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Half a loaf

A left-wing congressman chooses pragmatism over purity

Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democratic congressman and committed ideological liberal, has typically been a marginalized figure on Capitol Hill and on the national campaign trail. He has voted against key Democratic measures (climate change, financial regulation, '09 health care reform), dismissing them as insufficiently leftish, and perhaps the best-remembered highlight of his two failed presidential bids was his '07 declaration that he had once seen a UFO ("It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It was unidentified, I saw something...wait, we're just getting started here").

But this morning, Kucinich made a splash. Choosing pragmatism over ideology, he announced that - contrary to his No vote last November on health care reform - he will now support reform when the final House tally is presumably staged this weekend or soon thereafter. Kucinich thus becomes the first '09 No voter to publicly commit to a Yes vote on final passage.

Kucinich has long been a staunch crusader for a single-payer, government-run, Medicare-style universal health care system - and the reforms now on the precipice of passage fall far short of what he wants. But his decision this morning to accept half a loaf is a potential boost for President Obama, who has wooed Kucinich repeatedly, and who can now seek to ballyhoo Kucinich's announcement as evidence of momentum toward the finish line. Indeed, as Kucinich suggested at his press conference that his flip flop might inspire other '09 Democratic naysayers to do the same: "If I can vote for this bill, there are not many other people who shouldn't be able to support it."

Kucinich said, "This is not the bill I wanted to support," but decided that, given the "historic" moment at hand, it was important to enact reforms that can be improved down the road. Despite his longstanding belief that the current package is way too timid, "there's something much bigger at stake here in America." It would therefore appear that Obama was persuasive when he reportedly pointed out to Kucinich in conversations, as recently as Monday, that the Social Security and Medicare programs were both flawed and insufficient when first enacted in 1935 and 1965 respectively, but that both were subsequently improved.

Just four days ago, Kucinich wrote a guest newspaper column denouncing the pending reform bill as a giveaway to the insurance industry, and this morning he again assailed the industry as "predatory." But his decision to vote Yes could provide some political cover to those House colleagues on the left who have yet to commit. With the year-long health reform effort hinging on every last vote, Kucinich's message is that - even for him - the stakes are too high for ideological purity, and that pragmatism is the only viable option.

Remember all the love that Republicans heaped on General David Petraeus during the waning days of the Bush era? Have you heard their heartbeats go pitter patter at the theoretical prospect of Petraeus seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?

Well, even if Petraeus has truly been toying with the idea of running (despite his seemingly Shermanesque denials), he pretty much blew himself up politically with this remark, uttered yesterday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing:

"I believe the time has come to consider a change to Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

There you have it. This self-described "Rockefeller Republican" (a nearly extinct moderate species) is openly suggesting that perhaps gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. And if that doesn't make Petraeus sound gay-friendly, and thus anathema to the GOP base, consider what he said on Meet the Press 24 days ago. When asked whether the soldiers in the field are concerned about the sexual orientation of their comrades, Petraeus replied:

"I'm not sure that they do...I served, in fact, in combat with individuals who were gay and who were lesbian in combat situations. Frankly, you know, over time you said, 'hey, how's this guy shooting, or how is her analysis?,' or what have you."

More blasphemy. It's hard to imagine that the social and religious conservatives who dominate the early GOP contests would abide a Republican candidate who talks up equal treatment for gays. That kind of attitude translates to a fifth-place finish in Iowa and a morning-after farewell to elective politics - as Petraeus undoubtedly knows already. He has a better shot at defeating the Taliban than wooing the gatekeepers of the Republican nomination.