For much of the 2008 primary season, the Democratic left has been uneasy. At the liberal Take Back America conference two years ago, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was booed for her opposition to a “date certain” troop withdrawal from Iraq. A year ago, her reception was similarly negative.
But on Monday, hundreds of progressive activists gathered in a ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington did not blanch when Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, declared: “It doesn’t matter who wins the Democratic nomination.”
It was a victory declaration of sorts from the host organization of what has become a premier national gathering for liberals. After years of cajoling and pulling and booing their leaders, progressives will head into the general election with a Democrat who has adopted their agenda on energy, trade, health care and the Iraq war, Borosage said.
“They didn’t start with that agenda, but they ended up there,” he said. “Part of it is because of the leadership of John Edwards, part of it because of the mobilization of progressives in this room, and part of it because of the needs of the country.”
Progressives may be feeling good — even cocky — these days, but speaker after speaker also reminded those gathered for the three-day conference of a lesson learned from the 2006 election. The sharpest criticism was directed at the Democratic-controlled Congress for failing to follow the left-leaning agenda Democratic liberals believe helped remove Republicans from control of Capitol Hill.
“We have to be willing to challenge legislators, no matter what party they are from and no matter who holds the majority,” Borosage said.
They must move forward “as an independent progressive movement, not as an arm of the Democratic Party,” he said, demanding that the next president do what is promised during the campaign.
As part of the effort to hold candidates accountable, the Campaign for America’s Future will announce a major initiative Tuesday in which several groups, including the AFL-CIO, will spend more than $350 million this year to register and mobilize progressives.
The lingering sense of skepticism is reflected in voters such as Judy Shelton, 58, an activist from Berkeley, Calif., who said she did not agree with Borosage’s assessment of the Democratic presidential candidates.
“The agendas are different depending on where you are on the progressive spectrum,” Shelton said, adding that even for a liberal conference, she is “out there.”
She is now supporting Barack Obama but has gotten there through a “lefty migration” from Dennis J. Kucinich to Edwards and now to the Illinois senator.
“He is not far enough over there for me,” Shelton said of Obama. She suspects he is “more left than he is posing himself to be, but I don’t want that to get out.”
The Take Back America conference began seven years ago as a meeting of several dozen activists looking for a way to challenge the Republican domination of U.S. politics. It has since grown to a gathering of more than 2,000 people from more than 40 states.
Attendees described the state of the movement Monday as organized and committed, as optimistic about putting a Democrat in the White House but also less willing to believe promises and more skeptical of the candidates who make them.
“In 2006, we thought the incoming Democratic majority had a mandate to end the war in Iraq. Isn’t that what you all thought?” asked Donna Edwards, who beat Rep. Albert Wynn in the Democratic primary last month for Maryland’s 4th Congressional District. “In some ways, some of us forgot what happened in 2006, because then it became the politics of the usual” back in Washington.
The hard line promoted by Borosage and oters resembled the discipline that has long characterized the conservative movement’s relationship with the Republican Party: Help it and support it, but make sure it plays the game by your rules. If it doesn’t, hold it accountable.
“There will be organized pressure on day one,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “We have learned our lesson. In 1992, everybody was overjoyed about Bill Clinton, until people realized his big agenda item before health care was NAFTA. We hope we can shape the agenda of the new administration through citizen pressure.”
Hickey said both Hillary Clinton and Obama were invited to speak at the conference, but “as of now, I do not expect either of them to be here.”
Obama is campaigning this week in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Clinton was in Washington on Monday, giving a speech on Iraq at The George Washington University.
Given the chilly reception she received over the issue during the last two conferences, the organizers were not openly questioning her decision to choose a more controlled environment.
“Listen, we think they both should have come, but we understand that they are both in a busy time in their campaigns,” Hickey said.