Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Liberals Convene — and Air Differences Over Democrats"

NY Times (from Congressional Quarterly):
It is hard to boil down anything about the highly diverse and often fractious Democratic Party to an either/or choice.

But there appeared to be two major schools of thought at the sixth annual Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., this week — organized by the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future and attended by a mix of 3,000 pamphlet-pushing activists, headphone-wearing bloggers and buttoned-down political pros.
In one group are the Democratic Party regulars such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and the front-running candidates for the party’s 2008 presidential nomination, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, who were featured speakers at the conference.

Certainly characterized by the Republican opposition as liberals, these Democratic leaders hailed the party’s takeover of Congress in the 2006 elections and pledged to continue raising their voices against President George W. Bush’s policies on the Iraq war and other issues — even though the Democrats’ lack of filibuster-proof and veto-proof majorities has frustrated their ability to implement much of their agenda.

In the other camp at the conference were activists who view themselves as on the front lines of the progressive political movement — and who regard Democratic leaders as too willing to bow to Bush’s will rather than confront him.

This was evident Monday when Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the liberal activist organization, delivered his opening remarks at the conference.

Pariser joked that he hoped he could say at the next Take Back America conference, “Okay, we’ve got America back, what do we do with it now?” To which an audience member, referring to the Democrats, exclaimed, “Take back the party!”

On Wednesday morning, Clinton spoke about the shortcomings of the U.S.-supported Iraqi government and its role in the continued violence in Iraq, saying "the American military has done its job." She was booed by some in the audience who view her as too much a centrist on the war and who never have forgiven her for voting in favor of the 2002 resolution that authorized Bush to employ military force in Iraq.

A loss of faith among the Democratic Party’s liberal base has contributed to the overall bottom-scraping job approval ratings for Congress that have been seen in some recent polls. Both the Quinnipiac University and NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey organization completed polls on June 11 that produced 23 percent positive job approval scores for the newly Democratic-controlled legislature.

“It’s hard to understand why Democratic leaders have made some of the concessions they have in the last few weeks,” Pariser said, referring to the Democratic leadership’s yielding to Bush’s veto of a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops that was included in a supplement spending bill for Iraq war operations.

Pointedly criticizing the Democratic leaders who participated in the conference, Pariser stated, “We should not be waiting around for Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to deliver us from conservatives.”

Pariser has not hesitated to raise the specter of electoral opposition to Democrats seen as hedging on Iraq, saying in a statement last month, “MoveOn members are asking us to consider all options for Democratic members of Congress who ran on ending the war but vote for more chaos and more troops in Iraq — including in-district advertising and recruitment of primary challengers.”

But the hardline position quickly drew a rebuke from freshman Rep. Keith Ellison, who has drawn attention as both the first African-American member of Congress from Minnesota and the first Muslim ever to serve in either the House or the Senate.

Speaking directly after Pariser, Ellison warned the activist crowd, “Don’t turn your dissatisfaction into a cannibalistic enterprise.”

Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who spoke at the session that featured Pariser and Ellison, sounded exasperated. “We have to remember that some of us in the Congress are you,” she said. “One of those people is the Speaker of the House. There’s no one who wants to end this war more than Nancy Pelosi.”

It would be a mistake, though, to suggest that disharmony ruled the day at the conference. Leaders at the gathering united behind the issues of labor rights, overhauling the nation’s energy policy, and above all ending the war in Iraq. Politicians praised grassroots organizers, and activists strained to take pictures of big-name lawmakers.

The party’s strategy, said liberal strategist Brad Woodhouse, should be to “unite Democrats, divide Republicans and isolate Bush.”

The tug between purism and pragmatism is typical of the Democratic Party, according to Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for Politics and American Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

“I think the Democratic Party, unlike the Republican Party, is very diverse and there is a constant battle among the groups,” Herrnson said. But he added that liberal activists are aware of the importance of electoral politics in advancing their ideas. “They recognize that there are two campaigns, the campaign for votes and the campaign for money,” he said. “They realize that their ability to influence elections depends on their part in these two campaigns.”

MoveOn and similar groups have been extremely influential in raising money for Democratic candidates and on behalf of progressive issues. In the 2006 election cycle, MoveOn's political action committee collected almost $28 million, spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in contested races.

The organizers of Take Back America say that the American electorate is moving to the left and bringing the Democratic Party with it. “What you see is that progressives are driving the national debate,” said Toby Chaudhuri, spokesman for the Campaign for America’s Future. “They are driving the debate in the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party is driving the national debate.”

But Chaudhuri conceded that the many members of progressive organizations are cautious about identifying with a political party. “To these folks, it isn’t necessarily about Democrats or Republicans, it’s about the progressive agenda,” he said.

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