BOSTON – "John Kerry: Please don't make me vote for Nader," read shirts worn by some Democrats at a forum of progressive leaders headlined by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search) during the Democratic National Convention Tuesday.
The crowd made up of many veteran peace activists and former Vietnam War protesters say independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's (search) positions on war and peace more closely resemble their own, but they are willing to back John Kerry if it means tossing President Bush from office. Bush, they charge, has been a nightmare for civil liberties and peace around the world.
Still, the progressive activists said they wish Kerry were further to the left.
"I'm going to vote for anybody but Bush," said David Henderson of Jacksonville, Fla. Kerry supported the war in Iraq and opposes a quick withdrawal, Henderson, a self-described "peace activist," said, but he hopes the Massachusetts senator "will have a change of heart and remember what he said after Vietnam."
After two tours in Vietnam, Kerry, a swift boat captain in the Navy, returned to the United States in 1971 and led the campaign for Vietnam veterans against the war. In 2002, Kerry voted to authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq, but later refused to support the $87 billion emergency supplemental bill to pay for U.S. troops and reconstruction efforts after major combat ended.
Speakers at Tuesday's event harshly criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy, while pushing for a Cabinet-level "Department of Peace," a key plank in Kucinich's presidential bid. It continues to be one of the congressman's top legislative priorities, as he demonstrated when he pledged to continue to push his progressive message until the presumptive nominee and the rest of the Democratic Party accept it.
Despite their presence at the convention, others attending the rally said they too are satisfied with the Democratic Party's position on the Iraq war.
"[Republicans] have Kerry's support for the war. You support the Democrats; you support the war," yelled one young progressive demonstrator, briefly disrupting the meeting. He roused little support and afterward was gently and quietly ushered out of the rally.
"The call has to be to stop the war, not internationalize the war as we're hearing from some people. We have to stop the war and internationalize the peace," Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (search), told the audience.
Other attendees acknowledged that the young protester had the facts right, but argued that Kerry would be a far better option than Bush, and progressives would have a chance of influencing Kerry, while Bush's ears would certainly be plugged.
"Everybody agrees with him. We know this is the way it is, but what are we going to do? We've got to work with what we've got," said attendee Nathaniel Isaacson, referring to the young protester.
"At least we know [Kerry] is not going to start another war," said Isaacson, who will enter Duke Law School this fall.
Others said all they're worried about right now is keeping an eye on the prize.
"The November election will be a referendum on the war in Iraq, and the anti-war movement must step up," said veteran political activist Tom Hayden, who argued that it is the role of the progressives to change the party from within.
"Don't think John Kerry will stand up to the fear," Hayden said, alluding to the oft-repeated argument by Bush opponents that the administration is spreading fear in order to erode civil liberties. "Don't think the Democratic Party will. But if we lead, they will follow. … I think John Kerry and John Edwards can be transformed."
Code Pink (search) and Global Exchange founder Medea Benjamin outlined the possibilities for leadership from the audience, from backing the Green Party to supporting Nader to making "changes by building the progressive movement in the Democratic Party." The last option was hailed with applause.
Department of Peace
Kucinich and his backers hoped that the progressive movement would devote some of its energies to pushing hard for a Department of Peace.
Under the headline "U.S. Department of Peace," a banner on the speakers' stage proclaimed: "We, the people of the United States of America, call upon our government to withdraw from the war in Iraq and begin reconstruction of what we have just destroyed."
"The smart guys in Washington think a Department of Peace is a goofy idea. They're wrong, but we have to prove it to them one district at a time," said political strategist and Kucinich ally Steve Cobble. Cobble encouraged activists to pressure their congressmen to sign onto the proposal.
Although the progressive meeting in the basement of Boston's Paulist Center (search) largely backed Kerry, Cobble told them not to give up on pushing him to the left. "On November 3, get up, pick up the street heat and begin the push on the new Kerry administration to create a Department of Peace."
When Kucinich entered the hall, the crowd erupted for their hero, who had already pledged his support for Kerry and encouraged his followers to stay within the party to turn Bush out. He gave an update on his Department of Peace measure, which he first introduced on July 11, 2001. He said 50 lawmakers have co-sponsored the bill and eight states have put it in the state Democratic platform.
The Department of Peace would be charged not only with spreading peace across the world, but also at home by educating young people to learn the benefits of nonviolent conflict resolution and teaching men about the problems of domestic violence.
"I don't want anyone to tell me we can't bring change to the Democratic Party. We can be the party of hope," Kucinich told the crowd. He concluded his speech by flashing a peace sign at his supporters.