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Interview on NPR's "Morning Edition"

Author: Dennis Kucinich
November 12, 2003
Foreign Affairs

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Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-OH
November 12, 2003

BOB EDWARDS, host: Why are you running for president?

Rep. DENNIS KUCINICH: I'm running for president to bring a new day to America, an administration which will focus on the social, the economic, the human needs of the people and use the resources of our country to make sure that all Americans have decent health care, to get rid of health care for profit, to make sure that when people are sick they can see a doctor, to make sure that no one in America is afraid to go to a doctor or to a hospital because they can't afford it. I want universal health care. I want to be president because I believe that it's important to have a full-employment economy, that we can get America back to work rebuilding our cities. We can get America back to work if we change our trade agreements and cancel NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the WTO (World Trade Organization), which have really been responsible for America losing hundreds of thousands and even millions of jobs. I think that as the next president I can work to create a new manufacturing policy so we can get our steel, automotive and aerospace industries back to where they were as a mainstay of the American economy. As the next president, I believe that I can focus the resources of this country in education so that every young person from pre-kindergarten all the way through to a person who wants to complete college will have fully paid education. We have the resources in this country for health, for jobs, for education. We have the resources in this country to assure retirement security for all Americans. As president, I'd make sure that all plans for Social Security privatization were set aside, that the retirement age was taken back to 65, because people work all their lives. Often they're tired by the time they get into their 60s and some people want to retire. They should be able to retire at a full rate at age 65. So those are some of the areas where as president I would focus the economic resources of this country.

Furthermore, I think that this is a time that we need to talk about setting aside the Patriot Act. We've really sacrificed basic liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. And the ultimate terrorism in a democracy is the sacrifice of civil liberties.

EDWARDS: Don't those other candidates want to take care of the social, economic and human needs of Americans?

Rep. KUCINICH: Well, there are many good candidates running. Where my candidacy is different is that I'm the only candidate in this race who's talking about guaranteed, single-payer universal health care that takes the private sector out. I think every person who's listening to this understands that health care for profit has been a disaster in this country. That so many people have been deprived of the health care they need because they simply can't afford it. And health care for profit means that only those who have the resources and the wealth can get the care they need. That's not the America that is the America of our dreams. The America of our dreams is the America which is caring for everyone in this country. And so, I'm the only candidate who's saying guaranteed, single-payer universal health care and we have the resources to do that. It would be backed by a 7.7 percent tax that would be paid by employers who, by the way, are already paying 8.5 percent in terms of the average health care cost. I'm the only candidate in this race who's saying no to any kind of privatization of Social Security and who's saying take the retirement age back to 65. Now, how do I know that? From Cleveland, Ohio, we have so many people who have worked in factories all their lives and whose tradition I'm trying to save by addressing our problems with trade, but I see people, I meet them and look at them and they're tired. They work 30, 40 years at a job and they're ready to retire and what's happening is this system keeps moving the retirement age back. And so, I'm the one who's saying, 'Look, let's put the retirement age at 65 and make sure everyone can be guaranteed a full and a fair retirement at that age.'

EDWARDS: Is your realistic goal to win the presidential nomination or to raise these issues?

Rep. KUCINICH: By raising these issues I'm going to win. By raising these issues, I'll identify myself as the one candidate who is in touch with the practical aspirations of people and who sees that this country has the resources to address those aspirations. But there are some things we're going to have to do. We're going to have to give up the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. We're going to have to give up America on the warpath, an America which is dedicated to spending a half a trillion dollars a year on the military by the year 2013. As the ranking Democrat on a subcommittee which has jurisdiction over national defense, an oversight subcommittee, I know the kind of waste that goes on in the military. I know, for example, that the Department of Defense cannot reconcile $1 trillion in accounts. I know that they can't keep track of the cost of various contracts that go to the private sector. And I know that the American people have a right to decent health care and education and [a] right to jobs and to retirement security and that's being sacrificed in the name of tax cuts for the wealthy, in the name of perpetual war and in the name of a military buildup.

EDWARDS: But you've heard now the horror stories of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Has that not moderated your opposition to the war?

Rep. KUCINICH: Well... I'm proud to have led the Democrats in the House of Representatives; 126 of us voted against the Iraq resolution in October. It's not simply opposition to the war in Iraq which caused me to run for president. It's opposition to a policy which sets America apart from the rest of the world because it's the policy which says that America can be the policeman of the world, that America can invade any country it pleases, that America can impose its doctrines and power anywhere it wants in the world. I think we're in a new era where the advancing tide is towards human unity, where people all around the world want to come together. The United States is in a position where it can lead the way towards that and it can do it in practical ways by affirming the power of the United Nations so that the international process makes decisions on international security. And that way we make our own country more safe. The United States can help to secure a structure of international cooperation through participating in the international criminal court... which is basically a statement of equality before the law among nations. We can participate in the Kyoto climate change treaty and address our urgent environmental problems, which this country is a prime part in creating in this world. America can help to affirm international order, not through the force of arms but through the force of morality. The morality which says that we must lead the way in achieving a biological weapons convention and a chemical weapons convention and a land mines treaty and a small-arms treaty, and all of those things which say, 'We will work cooperatively with the world.'

EDWARDS: But how much morality was in Iraq two months ago. I mean, aren't the Iraqi people significantly better off now?

Rep. KUCINICH: Well that remains to be seen... I think most people would agree that Saddam Hussein was not an individual whom the world could count on to work cooperatively. However, the United States worked cooperatively with Saddam Hussein in the late '80s. The United States was responsible for providing Saddam Hussein with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons potential. So it was more than passing strange to hear an administration condemn the viciousness of Saddam Hussein when the fact of the matter is that Washington cooperated in helping to build him up. So what I'm saying is that if we want to achieve a higher morality in our international affairs, then we must take care not to provide weapons to individuals who are likely to inflict harm against... their own people or people in the region. We as a nation have helped to perpetuate conditions around the world which have ended up making it much more difficult for people to survive. Our spread of armaments, our spread of biological [and] chemical weapons around the world have created serious problems. You know today there are at least a dozen nations which are trying to secure or have secured nuclear technologies for weapons purposes. There's about 20 nations... with biologic weapons, 26 with chemical weapons and 20 trying to secure missile technologies to deliver those weapons. We're in a world which is very unstable and the best that we can do, I believe, as a nation is to work to abolish those weapons. That's what we should be doing. The non-proliferation treaty calls for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Why isn't the United States taking up that standard and moving in the direction of getting rid of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth instead of what this administration is doing, building more nuclear weapons? As president I would take this country in the direction of more security by helping to create a more secure world through working with leaders in other countries to get rid of all these weapons and to bring back into the world community those nations which today are separate from the world community through a consistent and conscientious approach towards peacemaking.

EDWARDS: You've suggested a Department of Peace.

Rep. KUCINICH: Yes, it's time. The idea of a Department of Peace arises from the belief that we can in our society in the United States make non-violence an organizing principle. That was the dream of Dr. [Martin Luther] King. How do you do that practically? Well, in America, we can address systematically those areas of domestic violence -- of spousal abuse, child abuse. We can through education, working with community groups, look at problems of police-community relations, of racial violence, of violence against gays, of violence against any ethnic minorities. We can as a society begin to teach our children a mutuality and peace-giving and peace-sharing and identifying that other person as one's self and coming to a condition where we make the daily work of this nation peace-building within our nation. And when we do that, we can also simultaneously work with other nations so that we can practice non-violent intervention and mediation and create structures which someday can make war itself archaic. Bob, we have to believe in our capacity to evolve as a species and yet today what does war lead us to suggest -- that we haven't learned. And yet we have so much potential as a nation. And the only way we can tap it is to believe in our capacity to create peace and to work with other nations to create a world order which is sustaining and which will create peace. And when we do that, the dividend is that we can have health care for all in this country because we'll be able to afford it. And we can have education for all in this country and our retirement security will be assured. And we can create jobs which will be based on technologies for peace.

EDWARDS: But you would finance the health care with the payroll tax on employers and wouldn't that discourage employers from expanding their payrolls -- in other words, fewer jobs?

Rep. KUCINICH: Actually the system today discourages employers from expanding their payroll because of how much they're paying for health care. Health care cuts deeply into all businesses' bottom lines. The health care cost means that employers keep cutting back and cutting back and that has an adverse effect on one's workforce. If you have a workforce which isn't healthy, that has a material and destructive undermining of the workplace itself. So we want a healthy America. We want an America which focuses on preventative health as well and a national health care plan, single-payer universal which gets the profit out of health care can function mightily on prevention. We have not even begun to tap the potential of this country for an evolution in health care. There are so many authors out there who write books that people will snap up in a minute to talk about how one can gain control over one's own health, how one can have a more healthy life, and there's so much that can be learned from emerging thinking about health care. We're not even close to that, though, and by having it become a cause of our nation that we take care and help people maintain their basic health, America can take major strides towards addressing what has been a pressing social and economic problem that affects employers because it affects their employees.

EDWARDS: Until recently, you opposed abortion. Why the change of heart?

Rep. KUCINICH: Well, actually the evolution that I've had on the issue of abortion has come about as a result of a number of factors. One has been the fact that over the last few years there's been a move in the Congress to try to criminalize abortion. I don't believe in criminalization. I think abortion should be made less necessary and you do that through birth control and sex education. But when this Congress makes a move towards criminalization, what it's really saying is that a woman doesn't equality in the society and I support a woman's right to choose. I think that it is fundamental in a democracy that a woman have equality and any effort to try to criminalize abortion would strike at the heart of that equality. So I support Roe v. Wade... Was I always there? No. But with the help of women in my life and women who I've had the opportunity to talk to over the years, I've seen how this really has become such a divisive and destructive issue and I think that we can work to achieve a society which supports a woman's right to choose and we can do that within the context of working to make abortions less necessary. We also have to, through sex education and birth control..., to try to create a culture which is life-affirming through prenatal care and postnatal care and child care and a living wage, universal health care and all these things which can help life unfold to the fullest. But I think that we are at a moment where there is a serious effort afoot to wipe out Roe v. Wade and I'm not going to be any part of that. I support a woman's right to choose.

EDWARDS: This is curious, though... you've been around a while. Did you have some sort of epiphany or did you decide to run for president?

Rep. KUCINICH: Well, actually long before I became a candidate for president... this was an issue that I had been thinking about in the last Congress. I was the only member of Congress who cast a 'present' vote on an issue that dealt with late-term abortions when the Congress came back after a Supreme Court decision that said that a bill that the Nebraska legislature had passed, which is similar to a bill that Congress had passed, was unconstitutional because it didn't provide for a woman's health and didn't really describe the procedure. When I saw Congress over the Supreme Court's constitutional issues that had been raised nevertheless pass the same bill, when that moment came, I thought this really isn't about a concern for life that's being expressed here. What I saw it as was a concern about crass politics. I am concerned about life and I think that we need to do everything we can to make abortions less necessary. But we have to remember in this constitutionally based government we have that the right of equality is also at stake here for women and women will never truly be equal unless they can be free to make their own choices. And so I would say that my evolution on this issue has come about as a result of being in the House, looking at the way these votes have developed, looking at the politics of it and not wanting to play politics with this because this is the kind of deeply personal issue that affects so many lives. At the same time the underlying question is what can we do to minimize the number of abortions. The way to do it, I think, and what I've always supported is to make sure that sex education and birth control can make abortions less necessary. And for myself, I could not have got to the position I'm at without the help of a lot of women who have appealed to me and said, 'Look, there are so many issues that are at stake here, would you please look at them.' I've kept an open mind and finally arrived at a place as a member of Congress before I became a presidential candidate where I was able to say what I think what's best for the country is to try to take a position where you work to try to make abortions less necessary but do it within a constitutional framework. And that's where I am and as president, I think, because of my experience with this issue, I'll be in a position to heal this nation, where I can take the nation away from the bitterness and the divisiveness which has occurred over the issue of abortion and understanding the concerns of people on both sides but being very firmly supportive of the constitutional rights which women have, not only under Roe v. Wade, but of an inherent constitutional right a woman has to equality.

EDWARDS: You mentioned job losses from NAFTA. Did it not also create wealth for others?

Rep. KUCINICH: NAFTA certainly created wealth for multinational corporations. But part of the destructive elements of NAFTA is that NAFTA was created perhaps with the intention of international cooperation in trade. But what it really brought about was a race to the bottom in wages. Companies move out of America in search of low wages, in search of climates which do not support unions, in search of areas where they don't have to pay people basic benefits. What does that mean then? What it means is that trade's being used to lower, not raise up, the human condition. In the maquiladora areas in Mexico workers' wages did not go up, they went down after NAFTA. NAFTA has been used to whipsaw workers' representatives at the negotiating table, forcing them into givebacks of wages and benefits under the threat of moving. NAFTA needs to be cancelled and we need to return to a bilateral system of trade which is conditioned on workers' rights, human rights and environmental quality principles. When we do that, we will help lift up not only the condition of American workers, but we will help lift up the condition of workers around the world because we'll set standards for trade.

There's another question here of sovereignty because the WTO... has said that we cannot even pass laws which say, 'Buy America.' We can't support our own economy because it would be seen as WTO illegal. The WTO today has created circumstances which makes it possible for multinational corporations to attack municipal ownership in this country, claiming that, for example, the ownership of a water system by a city is inconsistent with the WTO because... it's unfair competition for the private sector multinational water companies. I mean, I think that we need trade. It's essential that we have this kind of interchange which is fundamental to the world community. But the global corporations have become more powerful than governments and these trade agreements have basically set them above governments' ability to care for their own people.

There's another underlying issue here, Bob, and that is that the U.S. trade deficit itself. We have a $500 billion trade deficit. Soon we won't be able to borrow to cover that deficit. We'll be selling assets and we'll get to a point where perhaps in our children's generation, we'll be looking and facing squarely the kind of structural adjustment questions which the IMF [International Monetary Fund] has imposed on other nations. We'll lose control of our own destiny. So I'm looking at these economic issues in an holistic way which says, 'What's best for America and how can America do things that would be better for the world?' Cancel NAFTA and the WTO -- that's what I will do in one of my first acts in office.

EDWARDS: Speaking of deficits, how does being mayor of Cleveland in 1978, when it defaulted on loans, qualify you to be president?

Rep. KUCINICH: Well, actually that single fact, as the American people learn about it, will more than anything cause people to want me to be the next president. I was elected mayor of Cleveland on a promise to stop the sale of the city's municipal electric system. Our municipal electric system provided power to about a third of the city at a savings on the electric bill of about 25 percent. The previous mayor and council had sold the system. I organized a citizens campaign to block the sale. When I was elected I cancelled the sale. On Dec. 15, 1978, the largest bank in Ohio came to me and said, 'We will not renew the city's credit on $15 million in loans,' which I hadn't taken out -- taken out by the previous mayor -- 'We will not renew the city's credit unless you sell the city's electric system to a private company' -- a utility monopoly in which the bank had financial interest. My political career was on the line there. But more than that, the economic welfare of the people I represented was on the line, people for whom it matters whether they're paying... $80 or $100 a month for an electric bill. So I said no. I knew it would cost me the next election, but I understood that I was elected to stand up for the economic rights of the people who put me in there and I made a promise to do that. I think America would like to have a president who had the willingness to stand up to the monopolies in our society who wasn't bossed or bought, who had the freedom to be able to say, 'You're charging people too much for food, for health care, for energy, for any product.' And so my experience in Cleveland ends up being for me not only a defining moment but a moment to demonstrate that it is possible for a public official to stand up for the right thing. And the very fact that I'm sitting in front of you today comes as a result of a process where the people of Cleveland returned me to office years later because they understood the importance of the decision I made. Regularly in the city of Cleveland itself I score over 80 percent of the vote because people appreciate what I did. In my congressional district, which includes city and suburb, the last two elections I had 74 percent of the vote. So again the question is what kind of leader will the American people want to be the next president and I think that the kind of leadership that I've already provided will cause many people to say, 'You know, that's what we want, we want someone who's not afraid to stand up, who's not afraid to do the right thing.'

EDWARDS: Would you be the first vegetarian president?

Rep. KUCINICH: Gee, I don't know. I will tell you this, that the pace of this campaign is such, traveling sometimes 11,000 miles in a week, I couldn't do it if I didn't watch my diet and my diet is an essential part of my health and who I am and the energy that I have, my clarity... I don't really tell anyone else how they should eat. I want to make sure those farmers in Iowa are getting a fair price on all their crops and on their hogs and everything else they sell. For myself, I just find that... having careful attention to what I eat has worked for me.

EDWARDS: I remember the incumbent's father weighing in on broccoli...

Rep. KUCINICH: Well, you know, broccoli will be welcomed in my White House and so will vegetarians.

EDWARDS: Thank you very much.

Rep. KUCINICH: Thank you.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio.