In some ways, Dennis Kucinich is made for this moment in Democratic politics. Like Senator Bernie Sanders, the quirky former Ohio congressman embodied progressive populism long before its current vogue. He ran on single-payer healthcare, free college, and gay marriage as a presidential candidate in 2004 and 2008—years when all those ideas remained decidedly outside the political mainstream. Kucinich was ahead of the curve on opposing the Iraq war and the North American Free Trade Agreement, protecting the environment, and even embracing veganism. For all his idiosyncrasies—he claimed in a nationally televised debate that he’d seen a UFO, and proposed an official Department of Peace—his liberal peers were fond of him. “At the end of the day, we’re really going to miss Dennis. Dennis is a transformative leader,” Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, now the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, told Politico before Kucinich left Congress in 2013. “He stood up and spoke eloquently, passionately about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran. He was a consistent voice for peace.”
Yet in one of the many strange subplots of today’s political drama, the proudly progressive Kucinich has not been a consistent voice against President Donald Trump this past year. As a Fox News contributor, he repeatedly aligned himself with the president. Now, as Kucinich attempts a political comeback and officially announces his run for governor of Ohio on Wednesday, he’s centering outreach to Trump’s constituency. “The one thing I can do,” he told Fox & Friends on Wednesday morning, “that I don’t know if there is another Democrat in Ohio who could run for office and do, is that I can reach out to the people who voted for President Trump. I can show them that there are Democrats who stand solidly for economic progress, who want to protect our markets, who want to stand up for everyday Americans. So, you know, to me, that’s my constituency, too. And I’m reaching out, and I’m not going to leave anyone out of picture.”
It’s one thing for Kucinich to reach out to Trump voters in a state the president won handily in 2016. But given Kucinich’s record over the past year, national progressive groups are questioning his credibility with Democratic voters. The man Politico once dubbed the “lovable loser of the left” is at risk of seeming simultaneously too liberal for many Ohio voters and insufficiently anti-Trump for others.
“Dennis Kucinich may have previously enjoyed some progressive cred for his anti-war stance during his quixotic presidential bids, but his pro-Trump stances over the past year cast real doubt on his qualifications as a Democratic candidate,” said Carolyn Fiddler, the political editor at the liberal blog Daily Kos. “Progressive Democratic candidates are stepping forward to run in record numbers for offices at every level of the ballot, and if Kucinich thinks that leaves room for a Trump apologist, he hasn’t been paying attention.”
Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America, was more blunt: “Frankly, many of the things he has said over the past year will be profoundly disturbing to progressives.”
“Profoundly disturbing” is precisely how most progressives would describe Trump’s inauguration. Nearly 70 Democratic members of Congress skipped the ceremony; I tagged along with one who literally took a hike instead. The new president thundered about “American carnage,” describing families “trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation ... and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
Most Democrats hated the speech. Hillary Clinton would later call it “a cry from the white nationalist gut,” and even former President George W. Bush reportedly said, “That was some weird shit.” But Kucinich cheered Trump, writing on his Facebook page, “I call upon all Americans to join in a common effort to create a great vision for our country, our people and for peace in the world. Let’s give him and ourselves a chance.”
Kucinich later told Fox host Jeanine Pirro he didn’t think Trump’s address was dark in the least. “No, not at all,” he said. “The issues that he talked about in his inaugural address were things that relate to people’s aspirations. They want a good education for their kids. They want jobs. They want the good life.” He added that Trump touched on issues he’d advocated for his whole career: taking on free-trade agreements; standing up for workers; investing in infrastructure, and avoiding foreign entanglements. “When’s the last time we’ve had a president talk about the inner cities?” he asked.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. In May, Sean Hannity brought Kucinich on his show and announced that the former congressman was “making major news.” Kucinich then proceeded to warn that “our country itself is under attack from within.” “You have a politicization of the agencies that is resulting in leaks from anonymous, unknown people,” he said, “and the intention is to take down a president. This is very dangerous to America. It’s a threat to our republic. It constitutes a clear and present danger to our way of life.” “You’re saying President Trump is under attack by the deep state intelligence community?” Hannity later asked. “I believe that,” Kucinich said.
Then there’s the issue of impeachment. Kucinich wanted to impeach George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney over Iraq, and he even suggested former President Barack Obama committed an impeachable offense with airstrikes against Libya. But when it comes to removing Trump from office, somehow Kucinich isn’t convinced. “There is tremendous animosity toward the president, and I understand it,” he told The New York Times in October. “But I don’t know if there is a sufficient case to warrant a process as vigorous as impeachment.” In July, he similarly told Fox & Friends that a Democratic proposal to assess Trump’s mental and physical fitness for the presidency was “destroying the party as an effective opposition.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going on Fox News and making the progressive case,” Sroka said. But he thinks Kucinich has been “aiding the propaganda they’re pushing about Donald Trump.”
Kucinich, who declined an interview request on Tuesday, undoubtedly will face questions about this history now that he’s joining a Democratic primary field that already includes former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray, state Senator Joe Schiavoni, former state Representative Connie Pillich, and Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill.
“Dennis Kucinich has some good values,” said Progressive Change Campaign Committee spokeswoman Marissa Barrow, “but his calling for Democrats to unify with Donald Trump in pursuit of world peace is one of many examples of how his strategic insights are sometimes lacking and why a lot of voters will have a high bar for considering his candidacy.”
Kucinich will certainly have his progressive boosters in this campaign. “We welcome Dennis joining the race,” said Kenneth Zinn, the political director for National Nurses United. “I think his voice is badly needed.” (Kucinich recently stood with the nurses to fight the closing of a hospital in Massillon, Ohio.) Zinn stressed that his union has yet to endorse a candidate in this race, but praised his longtime support for “Medicare for all,” taking on Wall Street, and fighting wealth disparity. He said he wasn’t familiar with Kucinich’s work for Fox News.