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Progressives, Preparing to Advance in One Direction

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page C01

The progressives are in town, incredibly well behaved. They're focused and on message. They clap and cheer at appropriate moments during the speeches. There are no hecklers, no splinter groups, no eruptions of dissent over doctrinal impurities.

Progressives are suddenly as disciplined as Republicans. They realize all too keenly that there's a presidential election this fall between one man who is George W. Bush and one man who isn't.

An orderly and businesslike exuberance: The crowd greets former presidential candidate Howard Dean at the Take Back America conference. (Photos Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

"When your house is on fire, it's not time to talk about remodeling," said author and TV pundit Arianna Huffington, who popped up onstage and in the halls throughout the first two days of the conference.

This progressive jamboree is at the Marriott in Woodley Park, and is titled "Take Back America." The theme is repeated often, and when a speaker says it's time to take back America, everyone in the audience knows what that means. Most of the details of what will happen once America has been taken back can be worked out in January.

"We're going to take this country back and it's going to be election after election after election!" bellowed Howard Dean, recapturing some of the energy of his primary-season heyday as he addressed the crowd yesterday afternoon. "Now and November, we're going to take it back!"

A progressive is what used to be known as a liberal. Liberals stopped being liberals about the time that Michael Dukakis rode around in the tank wearing the Snoopy helmet. A liberal has a bleeding heart and drives an avocado-green VW bus with a peace symbol on it; a progressive has a Listserv and raises money from his mountain biking club.

The 2,000 or so people at the Marriott might also be called the Left. But they're the polite Left, the conference-attending Left, the politically pragmatic Left that has no interest in getting in a skirmish with riot police. These people are not so enraged by globalization that they want to race across the hotel lobby and trash the adjacent Starbucks.

Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, said there are more progressives than conservatives in America, except not as many people realize that they're progressive. He added: "I don't consider myself a liberal or a progressive. I'm a militant."

Whatever you call these folks, they're feeling good at the moment. The president's popularity is down, subscriptions to the Nation are up. The most optimistic progressives are talking about more than just a victory in November.

"We want him out, not in a tossup, but in a landslide," Huffington said.

"We couldn't be meeting under better circumstances," Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) said, repeating the observation twice more as he prepared to introduce Dean.

"The stench of their failure is simply inescapable," declared Robert Borosage, co-founder of the Campaign for America's Future, which sponsored the conference with help from such groups as MoveOn.org, Common Cause, People for the American Way and a little mom and pop union outfit called the AFL-CIO. There are tables with literature about the environment, abortion rights, all the liberal causes, and it's sometimes hard to go 10 feet without someone trying to hand you a pamphlet or a petition, but the event has been remarkably smooth and orderly, sticking to schedule. Dare one say harmonious?

"Bush organizes the left the way Clinton organized the right," Borosage said.

Because of what happened in the 2000 election, the Democrats could nominate an iguana and still sweep the progressive vote. Progressives traditionally struggle with the urge to jump to a third party, but they saw what can happen. Ralph Nader, the erstwhile progressive hero, is conspicuously absent from the conference. Roger Hickey, co-founder of the Campaign for America's Future, said Nader may have been a leader of progressive policies, but "he's a disaster at political strategy."

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