When supporting only one presidential candidate just isn't enough

by Peter Coyote

Over the past year, I've opened several California fund-raisers for Howard Dean, sent him money, and introduced him to famous friends like blues singer Bonnie Raitt and actor Sean Penn. I've also sent money to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, opened fund-raisers for him, posted a supportive letter on his Web site and introduced him to country singer Willie Nelson.

People have questioned how I can publicly support candidates who are running against each other.

I do this because supporting a candidate influences civic life in broader ways than simply trying to pick a winner. In a country where much of the mass media declare as legitimate only the landscape between the center and the right, supporting two candidates who represent the center and the left enlarges the range of the public debate and the ideas and options presented to the voter.

Our democracy has a virtually unique winner-take-all electoral system, which means that at the end of the day, when the votes are counted, the views and needs of political minorities effectively disappear. Until then, supporting both candidates is my version of the instant runoff, as practiced in many European countries, where the voter ranks several candidates in order of preference, and should one lose, has his votes automatically moved to his alternate choice.

Kucinich, by calling for a reduced Pentagon budget, bringing American troops home and a withdrawal from NAFTA extends the arguments on our national political bookshelf further to the left than the policies of a practical, centrist Yankee like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Without Kucinich's voice, left-leaning and Green-leaning Democrats must hold their noses and vote for a candidate they do not like, take their votes to a third party or give up in disgust, their microphones effectively unplugged from our national conversation.

As a member of the Green Party, I would be happy if Kucinich could be nominated because his policies are more liberal and, on the whole, closer to mine. However, even though he has been an able congressman, he has never been a governor nor had the opportunity to put his policies into practice as has Dean.

As governor of Vermont for nearly 12 years, Dean built a solid track record on the state level. He courageously defended the civil union bill against vitriolic right-wing attacks and extended health insurance to everyone under the age of 18 and below 150 percent of the poverty line. He's an admirable man, possessing abundant common sense and solutions to our pressing dilemmas, and he can win.

Neither candidate is perfect for me. Until far too recently, Kucinich took pro-life positions on abortion, an issue that I believe nobody without a womb should have any vote about. On the other hand, Dean has supported the death penalty, and his nuclear policy team is made up of the same folks who fumbled the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the Clinton administration and allowed the building of new nuclear weapons.

However, I am not looking to elect a personal hero. The only person who agrees with me on every issue is me. I am looking to elect a chief executive who will sort through the competing views of his advisers and apply his intelligence, political insight and life skills to make informed decisions in the national interest.

Eventually I'll make my choice. But I don't have to do that until I step into the voting booth in the California primary in March. Come November, no matter who wins, I'd be happy to vote for the Democratic nominee -- even if he turned out to be a horse thief -- over the current president.

[Published in the 2/01/04 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle]