Most people don’t know a thing about their local Congressman, besides—perhaps—his or her name and party affiliation. Which explains why most House members are safe in their seats for life.
But that anonymity, both locally and nationally, also explains the futility that members of the U.S. House face when they set their eyes on the White House: The last one to make the jump successfully was James Garfield, a nine-term Ohio Congressman when he was tapped on the 36th ballot of the 1880 Republican convention.
Still, they keep trying, motivated—if nothing else—by the incomparable media exposure that comes with a place in the presidential race, even if that place is in the back of the pack. Sometimes, it works out well: like Richard Gephardt and Jack Kemp, two congressmen who parlayed solid 1988 campaigns into long-standing roles on the national stage.
But other times, the publicity backfires and the folks back home, catching their first actual glimpse of the Congressman they’ve blindly re-elected time after time, shudder in horror at what they’ve created.
It happened to Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan, whose southern California constituents tossed him out in November 1996 after dutifully re-electing him for two decades. And now, it could be happening to Dennis Kucinich.
The Cleveland Democrat is making his second presidential bid in as many elections. In 2004, he ran as the anti-war candidate—the only Democrat who had actually cast a vote against the 2002 Iraq war authorization—but his fringe image undercut his ability to gain any traction. He netted one percent in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but stayed in the race through the convention, padding his national vote total by claiming the scraps in primaries where John Kerry was the only other candidate. His prospects for 2008 are even more hopeless.
Last time around, his constituents in Ohio’s 10th District, which takes in a chunk of Cleveland and some of its Cuyahoga County suburbs, gave him a pass for pursuing his national dream. Months after the ’04 primaries, he was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote in what is a solidly Democratic district. In this era of safe-seat gerrymandering, the real threat to incumbents like Mr. Kucinich is a primary challenge. He faced a token Democratic challenger in 2004, but 2008 is looking like a different story.
On the surface, Rosemary Palmer isn’t a likely Congressional candidate. Her only previous experience in elected politics was as a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education in New Jersey, where she worked in the 1990s as an E.S.L. specialist. Earlier this decade, she returned to her native Ohio, where she had once written for several community newspapers. In late June, she announced her plans to challenge Mr. Kucinich in next March’s Democratic Congressional primary.
The impetus for her candidacy is compelling: Two years ago, her son, Marine Lance Corporal Edward Schroeder, lost his life in Iraq, prompting Ms. Palmer to speak out against the war. Initially, that drew her toward Mr. Kucinich, her local congressman and one of the war’s loudest critics.
But when, after his perfunctory re-election to the House last fall, Mr. Kucinich took off for another hopeless presidential campaign, Ms. Palmer changed her tune. She told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that his Iraq posture—a refusal to support any legislation that doesn’t call for an immediate and complete troop withdrawal—was unrealistic and that his isolation from his House Democratic colleagues was counterproductive.
“I believe that Congressman Kucinich is as determined to bring an end to the Iraq war as I am,” she has said. “His problem lies in his inability to work as a legislator to make it happen.”
It’s a fair point—and it doesn’t just apply to the Iraq war. Mr. Kucinich, a man who happily makes his opinion known on just about every issue, has in 10 years in the House demonstrated a remarkable lack of effectiveness in translating his principles into successful legislation.
A Democratic presidential debate isn’t complete until Mr. Kucinich reminds the audience that he has introduced legislation for a single payer health care system. But anyone can draw up a bill—what has he ever done to persuade his colleagues to join him? The same quixotic streak is evident in his push to impeach Dick Cheney. And in his “text for peace” stunt, in which he implores crowds to use their cell phones to send the word “Peace” to him so that he can pass it along to the Secretary of Defense.
Four years ago, when the war was just underway and dissent was in short supply, Mr. Kucinich’s constituents might have appreciated seeing him on national television – the principled congressman who didn’t have a chance in hell but who was called to run by moral obligation. But now those same constituents are starting to see vanity—the man who loves running for President because it gets him on Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (And what he says on those shows surely can’t help him in his blue-collar district—like his straight-faced statement to Bill Maher that he wouldn’t as President issue an order to kill Osama bin Laden.
For Mr. Kucinich, the threat of Ms. Palmer’s candidacy is the basic question it poses to the Democrats of Cuyahoga County: Is it enough to have a Congressman who says things you like to hear but who can’t deliver results?
Wisely, Ms. Palmer is not basing her campaign solely on the Iraq war. She talks just as much about jobs and trade deals, the issues that resonate day-to-day in what is a working-class district. And she’s gaining credibility: Just this week, Paul Hackett, the Iraq war veteran who became a hero to Ohio’s left with his near-miss Congressional campaign in Cincinnati two years ago, endorsed her.
Mr. Kucinich clearly relishes hearing his name called at presidential debates, often in the same breath as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But if he wants to keep his day job, he might do well to think of his constituents, because they’re probably starting to wonder why he’s not doing the job they elected him to do.