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On the Spot: Progressives Flex Their Muscles and Their Fantasies

At the Take Back America Conference, progressive leaders feel their oats, uniting to focus on the election while keeping the longer-term goal of social reform within sight.
 
 
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It had all the makings of a political convention. The "candidate" arrived to cheering crowds, was introduced by an influential U.S. senator and lauded for "speaking truth to power" and stimulating "a revolution in American politics."

To an adoring crowd that included a wide range of constituencies -- unions, issue groups, media stars and grass roots activists from across the country -- the "candidate" offered a stem-winder, telling the crowd "We are sending G.W. Bush back to Crawford,Texas." He bashed Bush's phony Clear Skies Initiative and said the next president "is not going to send out troops into combat without telling the truth." By the time he promised that "together we are going to take back America," the audience was standing and screaming, ready to storm the barricades.

But this was neither a convention nor a political party. The thousands of cheering attendees had assembled in Washington D.C. June 1-4 at the Take Back America Conference, and the "candidate" was Howard Dean, glowingly introduced by New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine. And the increasingly powerful progressive constellation has to dance with the guy who didn't show up, the real candidate, John Kerry.

Nevertheless, their enthusiasm for Dean and their many single-issue causes aside, it was crystal clear that virtually all progressives at this event are united for a singular purpose: to take the country back from George W. Bush. When Dean says he will do everything in his power to get Kerry elected, he clearly means it. It's plain that the privately discussed Kerry disappointments and weaknesses are going to be mostly swept under the rug or begrudgingly chalked up to political reality, as everyone moves forward with one voice: Defeat Bush at all cost. This general understanding represents an unprecedented pragmatic consensus among the historically competitive American left. One of the newer but more visible progressives, Arianna Huffington, told the Washington Post the focus has to be on getting rid of Bush. "You don't remodel the house while it is burning down." As for Ralph Nader, he was an invisible, ignored and largely irrelevant man at this conference.

Still, in addition to their pragmatism, most of the people who gathered in DC have a long-term goal beyond defeating Bush in November. The vision of social reform fueled by political power burns brightly as progressives are feeling their oats. They know they face a difficult future in a country irrevocably split along a fundamentalist-populist fault line, but they are gaining momentum. Winning battles in a political environment increasingly dominated by conservative framing, language, media capitulation and hordes of conservative cash will require strong messages and effective grass roots mobilization, two areas the Kerry campaign still seems to lack.

In their hearts, progressives feel if Kerry were to define himself more sharply along populist lines, as Bush has catered to his mostly religious base, the election could be a clear victory of core values and not one of caution, especially in foreign policy. But that seems unlikely, and so the current progressive mantra is "Let's make the best of it" and build for the future.

Over the years the annual June "Take Back America" event -- organized by Bob Borosage, Roger Hickey and a large, competent cast from the Campaign for America's Future -- has evolved into the place to be if you are a progressive leader or activist. Many of the stars of the progressive world are showcased; they hawk their books and sign autographs while the rank-and-file eat up their fiery pep talks. Meanwhile in the halls and in the bars there is intense networking among the pros who have heard the speeches too many times.

Because the election is near, and the stakes are high, this year's gathering was larger, more enthusiastic, and clearer on the short-term goal than previous gatherings. The marked success of the event also reflects the growing influence of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Even the Wall Street Journal sensed a "....rumbling of something much bigger."

"On the defensive for more than a generation, the American left is seeing signs of political revival," the Journal wrote. "Recent polls show more Americans are calling themselves 'liberal' -- a term that had been considered something of an epithet -- and fewer are identifying themselves as 'conservative.' The flagship publication of the left, the Nation, claims to have captured the highest circulation of any weekly political magazine."

"The plates have all moved," argues Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. The combination of hostility toward President Bush, anxiety about the war in Iraq and concerns about tax cuts and other economic issues "make it possible for something fundamental to happen in this election," he says.

That something "fundamental" was on the minds of the highly interconnected progressive leadership that dominates "Take Back America." Thousands of organizers, and dozens of well-funded organizations are busy registering voters -- with estimates of 2 million new voters on the rolls considered likely -- and finding any number of ways to be relevant within the multi-layered fabric of a presidential election year. There was plenty of talk and lots of questions as many made a mid-course assessment of the myriad efforts going on around the country. Is America Coming Together (ACT), the partisan grass roots voter mobilization effort active in more than a dozen swing states, meeting its ambitious goals? How is ACORN's statewide minimum wage initiative faring in Florida? Will corporate interests knock out the groundbreaking Clean Elections law in Arizona? Is it really possible that Democrats could win back the House and/or the Senate?

John Nichols, writing recently in the Nation, referred to a "shadow Democratic party" made up of ACT's Steve Rosenthal and other veteran political players, including Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List; Harold Ickes, former Clinton White House aide; Jim Jordan, former Kerry campaign manager; and Cecile Richards, former aide to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

But it is easy to argue that these so-called "shadow" players (mostly absent from the conference) represent the insider pragmatic liberal arm of the Democratic Party, pushed outside by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. These players have a laser-like focus on the election, and are raising the big bucks for ads and ground troops, while the passion for issues comes from the progressives, like those at the conference who are intensely focused on the election but looking beyond as well. If there is a "shadow party," then there is a party within the "shadow party" that is in part dominated by the capacity of MoveOn.org, the biggest political success story in decades, a money-raising machine with upwards of 2 million members.

This progressive wing in force at Take Back America is an impressive list that includes Wes Boyd and the rest of MoveOn's talented leadership, Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future, veteran activist Heather Booth, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, the emerging Progressive Majority PAC for candidates at the local level and its leader Gloria Totten, Internet forces like Ben Cohen's True Majority and the Working Assets Long Distance Phone Company -- personally committed to registering 1 million new voters.

The list also includes an array of advocacy groups like ACORN, U.S. Action, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Wellstone Action, League of Conservation Voters, People for the American Way and dozens of others as well as public intellectuals like Robert Reich and Bill Greider. Then, of course, there are leading media figures such as Michael Moore, Arianna Huffington, and Jim Hightower, and Hollywood's Robert Greenwald, who has become a consummate documentary maker. It has financial royalty with sympathetic billionaire George Soros, who was a visible and well-received participant at Take Back America. Soros, of course, has enough money to support both the pragmatists, laser focused on election day, and the larger progressive apparatus, wanting badly to win, but keen on building an infrastructure for the long-term political struggle required to fight the right.

And then there is Dean. His ambitious, newly-minted political action group "Democracy For America" is focused in part on supporting candidates running across the country with the Dean spirit. Whether Dean would join a Kerry administration if he is elected, or remain a leader of progressive forces (surely ironic given Dean's centrist days as Governor of Vermont) in keeping a newly elected John Kerry honest, remains to be seen. Of course, all these players constantly work together. Any lines between pragmatists and more progressive issue advocates are blurry to be sure. However, over and over again the message that progressives "need to be focused on the long haul" came through loud and clear at the conference.

At gatherings like "Take Back America" there are always many dynamics in play. Old "stars" return to the scene, like Julian Bond, who struck an upbeat chord with his opening day speech. New conference stars emerge like New York State's Attorney General Elliot Spitzer whose populist speech brought thundering applause, NY State Senate Minority Leader David Patterson and LA City Council member Antonio Villaraigosa. Powerful political players -- like John Sweeney, Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Corzine and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow come to demonstrate their commitment as they brushed up their progressive credentials. The big thinkers and pollsters like Stanley Greenberg, Celinda Lake, Will Robinson and George Lakoff challenge the conventional wisdom; and even crack musical talent makes the scene -- this year it was the super star Moby, a striking Bethany Yarrow, and MoveOn's own Laura Dawn.

Now that conference participants have headed back to home base, and the death of Ronald Reagan dominates the news, there are many mixed signals as to what will happen in November. Certainly, the Reagan legacy will be exploited, and Bush will try to wrap himself in the aura of the very popular, media-made mythical former president.

On the other hand, Michael Moore's anti-Bush film Fahrenheit 9/11 , which took the Cannes Film Festival by storm, is about to hit the screens. Some are calling the film's trailer the "best anti-Bush commercial ever made."

Adding to confusion, polls show Bush's approval rating at an all-time low, while Kerry also fell to his lowest number in the daily tracking poll done by Rasmussen Reports since he won the New Hampshire primary, though the differences between the two are relatively miniscule: Bush has 45.4% of the vote to Kerry's 44.1%.

Even more disorienting is the fact that, according to Rasmussen, Kerry is doing much better than expected in some states thought to be strong for Bush, e.g. in Virginia it is 47-45 in favor of Bush; and in North Carolina Bush leads 48-44. On the other hand, Bush is ahead of Kerry 45-44 in Pennsylvania, thought to be a strong Democratic state. Kerry has a five-point lead in Minnesota, and a six-point lead in Michigan, but trails Bush in Oregon and Missouri by just one percentage point. What all this points to is a very close race, clearly impossible to call at this point, and strong motivation to the hordes hell bent on defeating Bush to get out into the field and talk to the voters.

Don Hazen is Executive Editor of AlterNet.