Originally Published: June 26, 2003 6:10 p.m.
WASHINGTON – Liberal Democratic activists turned out in a show of force in Washington, D.C., the other day to send a message to their party: We're mad as hell and we're not taking it anymore.
More than a thousand leftists – representing labor unions, feminists, environmentalists, peace groups and other like-minded organizations – packed the Omni Shoreham's biggest ballroom last week in one of the largest gatherings of liberal activists in 20 years, according to Campaign for America's Future, the liberal advocacy group that organized the event.
The conference focused on exciting and motivating these forces for the 2004 elections.
"The political system has been fairly disappointing for our people since George W. Bush got into the White House," said Roger Hickey, co-director of America's Future. "For a while our people got depressed. Now they are angry and want to turn that anger into political activity."
After three days of fire-and-brimstone speeches, panels and strategy sessions, it's easy to see why they left here more determined than ever to steer the Democratic Party even further to the left in 2004. Consider the names of the panels that met: "The Next Stage for the Peace Movement," "Reversing the Right's Hold on the Media" and "Beating Conservatives on the Ground."
Notably, there was a lot of self-criticism of the party and its leadership, with many saying it was too wishy-washy and needed to get tougher with Bush.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg sparked prolonged applause when he said "the biggest failing of the Democrats is not having challenged those tax cuts from day one."
The roster of speakers was a who's who of the party's liberal wing, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, PBS commentator Bill Moyers, Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, nearly a dozen liberal college professors, and a cluster of the party's most liberal presidential candidates, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
Not surprisingly, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the party's most conservative presidential hopeful, turned down an invitation to address the group.
Dean echoed the conference's most frequent mantra by declaring the "need to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts." Neas said that, if Democrats win back control of Congress, "we're going to block any right-wing (Supreme Court) nominee in the mold of (Justices) Anthony Scalia and Clarence Thomas."
The message was heavily anti-capitalism, anti-business and anti-profit. "We believe in the politics where people come ahead of profits," an AFL-CIO official said.
Kerry attempted to balance his own career-long liberalism with a dose of moderation on national security issues – "We have to be clear about how we make America safer and stronger" – that was greeted with stony silence.
But Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner, also gave the crowd plenty of liberal red meat that won him cheers and applause. "I'm proud of standing up to Ronald Reagan's illegal war in El Salvador and Nicaragua," he said. (He neglected to say that, in both countries, Reagan's policies helped to defeat the Communist-backed Marxist guerrillas and restore democracy to their citizens.)
However, even his remarks were relatively moderate compared to those on the conference-ending panel of anti-war activists. This group angrily denounced Bush's war to topple Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqis; attacked the defense budget, and criticized the global war against terrorism.
Among the activists and their concerns were:
• Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the far-left Nation magazine, worried that the Pentagon's budget was out of control (although it proportionately represents less than 20 percent of the federal budget compared to nearly 50 percent in the 1950s).
• Anti-war leader Benjamin Barber of the Democracy Collaborative said "Bush believes the world belongs to America" and belittled terrorists as "our new TV goblins."
The president "pursues democracy out of the barrel of a gun. It's not for Bush or the U.S. to give people their rights," Barber complained.
• Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson, of the Justice and Witness Ministries, said the war in Iraq showed that "our nation has lost its moral compass. Is it right to attack Iraq and not North Korea?"
"We must accept our responsibility for what is wrong with the world, for racism and colonialism," she said.
If this is the message the Democrats want to run on, then they had better be prepared for another Republican landslide. Just ask McGovern and Mondale.
Copyright 2003, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.