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Activists Use Web To Nudge Party

Principles Are Drafted for Democrats

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page A05

To hear some people tell it, the problem with the Democratic Party is that the political left no longer knows what it believes. A young graduate student named John Paul Rollert says these doubters can find their answer on the Web.

Rollert, a political activist who says his aim is the long-term revival of progressive politics, is one of the leaders of an effort called the "Principles Project," which recently completed an online convention designed to define and promote what Democrats believe.

John Paul Rollert sees manifesto as an "antidote" to the postelection blues.

Six weeks of e-mail debate and balloting ended earlier this month with "A Declaration of Progressive Principles." It is posted at www.principlesproject.com.

The manifesto is just over 500 words long. People hoping for programs and policy prescriptions will not find them. Instead, the online symposium aimed for broad statements of core beliefs that could unite people among the diverse factions of the Democratic Party.

The section on strengthening democracy, for example, declares: "It is the shared responsibility of a nation to ensure each citizen's freedom, security and equality. Through government, we honor our responsibility to promote the common good."

However spacious the language, the Principles Project's declarations represent a partial answer to two questions that have percolated in Washington since the November election. One is whether the grass-roots activity and political energy that was mobilized on the Democratic side against President Bush would continue after his reelection.

"This is an antidote to the disappointment right after the election," said Rollert, the chairman of the project. At the same time, Rollert added, he and his fellow organizers believed that "we on the left" had not matched conservatives in thinking in a long-term way about the ideas and values that drive politics. "This is an attempt to think not just about the election cycle but through 10 or 20 election cycles."

The effort also helps answer what some of the big Democratic-supporting independent groups that were created to influence the 2004 election will do now that their original mission ended in defeat.

The Principles Project has received endorsements and modest financial support from such groups as America Coming Together, the big labor-supported effort that spent heavily to promote Democratic nominee John F. Kerry in key swing states.

While the support is welcome, leaders of the Principles Project said that, at least so far, they have only minimal financial needs. The group exists mainly as a Web site and its leaders are volunteers. Until this month's convention, when about 150 activists gathered in New York City for a meeting, "most people knew each other only by e-mail," said Josh Green, a co-founder of 2020 Democrats, which is aimed at young Democrats and spearheaded the project.

The project is not affiliated with the Democratic Party, but several prominent Democrats have given it a push. The honorary co-chairmen are Reps. Harold E. Ford Jr. (Tenn.) and Janice D. Schakowsky (Ill.), as well as David Wilhelm, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sent the group a letter of support, saying that "an effort like this can help us better define shared commitments."

Any self-described progressive was free to join in the online balloting about the declaration of principles, but Green said it was natural for younger Democrats to gravitate to the debate.

"There's a tradition in politics of asking young people for their votes and time without asking people for their opinions and ideas," said Green, 26, a 2000 graduate of Dartmouth College now pursuing an MBA at Harvard University.

For his part, he said, when it came to Democratic politics, he was "tired of hearing what we disagree with . . . tired of hearing about the internal squabbling."

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