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The Kooky Career of Dennis Kucinich

How the campaigns of the Ohio oddball—and gubernatorial candidate—foretold this political moment

Dennis Kucinich Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, the Democratic voters of Ohio will decide their party’s nominee for governor. The race pits the former federal bureaucrat Richard Cordray against the former U.S. representative—and perpetual left-wing spoiler candidate—Dennis Kucinich.

Kucinich launched his gubernatorial campaign in January, and the Democratic primary has been about as strange as any longtime Kucinich-watcher might expect. Kucinich—once the race-baiting mayor of Cleveland, now Ohio’s most liberal and eccentric politician—has occasionally praised and defended President Donald Trump. He endorsed Trump’s suggestion that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower. Most recently, Kucinich praised the president’s aggressive tariff agenda as an overdue “correction.” He also has a strange, unethical relationship with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad: Kucinich, a former Fox News contributor, interviewed al-Assad for the network in September 2013, and a pro al-Assad group has funneled money to Kucinich’s political operation in recent years. Kucinich is a bizarre player. He’s struggled to temper his political eccentricities in yet another bid for yet another Democratic nomination. As always, he’s widely expected to lose the primary.

For the past 15 years, Kucinich has languished in the weedy, lefty outskirts of Democratic politics. Twice, he’s run for president. First, in 2004, he competed in the crowded Democratic field that produced John Kerry as the party’s nominee; Kucinich withdrew from the race and endorsed Kerry in July. In 2008, Kucinich ran for president again, though he withdrew much earlier—in late January—after having finished with 1.4 percent (or less) of vote shares in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Outside of his old congressional district, Kucinich has never been a front-runner for anything. In either of his presidential campaigns, he was the most marginal sort of national figure—the protest candidate. He was never running for president so much as he was telegraphing the Democratic Party’s ideal priorities on multiple key issues: foreign wars, health care, marriage equality, transgender protections, the surveillance state, and marijuana legalization. In the 2000s, Kucinich’s left-wing stances were unorthodox. In the 2010s, they’re the most crucial stances that the Democratic Party’s most notable lawmakers and candidates could take.

His low vote shares don’t tell the whole story. Kucinich was a left-wing agitator, and so his marginalization was far more comprehensive; it was enforced as a matter of conventional wisdom among strategists, analysts, journalists, entertainers, and, ultimately, voters themselves. In Daily Show clips from the ’04 primary season, Kucinich’s presidential campaign registers only as parenthetical quips between Jon Stewart’s punch lines about George W. Bush, Kerry, and Howard Dean. In one especially nasty bit from 2003, Stewart characterizes Kucinich’s suggestion that an openly gay or transgender justice might serve on the Supreme Court as patently ridiculous. Years later, during the ’08 primary, Hillary Clinton and the former vice presidential candidate John Edwards, in an exchange they later denied, discussed excluding Kucinich and other marginal contestants from the televised debates. Edwards sought to limit the debate stage to a “smaller” and “more serious” group.

In 2004, Kucinich wasn’t just a loser. Supposedly, he was a kook: His politics, and his career itself, were inherently unserious; he was a petulant primary opponent; his ambitions were ridiculous; and his instincts were immature. Plus, Kucinich looks like the Keebler elf, and he drones like a nerd. There was almost nothing conventionally “presidential” about the hardcore pacifist who once spearheaded an impeachment effort against Dick Cheney. Critics cast Kucinich as a candidate for college students and aging hippies. After Bush, the Democrats didn’t want a leftist firebrand. They wanted another Bill Clinton.

Given Kucinich’s left-wing politics and his tokenization in centrist discourse, it is tempting to regard him as the prototype for the far more functional leftist champion, Bernie Sanders. Both men agitated against the Democratic front-runners of their day, but Kucinich hit the national scene a decade too early to reap the flourishing of left-wing thought in mainstream channels. Sanders enjoyed other advantages in position. Kucinich launched his presidential bids from the kookiest chamber in all of American democracy, the U.S. House of Representatives; Sanders launched his bid from the U.S. Senate, a supposedly esteemed chamber, afforded his socialism a certain respectability. Early in the ’16 campaign season, Sanders seemed to be the impractical challenger who, in the spirit of Kucinich, had entered the Democratic primary only to “shape the debate.” But, as far as vote shares go, Sanders has vastly improved left-wing representation at the polls. And Sanders now forges Democratic consensus to this day. Certainly, Sanders—who isn’t even a Democrat—has eclipsed Kucinich in the grand scheme of Democratic politics. Outside of Ohio, Kucinich’s bid for governor is a novelty concern.

It’s much harder to square Kucinich with Trump, who exaggerates his own eccentricities in the extreme. Trump is kooky, but, more importantly, he’s vicious and ill-informed. Unlike Kucinich, whose perceived kookiness has always been his major liability, Trump often relies on his kookiness to obscure his worse qualities. The tea party movement, which prefigured Trump and his reactionary politics in the early 2010s, promoted outright kookiness as a mainstream political mode. Suddenly, the tepid, cautious posturing that defined so many (though not all) post-Goldwater presidential candidates from both parties had fallen out of fashion. Given the GOP base’s apparent appetite for madness, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, was a man out of time. Meanwhile, Kucinich lost his House seat—and then joined Fox News, where he worked for five years, as a contributor. Kucinich clashes with the network’s partisan affiliations, but he also happens to echo its fondness for “deep state” conspiracy-mongering and fact-contrarianism. To watch Kucinich chatting with Neil Cavuto about the Clinton email scandal is to witness a man at home.

The kooky politics of the 2010s—including the Tea Party’s rise and then Trump’s election—upended the nation’s political imagination. Indeed, the national political outlook has shifted light-years from Kucinich’s heyday. The ’04 Democratic primary turned on a gaffe that, in retrospect, seems not only trivial, but altogether unremarkable—the Vermont governor Howard Dean concluding his third-place concession speech in Iowa with a primal scream. Indeed, there was a time—and it wasn’t long ago—when a presidential candidate might come undone by a single, spectacular failure of stagecraft. In the 14 years since his fateful scream, Dean has moderated himself. He led the Democratic National Committee for four years, and most recently he cofounded a Democratic fundraising group, Onward Together, with Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Kucinich seems destined to meet conclusive irrelevance, assuming he loses to Cordray next week—if only Kucinich had reserved his strange energy, and his more prescient judgment, for the present decade.