News & Opinion » Columns

Anybody but butch


Like everybody tuned in to the presidential race, I've been hearing "drumbeats" lately. One of them has my head pounding: the post-Super Tuesday demand that all join hands in backing presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry.

            Up-front disclosure: If Kerry's the One, as seems inevitable, he'll get my vote. It won't be the first time I've held my nose and voted strategically.

            If I were a Dem, I'd be flipping several coins. (By the way, a Bronx cheer to New York's historical bipartisanship for negating Green registrations.) On one hand, it's smart to unite around a candidate ASAP. On the other hand, why hand the Bushies a stationary target for their attack ads so soon?

            Either way, lefties should flock together, too. The Democratic Party power structure has massaged us all. Kerry was anointed as frontrunner even before the starter's pistol was loaded. Then he dipped in the polls under an assault from Howard Dean. The Dean campaign was refreshingly populist --- more so than the good doctor himself.

            Actual populist Dennis Kucinich is still running, thankfully. The guy's great on the issues, with minor exceptions. He'd stop creeping Greenspanism, for example. And he opposes the war and occupation, truly and deeply. (For quite another war story, read Stephen Zunes' March 5 essay on Kerry's foreign policy, at

These thoughts dogged me when I covered a February 28 Kerry rally here.

            Though Kerry was a no-show, the local media thronged the Laborers Hall. That's because the rally featured some high-profile personalities: med student Vanessa Kerry, the candidate's daughter; educator Diana Kerry, his sister; and Ted Kennedy, the other US senator from Massachusetts.

            For me, Kennedy was the top attraction. He's known for energizing the troops, and I think he was in top form that day. He gave specifics, too. He promised, for example, that Democrats in Congress "have just begun to fight" for extending unemployment benefits, a measure the White House has ignored. A $13 billion fund is available for this, he said.

            He also made a strong appeal for John Kerry's health plan. And there's where Ted and I part company.

            Kerry's plan is supposed to cover 99 percent of children and 95 percent of Americans overall. Ah yes, in today's America, leaving five percent uninsured is known as "universal coverage." Compare this to the Kucinich plan --- a Medicare-type system covering everyone at lower cost. (Note to Democrat and Chronicle critic Jack Garner, who while reviewing The Barbarian Invasions referred to a mythological beast, "Canada's haphazard socialized health system": I don't know what the film said, and I do know the system has been stressed by government cutbacks. But Canadian single-payer clearly produces superior health outcomes, and it's highly popular. Though publicly financed, it relies on private delivery of services, and thus is barely more "socialized" than what we've got down here.)

            Back to universality, Kerry-style: The frontrunner's plan would retain the current system of private insurance; it promises to keep premiums down by subsidizing very-high-cost insurance claims and by allowing people who can't get affordable coverage to buy into the federal employees' system in a "separate pool."

            In short, it's Band-Aids all over again, with stronger adhesive. The fatal flaw survives: tying most coverage to employment.

            How sad. The leading candidate would make a national disgrace --- call it "America's haphazard profiteering system" --- only a little less disgraceful.

Almost forgot: Health chat got me a moment with Ted Kennedy.

            OK, it's not such a big deal in retrospect. But even for lefty radicals like me who are wary of liberalism, it's a pleasure to meet someone who's consistently fought the good fight against America's rightwing barbarians.

            Here's what came down: I asked Kennedy why Kerry isn't supporting single-payer. Realpolitik, he said, in effect. Then he let his guard down. Check out the news from Taiwan, he said: They just adopted single-payer. The subject made his eyes brighten --- brighter than when he was pushing the Kerry scheme.

            It wasn't the only time I saw an Enthusiasm Gap.

            The medium turnout at the Kerry-Kennedy rally made an impression, for example. Organizers chose a spot --- Railroad and Fourth streets, down from the Public Market --- that's bustling on a Saturday morning. And here we have a front-running campaign poised for another leap forward. And the troops don't even pack a meeting hall?

            Intra-party politics may play a role. I heard from some Deaniacs, Edwardians, and a Kucinich organizer. Some assumed the rally was a general Democratic campaign event. But when they got visually frisked at the door, they found otherwise. I went through the routine myself, thinking it was only about hometown security. Turned out it was about message control.

            "I was kicked right out of the rally" for wearing a Dean T-shirt, says Andrea DiGiorgio, a Henrietta Democrat. She explains: A guy at the door said she couldn't come in unless she changed clothes. Refusing to do so, she went out to the parking lot and stood with others --- until somebody told her she and her shirt weren't welcome there, either. "It definitely wasn't the rejuvenating experience I thought it would be," she says.

            Some rally volunteers got "a little overzealous," says county Democratic chair Molly Clifford. "It's not something that was condoned by the party," she says. She adds she sent people a written apology.

            It all may have been a misunderstanding. Still, the party's got to watch its step.

            Literally. Disabled activists complained about poor access to the Kerry rally --- a portable ramp didn't do the trick --- and similar problems at an Edwards rally at UNITE headquarters.

            "At the Laborers Hall, they at least had an interpreter," says Chris Hilderbrant of the Center for Disability Rights. He faults candidates Kucinich and Sharpton, as well, for not mentioning disability issues in recent debates. "President Bush talks about us," says Hilderbrant. But he adds a large caveat: Some Bush appointees oppose the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.

            I'll bet the local access problems get ironed out. They have to be. The Dems are going to be a Party of the People, or nothing. Such a party must accommodate everyone.

            The bottom 96 to 99 percent of us, anyway.