would apply them in his presidency. If Brownback is a throwback to the '30s, Kucinich is straight out of the '60s, the political reincarnation of Eugene McCarthy, well-read, passionate, and witty.

Unfortunately, he has a grating, high-pitched voice that wears poorly and makes his strongest statements sound like rants. He has an odd habit of ending important sentences on an upnote, the way an overexcited child might. Also, he tends to step on his own applause lines, refusing to stop and soak up the crowd's approval, determined to finish his point come hell or high water. All in all, he's an exhausting speaker to listen to, between his curious speech patterns and his high-flown allusions. He's not in the least suited for modern sound-bite politics. (Incidentally, if anyone from the Kucinich campaign happens to read this, please tell him that call-and-response rarely works in a crowd smaller than 100 or so. If you ask a question like, "Are we going to stand for a government based on fear and terror?" and expect to hear a thunderous "NO!!" in response, it helps if there are enough people around to generate real thunder.)

Also, Kucinich surprised me by showing up with a wife. You may recall that in 2004, Kucinich's bachelor status was the subject of some discussion, even leading to a "win a date with Dennis" contest at some point. Well, between the end of that campaign and the beginning of this one, Kucinich not only found a special someone, but married her. I'm happy for him, as he seems to be a genuinely nice guy and deserves to have someone special in his life. But what struck me was the woman he managed to land.

If you've never seen Kucinich, let's just say that he doesn't seem like an obvious prize. He's short and has big ears, a bad haircut, and a distinct resemblance to a lawn gnome. And he married a striking British redhead (judge for yourself here) named Elizabeth, who has done extensive missionary work here and abroad. Not only is she quite attractive, she'll also rather tall, several inches taller than Kucinich. She appeared to be wearing high-heeled boots at this particular event, and let me simply say that a presidential candidate who is willing to be dwarfed by his own wife at a public event must be very sure of himself.

So here's to you, Dennis Kucinich. You'll never be President, and that's for the best, but I like you. You've got spunk.

P.S. My favorite moment of the Kucinich event came at the beginning, when he was shaking hands and saying hello. He greeted one woman, who paused awkwardly and said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know who you are." Kucinich's response: "That's okay. I don't know who I am either. I'm going to go up in the front there and find out who I am." Well played.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at February 12, 2007 08:19 AM | TrackBack

I've seen Kucinich live twice, first at a Democratic presidential debate, and then at a Indian business conference. He's adorable; he inspires a tremendous desire to pat him on the head. He looks like a cross between an elf and a hobbit. But his ideas make him unelectable, not just his manner and appearance. I wondered aloud when I heard he was renewing his bid for the presidency whether he would find a wife on this try -- glad to see he already got married (and she is beautiful -- like Tori Amos but prettier).

Posted by: PG at February 12, 2007 12:24 PM

As you mentioned, Brownback is running on the idea that he's the only real conservative in the race. And the base likes him a lot, but seems to doubt his electability. Which is nuts of course. If you think he's the best guy you should vote for him. Obsessing over electability gave us Kerry in 2004, and look how that turned out. The base -social conservatives and theocons mostly- really doesn't seem to like anybody, though I think Giuliani has more of a shot than people think, just based on his 9/11 cred. The base is still holding out hope that Jeb might run, but he's not stupid; he's waiting until 2012. I think Brownback actually sets up pretty perfectly as a VP candidate for Giuliani or Romney. Both guys would need to appeal to the base, despite Jon Chait's idea of a Giuliani-Lieberman ticket.

Posted by: frinklin at February 13, 2007 05:01 AM

Kucinich is a strange little man, but you have to admire his tenacity. He speaks his mind, which is more than I can say for most of the candidates.

Posted by: PoliticalCritic at February 14, 2007 08:05 AM

PG: I didn't mean to imply that Kucinich wasn't unelectable for his ideas - his earnest loopy utopianism is Green Party-esque. And yes, Mrs. Kucinich is prettier than Tori Amos, at least in the pictures you put on your site.

Frinklin: I'm not sure I agree that Giuliani or Romney will need a guy like Brownback as VP. If either one wins the primary, are staunch conservatives really going to stay home on Election Day? (As for Giuliani, he'd better hope that his "9/11 cred" carries him far, because if not, he's got a lot of questions to answers, for conservatives and moderates both.)

Shawn: I do admire Kucinich's tenacity. Although I think he's able to speak his mind primarily *because* he can't possibly win. But hey, God bless him for going out there.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at February 16, 2007 01:31 PM

The socially moderate conservatives I know are convinced that if Giuliani somehow won the primary (which is the part I see as impossible -- you have to run to the extreme for the primary, not toward the middle), it would be disastrous for the Republicans because so much of the social-conservative base would feel betrayed and would stay home. I offered the idea of Hillary Clinton to vote *against*, but even that might not be enough for the social conservatives, who loathe Clinton but may be so depressed by the prospect of voting for a pro-choice, pro-gay rights cross-dressing New Yorker, that even Clinton's pantsuits won't convince them that she's enough worse than Giuliani to justify the treason-to-conscience that voting for him would require.

Posted by: PG at February 17, 2007 01:52 PM
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