Bush as a Uniter -- of Diverse Democrats

"I'm unabashedly a progressive, but I'm not a knee-jerk, either," Antonio Villaraigosa said. (Alex Wong - Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 2, 2005

The Democrats have lost the past six congressional elections and two straight presidential races. So why is Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Chicago liberal, so happy?

At the annual meeting of the Campaign for America's Future, a celebration of all things liberal, Schakowsky took the stage yesterday to the sound of "We are Family" and then sang a line and danced.

"It's so bad here in Washington that it's actually good for us," she said to laughter from a thousand liberal activists in the Washington Hilton ballroom. "It's starting to feel like 1994 when the Republicans took over the House and the Senate, and now the tables are turning with a vengeance."

That overstates things. After all, the Senate Democratic leader says it will take a "miracle" to reclaim that chamber. But Democrats do have something in common with the Republicans of 1994: Unified in their opposition to the president, they have swallowed, for now, their intraparty differences. Even the ideologues are on their best behavior.

"We have to be credible on national security," host Robert L. Borosage declared at the start of the conference.

Schakowsky complained that "all of our soldiers still don't have up-armored Humvees."

The day's featured speaker, Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, delivered a paean to moderation. "I'm unabashedly a progressive, but I'm not a knee-jerk, either," he said. "You don't go so far out in front of people that they don't feel that you're connected with them."

Introduced to the crowd as "the future of progressive politics in America," Villaraigosa acknowledged he may have been the most liberal speaker of the state Assembly in California's history, "but I'm also known as the most bipartisan speaker in a generation."

In recent years, this gathering has been a chance for what Howard Dean calls the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" to assert itself. But this time, centrists and liberals have called a temporary truce because of their shared battle against President Bush.

"Both of us have our guns trained on the other party," observed Roger Hickey, who runs the Campaign for America's Future with Borosage, in between interviews with liberal radio hosts. The group, formed after the 1996 election in hopes of moving the Democrats to the left, is even hearing from an evangelical minister, Jim Wallis, along with the usual suspects such as Dean, Bill Moyers, John Sweeney and Arianna Huffington.

Across town at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), headquarters for the party's moderates, senior fellow Marshall Wittmann endorsed the cease-fire. "We're now all anti-Bushies," he said, likening the mood to that of the Republicans in 1993, when Wittmann worked for the Christian Coalition. "He has finally proven he's a uniter, not a divider."

The cease-fire will end, of course, whenever the Democrats regain power. But at this week's gathering, everything from the conference's title -- "Take Back America" -- to the exhibit booths was all about Bush. The Nation magazine handed out pins portraying Bush as Alfred E. Neuman. American Prospect had a blown-up cover labeling Bush "The Most Dangerous President Ever." Televisions played MoveOn.org ads showing a Bush impersonator attacking an aging couple at breakfast by "pulling the rug out from under Medicare."

Billed as the "largest progressive gathering" since the election, the session attracted the AFL-CIO, PIRGs, NOW, ACORN, LCV and the rest of the liberal alphabet soup. A book vendor sold works from Sidney Blumenthal, Donna Brazile and Al Franken. A group calling itself the "Backbone Campaign" distributed drawings of a spine with labeled vertebrae (L5: "No to U.S. Imperialism; C1: "Sign Kyoto Treaty"), and it had "Spineless Citations" for those who did not toe the line.

The full panel of liberal outlets -- Mother Jones, Media Matters, Tompaine.com and dozens of others -- filled up a "Progressive Media Row." In an bit of zoological wordplay, somebody assigned the blog "Suburban Guerrilla" the seat next to the blog "Political Animal."

"We run a five-ring extravaganza," Borosage boasted as he opened the conference.

But Borosage, in his opening speech, directed no barbs at the DLC, discussing only the "scoundrels" in the other party. "They can hatch a lie, festoon it with footnotes at the Heritage Foundation, have it written authoritatively at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal [and] echo it through Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Fox News," he said.

The opening session proceeded with barely a hint of the intraparty fratricide of recent years -- and it ended early. This self-restraint seemed to surprise the organizers, who filled the time by screening a preview of an anti-Wal-Mart documentary.

"We've been so terse and well disciplined," Borosage marveled.

"Believe it or not," echoed Hickey, "progressives can run a meeting on time."

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