Campaign Crawlers

Taken Aback in Washington

The Campaign for America's Future seems resigned that it can't -- all claims to the contrary -- Take Back America.

By 6.2.05

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WASHINGTON -- The message coming from the Campaign for America's Future's three-day Take Back America event is clear: Progressives are on the march and they'll win next time out.

Now if only they could convince themselves of it.

Speaker after speaker at Wednesday's opening of the event, a major annual gathering for liberal activists, talked passionately about how their movement was breaking new ground, growing by leaps and bounds, etc.

Then, inevitably, they dampened their own rousing words by either reflecting on the last election, conceding they may not win next time either or offering backhanded compliments to the apparently all-powerful "right-wing message machine."

Typical was Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who told the assembled union guys, environmentalists, abortion rights activists and others that "there is a mood for change in the air," even comparing it to 1994 when Republicans took over the House.

Yet she followed that by saying most voters think liberals are squishy and President Bush is tough. And that's a problem because "voters like tough, they don't like tentative."

Donna Brazile echoed her point.

"They (conservatives) know what they believe in and they're not afraid to say it. Why aren't we?" she asked.

L.A. Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa pumped up the crowd by talking about building up the progressive agenda only to warn them that they may have to wait years before they actually win elections. He also repeatedly noted the, well, whiteness of the Take Back America audience, a problem for a movement that hopes to win with minority voters.

"You look in this room tonight and you don't see the diversity we need to bring this country together," he said.

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, warned the liberals that the conservatives have genuine support at the grass roots level.

"There is a right-wing populism (in America) that can win their votes -- and is winning their votes," Borosage said.

NOW IT CAN BE THE sign of a healthy political movement that its leaders have realistic goals and a good understanding of their opponents. So the comments at the Take Back America event could suggest a new maturity for the left.

But it was also fairly typical of the neurotic tenor of many liberal events your correspondent has seen since Bush took office in 2000. Gone are the days when liberals believed that the vast mainstream of America would rise up and cast conservatives out of office because of the right's extremism. Instead they've watched as the Republicans took the White House and both houses of Congress. They're angry and upset over this. Spooked too.

When, for example, Karen Ackerman, an AFL-CIO political director, used the words "among white men..." during a rundown on exit poll numbers, one member of the audience actually hissed.

"Oh, that's not right," she replied.

For most attendees, the event's name -- Take Back America -- was meant quite literally. Though they've had some successes lately, most notably stalling President Bush's Social Security agenda (which quite a few crowed about), most seem still to be unnerved by Bush's re-election and the continuing Republican control of Congress.

After all, last time they had an unprecedented level of cooperation among their various factions, huge fundraising and an expanded base -- and they still lost.

Clearly, it still hurts.

"As hard as we worked in 2004, we still didn't do it," said Schakowsky.

Understanding these losses this isn't any easier when so many them earnestly believe that not only are they on the correct side of the major issues, but that they are on the winning side too. Several speakers Wednesday cited polls that they said proved the public is on the liberals' side, the obvious contradiction notwithstanding.

"We know right now the issues are with us. The people will gravitate towards us," Brazile said.

Of course it's possible that she's correct. Liberals are, after all, building a network, they do have energized volunteers and deep-pocketed supporters. Why can't they take back America or at least Congress? Conservatives certainly shouldn't get complacent.

But the exact same argument Brazile made has been made at gatherings like Take Back America for years. Some liberals are beginning to sound doubtful.

"Some say the Democrats need only the courage of their convictions to tap a deep well of progressive sentiment, but if there is a latent national majority for that kind of pure and unadulterated liberal politics, it has kept itself well hidden for a long time," writes Paul Starr in the current American Prospect.

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Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.