Dennis Kucinich is one of the odder characters in contemporary politics. Arguably the most committed progressive on the national scene, he generally operates on the edges of Capitol Hill's drama (the left edge, if you want to be precise). He's got a relatively small but fiercely loyal following, at the ready with applause and dollars each time he bucks his party or criticizes Democrats for being too moderate. He's not a fixture on cable TV, in the way that his conservative counterparts seem to be. Reporters often shy away from quoting him, partly because his dissent is mostly predictable, and partly because his views are often marginalized in congressional discourse.
Nate Silver recently crowned Kucinich Capitol Hill's "Least Valuable Democrat" because he so rarely votes with his caucus on their signature issues, including climate-change legislation, the hate-crimes bill, and financial regulation. His voting record makes him look more like a blue dog than a liberal, but the reasons for his votes are vastly different. He believes that government should act to prevent climate change, for example, but was offended by what he saw as giveaways to big energy companies in the bill that passed the House.
A couple of months ago, it would have seemed improbable that Kucinich, given his voting history, would be the subject of a presidential wooing. But yesterday, President Obama gave his onetime rival a ride on Air Force One and a shout-out at his rally in Kucinich's home state of Ohio. Why? Because last fall, Kucinich voted against the health-care reform bill. He's still a single-payer devotee, so a bill that primarily uses private insurers to extend coverage to the uninsured is an anathema to him. He's said that he will only vote for a bill containing a public option, which itself is a significant concession for single-payer-loving Kucinich. Unfortunately for him, the Senate jettisoned the public option months ago, and it's just too late in the game to realistically believe it could be put back into the bill. But this is where health-care reform is at.
One could imagine the conversation on Air Force One. After inviting him to hang out in the swanky presidential digs at the front of the plan, Obama, no doubt deploying all the suave and charm in his well-stocked arsenal, would lean over to the diminutive Ohioan and ask, in his most professorial tone (because we know liberals love that), "Dennis, do you really want to be the man that stands between millions of poor, under-served Americans and their right to access health care?" Obama surely used his tried and true "if not us, who?" riff, imploring Kucinich to vote for the bill because it fails this time, no president will attempt reform again in his lifetime. In my imaginary conversation, Obama also made a few pointed remarks about how, no matter how good an idea you believe single payer to be, it's just never going to happen in this country.
So will Kucinich be Pelosi's No. 216? Will the possibility of health-care reform evaporating entirely be enough to persuade Kucinich, the ultimate ideologue, to abandon his singular commitment to universal, single-payer care? Hard to know. He's surely under pressure from donors and supporters who believe this bill should be killed because it's so far from the ideal. There's certainly a school of thought that believes the health-care system needs to pushed to breaking point so that it can be replaced in its entirety with a far more progressive one than is currently on offer. We don't know how Kucinich will ultimately vote. He'll probably continue to press for a public option until the moment Pelosi calls for votes. But what we do know is that if there was ever a time when idealistic Democrats become pragmatists, it's now.