I remember the first time (the only time) I ever saw Dennis Kucinich in person. He was one of the speakers at a conference I was attending in D.C, and at that point not yet well known, so the patina of his “fame” had not yet blurred my perception. I was startled by the subtle intensity emanating from this small, almost tiny man with a humble manner and the kind of quiet assurance that can only attend an untroubled conscience. Truly a truth-teller for our times. We are very fortunate to have him “walking the corridors of power.” May the angels continue to protect him.
Excerpted from the transcript of yesterday’s truthdig radio.
August 4, 2011
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer with Robert Scheer, and we’re speaking with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio’s 10th District—I think it’s safe to say our favorite congressman. And we’re getting the inside scoop of what happened with this debt compromise, which will lead to trillions in cuts from the budget, mostly from social programs. So, Dennis, fill us in.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, you know, when the House passed this, Democrats were split on the vote 95-95. But I can assure you that any Democrats who voted for it had great misgivings, and many of the ones who did so did it only because they had a perception that to not vote for it would have been to cause a severe political problem for the president of the United States.
Robert Scheer: But Dennis, I mean, how bad is this? And when I interviewed you yesterday, when I was writing my column, you said “This is Clinton triangulation, but unfortunately in a time of Hoover.” What did you mean by that?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I think that this idea that somehow the White House was forced into a bad deal is politically naive. When we saw the White House signal early on that it was ready for cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by actually setting aside bedrock principles that the Democratic Party has stood on for generations, that signal indicated that they were ready for a deal that would involve massive cutting of social spending, and increasing or locking in increases for war, and helping further the ambitions of the Defense Department, not touching the Bush tax cuts. And that’s exactly what happened.
Robert Scheer: The media is making a big deal about the defense cuts that seem to be factored in here. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that? Because I think you think this has been exaggerated or is a phony.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, you have to get below the numbers. And when you get below the numbers, the Department of Defense is actually going to end up with something like $50 billion more than they had actually bargained for. So the impression was that somehow there was going to be cuts in defense, but a report by Nancy Youssef at McClatchy points out—here’s what she says: Rather than cutting $400 billion in defense spending through 2023, as President Obama proposed in April, the current debt proposal trims $350 billion through 2024, effectively giving the Pentagon $50 billion more than it had been expecting over the next decade. In addition to that, the Congressional Budget Office has pointed out that there were no caps put on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me explain to you the significance of that. The Pentagon can continue to load money into wars which we are told are winding down, and at the same time as they do that, money that is not spent on those wars can be backfilled into the Defense Department budget. So they’re going to benefit twice. Not only are they getting $50 billion more than they had been expecting over a decade, but they’re going to be able to plus their base budget by an accounting trick that lets spending for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or any overseas contingency operations, continue beyond any discretionary caps in the budget.
Robert Scheer: Dennis, let me cut in for a second. I want to cut to the chase here. Who are these people in the administration that many of our listeners voted for, had hopes for—beginning with the president? You’re sitting there with the Democrats in the House, half of whom vote against their own president; you’ve been around the block a lot of times; you know what’s going on. Who is this guy, who are these people, and you know … you don’t have to be Keith Olbermann to recognize that they’ve betrayed us. Even a New York Times editorial called it a disgrace.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, we have to … OK, let’s cut to the chase. The chase is that the American people are having impressed upon them an IMF-type structural adjustment in the guise of a deficit-cutting initiative. This is being done, quote, “voluntarily,” unquote. If you look at what’s happening all around the world, the IMF is using a punishing structural-adjustment regimen that is creating a backlash in countries like Greece, where people are facing sharp reductions in their standard of living—reductions in social spending for health care and retirement security, among other things. And why is this being done? In order to further the interests of an investor class. And frankly, I think this same … you know, the bottom line with respect to the United States of America—the bottom line is: Protect the investment class to the detriment of the rest of the country. It’s bailout politics 2.0, and it’s a continuation of a governmental structure that’s set up to accelerate the wealth of America upwards.
Peter Scheer: Let me ask you, Dennis—because that seems like what we keep hearing every time we have one of these negotiations, whether it’s on health care or this—that the president is just a terrible negotiator, and he gives away the store before negotiations even begin, or before he really has to. And what you’re suggesting seems to be that he wants to give away the store, that he …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I don’t think the president of the United States ever accepted a deal he didn’t want.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Dennis Kucinich: And in this case, I think that the telltale sign was when he put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the table—which, by the way, when the commission, the super Congress commission comes into effect, will become extremely vulnerable. So the idea of President Obama somehow being incapable of negotiating—excuse me. He knows exactly what he’s doing. If he had been in a political trap here, he would have immediately, as a constitutional scholar, resorted to the 14th Amendment. It says in section 4, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” And it goes on. But the 14th Amendment, section 4, basically empowered the president, if he had been put in a box by the Republicans, to play a trump card. He didn’t do that, and he never intended to do that. He got the deal he wanted. And that’s something that people need to think about, what the implications are of that.
Peter Scheer: Well then, do we—if Barack Obama really is this new Democrat who has so disappointed the left, then is Bernie Sanders right in that he needs a primary challenge?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, I think you have to first of all define terms. I don’t know if you can define what it means to be a Democrat anymore—or, for that matter, Republican, or labels like liberal conservative. I think it’s an appropriate time for all of us to begin to question the utility of labels which seem to defy the performance of public officials. And what’s conservative, for example, about extending the Bush tax cuts—which by the way will cost, through 2020, $2.56 trillion—what’s conservative about blowing billions of dollars on wars? On the other hand, what does it mean to be a Democrat if you’re willing to put social programs on a chopping block—put the cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s social ethic, which includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, on a chopping block—not come up with a massive jobs program, knowing that signing this deal would limit your ability to create jobs—what does that mean? What does it mean to be a Democrat? What does that mean? So we have to define terms. We’re trapped in a system where we somehow believe that all we have to do is change the players and we’re going to get a different outcome. Maybe not. Because within the logic of this system, now supported or buttressed by Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, is a system of corporate governance which impresses itself upon the people of the United States for its own benefit, to the people’s detriment, and has helped to create in government very efficient mechanisms to accelerate the wealth of the nation upward.
Robert Scheer: But, Dennis—this is …
Dennis Kucinich: So if then you’re going to ask me who’s going to be the next president, that assumes that we really are identifying who’s making the decisions right now.
Robert Scheer: Dennis, this is Robert Scheer. And I think I know you as well as just almost anybody does. I interviewed you for the L.A. Times when you still were the mayor of Cleveland, and for Playboy magazine, which didn’t sit so well with some of your …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, which ended my career.
Robert Scheer: … ended your [laughs]…but, Dennis, you know, everything you’re saying now is something you knew back then. Not because you were a Democrat or a liberal or any of those things, but because as mayor you tried to save the public power …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, we did. I did.
Robert Scheer: You did save it, I know. And it put you up in Cleveland. You saved public power, and they still have it, and that’s a check on gouging people. But you came smack up against the big banks, the big companies, the big utilities, when you were mayor. And somehow you survived, and you had a political career after that. But that’s a wisdom you had, what, almost 40 years ago, 30 years ago, right?
Dennis Kucinich: Right.
Robert Scheer: And so what I’m asking you—and the reason I really wanted to get you on our Truthdig show, and on Truthdig today—is what is different that’s going on, and why are people being bamboozled? And you have a crazy situation where the only people who seem to be in touch with the pain of people losing their houses and not being able to find jobs, and fighting in wars that make no sense at all, are some of these libertarian tea party people. Where is the progressive caucus? Where is the progressive voice? And why has it been so stifled?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, first of all, when you have a member of a party in the White House, there is an unspoken rule to not make his—and in the future, I suppose, her—life more difficult. So the Democratic Party has, unfortunately, as a party, been muted. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been traveling the country on a jobs tour trying to identify what is, correctly, the No. 1 issue in America, which is unemployment and slow economic growth that goes with it. And there are people speaking out. But the White House has the biggest megaphone on the planet. It set the agenda, and when it has cooperation, as it does, in its policies, with members of the other party, it actually has a kind of relationship that seems to work for the White House’s politics but not necessarily for the politics of the Democratic Party.
Peter Scheer: We were told to expect a lot of resistance to this bill, this compromise, this debt-ceiling compromise, in both the House and the Senate. And in both chambers, it passed, apparently, very easily. Forty-five Democrats in the Senate voting for it, even though some raised some objections, particularly to the Social Security and Medicare threat. Why?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, again, I think that there were concerns among people of both parties about seeing the president further weakened, even though this is actually—he got the deal he wanted. We’ve got to go to a larger question here: Where are we in America right now? This was a fake crisis. And it was a phony solution. When you have 14 million Americans out of work, 9.2 percent unemployment, plus at least another 12 million Americans who are underemployed; when you have a gross domestic product at—I think GDP growth is like 1.3 percent; when you have manufacturing slowing, when you have the stock markets through a period of eight days in decline—which, you know, they had eight straight days of decline, which was the first time since 2008, when the system was headed towards severe straits … you know, the solution that was offered through cutting spending made no sense at all. So we have to create millions of jobs to get America going again. We’re not doing that. The private sector’s not going to create the jobs, so what’s happened is that the president is actually—well, he’s now telling the country that he’s going to turn to creating jobs. Did he read the legislation? I mean, of course he did; he knew. You can’t … you know, it’s putting his …
Peter Scheer: Well, how is he expecting to get re-elected if he’s …
Dennis Kucinich: Well, it’s a good point. That’s where we got into the discussion about using Clinton triangulation tactics, but with a Hoover economy.
Peter Scheer: Right, because Clinton had the tech sector booming when he was triangulating. I mean, he had that advantage.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, yeah. There’s a different economy now. You could compare what has happened to … when you put your foot on the accelerator of cutting—you know, on the budget hawks’ accelerator, cutting spending—you’re also simultaneously putting the brakes on the economy. You don’t have to be a genius to figure this out. And when you do that, you’re going to have enormous stress on the system, which will result in stagnation. And that’s where we’re headed. We are looking towards a double-dip recession. And when you’ve got people in the White House who famously came to office under a banner of behavioral psychology—check it out—what are they thinking now? What are they … if you say jobs, you’re going to create jobs? Is that it? It’s like, you just invoke the word “jobs” and suddenly jobs appear? No. You have to, government has to … Roosevelt understood this. If you look at the Democratic platform, the platforms in ’32 and ’36, they understood the role of government. They understood that the private sector isn’t providing jobs, that the public sector has a moral responsibility to do that. And what this deal does—and there’s so many layers to it, but when you go deeper into this deal, it actually rejects the role of government. It is part of an effort to nullify the presence of government in our society. Which is really a collective expression of the practical aspirations of people being nullified here.
So as you go deeper and deeper, unpeel one layer after another, what you have here is a fundamental attack on the entire basis of polity and a rejection of the principal philosophical concept in Democratic governance of government of the people and for the people, and a willingness to substitute corporate principles for managing public affairs. We’re seeing state and local government cut; we’re seeing an acceleration of privatization; we’re seeing this tranche of wealth going on at a time when people are told, well, we just have a limited amount of money. Let me go deeper, one layer deeper: Why in the world should we even have to get into a discussion of borrowing money from banks, or getting our debt financed by outside investors? Why do we have to do that? I mean, we—the United States is sovereign. You look at the Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8, the Congress has the ability to coin money, create wealth. Now, it’s not just the province of libertarians; when you look at the Federal Reserve and the fact that in 1913 our monetary system was essentially changed. And when the Federal Reserve has the ability to issue, through quantitative easing, over a trillion dollars, and give it to the private sector, including to banks, that can park money at the Fed and gain interest out of that—at the same time, we’re being told that the government doesn’t have the money to create jobs. The government has to reclaim that. I mean I actually have a bill in that would put the Fed back under Treasury, and that would enable the government to invest, to create jobs, to rebuild America’s infrastructure, which right now has over $3 trillion in needs that are not being met, that cannot be financed, that aren’t going to be met under this current fiscal discipline. So you go deeper and deeper into this, and you can discover that everything about this bill is wrong; that it collides with … it’s not just about it colliding with the New Deal; it collides with the preamble of the Constitution of the United States.
Robert Scheer: You know, Dennis, I want to ask you one last question, because I think we’ve now gotten to really what is the key point. And I wrote a column today for Truthdig saying, you know—I used the phrase “the new Democrats”; I put Clinton and Obama in that. And they have tried to throw the New Deal overboard. And they consider it unnecessary baggage; they consider it outmoded. And by the New Deal, I really mean the very thing you described: the notion of government stepping in when it’s needed, as a progressive force to help people who are jobless, losing their homes, set the economy straight. And what this bill does is it leaves us with the Fed as the only agency that can act now, because government spending is really off the table. And one could argue what should have been done is actually to make the states whole, you know? Get rid of the state debt, keep the firemen and teachers; those people will spend the money, they won’t pocket it. And instead, as you point out, we’re going to be left with the Fed being able to make the banks whole once again, and make big corporations … and they’re sitting on trillions of dollars, and they’re not investing it in jobs; we know that.
And so really, what I think—the point here that has to be made is that without a strong labor movement, without a strong consumer movement—which we don’t have, with maybe the exception of AARP—we don’t have a countervailing force in the Democratic Party or anywhere else. Even somebody that I was once critical of, Scoop Jackson—they called him the senator from Boeing; you know, old-fashioned Democrat, you know, from the state of Washington—but my god, Scoop Jackson would be shocked. Richard Nixon would be shocked! Ronald Reagan, whose father—you know, Ronald Reagan in his autobiography said were it not for the New Deal his family would have starved. His father worked for the New Deal. He always said ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.’ And what you have now is people parading as Democrats who really are just at the beck and call of Wall Street. The reason this bill passed was the Wall Street lobbyists descended—The New York Times had a very good story—they just descended that last week and said ‘Get it done.” You know, there was a threat from the very rating agencies that had screwed up our economy by giving the OK to those mortgage packagers. So I just wonder, where are we going to get that voice? Peter before said that you’re our favorite—well, we’ve got Bernie Sanders, also; we’ve got a few others—but you know, is everyone else on the take? Have they all sold out? Don’t they see this?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, you’ve got to look to the writings of Peter Berger to figure this out. He wrote a book that had to do with the social construction of reality, and what happens in Washington is that the K Street lobbyists, the Wall Street forces, the corporations helped to construct a political reality inside the beltway, which creates imperatives for a few at the expense of the many. And when you go outside the beltway and you see massive unemployment, people losing their jobs, their homes, their retirement security, their children not being able to go to the schools they want to—you come to experience an America that’s a little bit different than that which exists inside Washington. When you have Standard & Poor’s as a rating agency, which actually was selling its ratings to the … its rating marks, threatening the United States of America—look, I would have run them into the Justice Department so quick that they would have had their heads spinning and had the FCC cancel their ability to give ratings. But we don’t do that here. And as far as labor—you’re right; labor is what’s left. I’m going to be speaking this week to the Washington State Labor Council about the exact issues that you raised. Labor, ultimately, is the force. Because when you talk about the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike—those are part of the pulleys of a Democratic society. And those are under attack right now; the National Labor Relations Board is under attack. And the attempt to unionize is under attack more than ever, even though labor constitutes an increasingly smaller percentage of the workforce …. at least, unions constitute an increasingly smaller percentage of the workforce. So we have to reorganize the effort to bring about transformative change. And it has to be done at a grassroots level.
It’s really worth mentioning, Bob and Peter, that right after the attack, in 2002, when people massed across the country anticipating that there could be an attack on Iraq—they were objecting to it—that we felt like the percolation of civic commitment, and of a demonstration of civic power in the United States and, for that matter, around the world. Then the war started, and it basically stopped. We are now at the other end of this tunnel of post-9/11, and that is finding an economy that is stagnant, a country that is still fearful, a nation that is at wars that make no sense. And this is the time for us to sound the toxin again and create for this country—in neighborhoods and at the precinct, the ward, the city level—a whole new level of discussion which inevitably is going to have to go out to the street, where people demand a different direction for America, a more just society economically. Where they demand jobs for all, health care for all—not corporate health care, but health care for all, education for all, retirement security for all, a clean environment, clean water—those things should not be beyond our reach. Today they appear to be. As badly used as this mechanism of government has been, as much as it has been a vehicle to assault the basic economic interests of the people to deny their practical aspirations, so too that structure still exists that enables a fulfillment of the dreams that appear to be out of reach. But that can only come through mass action. We’re really at that stage.
Peter Scheer: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Dennis.
Dennis Kucinich: Thank you very much.
Peter Scheer: We’ve been speaking with Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. He’s our favorite congressman.