Kucinich's health-care vote could be Obama's lucky charm

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A02

According to legend, if you catch a leprechaun in the forest, the little creature must grant you three wishes. Our Kenyan Hawaiian commander in chief evidently has the luck of the Irish, because, just in time for St. Patrick's Day, President Obama bagged himself a leprechaun -- in Cleveland, of all places -- and on Wednesday his first wish was granted.

Obama accomplished this by inviting the diminutive figure, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, to join him for a Monday trip to Cleveland. When he got the invitation to fly aboard Air Force One, the far-left Democrat figured that -- given his opposition to the president on the budget, climate legislation, financial regulations and health-care reform -- "proper attire would include a parachute."

But Kucinich was persuaded by Obama to switch his vote on the health-care bill -- not because he likes anything about the measure, but because of the same sentiment often voiced by Obama's foes: A defeat on the legislation would destroy Obama's presidency.

"One of the things that has bothered me is the attempt to try to delegitimize his presidency. That hurts the nation when that happens," Kucinich reasoned at a news conference Wednesday. "We have to be very careful," he continued, that "President Obama's presidency not be destroyed by this debate. . . . Even though I have many differences with him on policy, there's something much bigger at stake here for America."

Those were big words from the little man -- and a lucky charm for the administration on issues beyond health care. Obama, sporting a green tie and hosting the taoiseach of Ireland for a St. Patrick's Day celebration at the White House, told reporters that he had called Kucinich to thank him for granting his wish.

Kucinich, the leading congressional champion of government-run health care, had vowed to oppose any measure that doesn't include a public option. His capitulation was the clearest sign that the left, after 15 months of antagonizing Obama because of his compromises, is now ready to cooperate.

"If I can vote for this bill," Kucinich said, "there's not many people who shouldn't be able to support it."

The reporters laughed at his acknowledgment of his place on the fringe. "Pause for laughter," Kucinich narrated.

The announcement, made in the House TV studio, was in the same style that characterized his two quixotic runs for the presidency: It was all about him. Before announcing his vote on health-care reform, Kucinich made the following points:

-- "I lived in 21 different places by the time I was 17, including a couple cars."

-- "I understand a connection between poverty and poor health care, the deeper meaning of what Native Americans call 'hole in the body, hole in the spirit.' "

-- "I struggled with Crohn's disease most of my adult life, to discover 16 years ago a near cure in alternative medicine and through following a plant-based diet."

-- "I've had access to the best homeopathic practitioners. As a result, I've received the benefits of vitality and high energy."

Kucinich's preamble continued at great length before he finally got to the telltale line: "I know I have to make a decision, not on the bill as I would like to see it, but as it is."

He reached this pragmatism after some quality time with Obama and after the president traveled to Kucinich's home town to try to persuade the Democratic holdout. It was a flattering moment for the congressman, who as a young mayor of Cleveland years ago led the city into default. Keeping the spotlight on himself, he scheduled a news conference to announce his vote -- setting up what would be a very public rebuke of Obama or an equally public buckling by the lawmaker.

More than 50 people crammed into the small studio for the event, taking up so much space that Kucinich's wife watched on a closed-circuit TV in the next room. The congressman, in a camel-hair jacket and a red paisley tie, viewed the crowd with a satisfied smile, then climbed atop a six-inch box so his face would be above the microphone.

He luxuriated in all the attention Obama had given him -- "four separate meetings" -- and said he had come away with "a real sense of compassion for our president and what he's going through in this." The presidential wooing reminded Kucinich of "the big mistake that we get into here" in Washington, "that we become so intractable we just forget to talk to each other."

A reporter from the Washington Times tried to razz Kucinich by reminding him of some of the terrible things he once said about the health-care legislation. "It's not the bill I want," the lawmaker acknowledged. "So I have to ask myself: Am I going to just rest on my philosophical position here?" Instead, he continued, "there is a moment of decision you have to make, not looking at the bill as you want it, but as it is."

Leaping leprechauns. If the little guy keeps talking such sense, he'll be worth a pot of gold to Obama.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company