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.
"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."
Hickey made sure there was no doubt about his group's attitude toward Nader: "We're determined that he get the smallest vote possible this time. Because he was a spoiler."
But does the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, really represent the progressive agenda?
"We're grown-ups," Hickey said. "I've got a whole agenda that Kerry is not talking about. But how do we get that agenda talked about within the political system? The first step is getting rid of Bush."
Some attendees aren't eager to embrace the Democratic candidate. Michael Smith, a 69-year-old retired peace officer from Santa Cruz County, Calif., and a longtime supporter of the Peace and Freedom Party (he'll vote for Leonard Peltier, who is in prison, convicted of the murder of an FBI agent), said he's been following the theory that the president knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened -- the time, the place, everything. Look at the video of Bush reading to the kids that morning, he said. "He acted not surprised at all."
War and terror are on everyone's mind, but progressives typically focus on what Borosage calls kitchen table economics: jobs, wages, education, health care, retirement, the things parents talk about at the kitchen table after their kids have gone to bed.
MoveOn.org President Wes Boyd showed slides depicting the things that the group's members care about. Boyd spoke quietly, and the room took on a rather hushed tone. Each slide had one word on it, including:
Trust. Family. Freedom. Responsibility. Democracy.
He showed a slide with a word people are tired of: Me. He replaced it with a slide with the word We.
"They're tired of the Me culture. They're looking for the We."
And people understood, especially the Californians.
The biggest applause lines invariably involved Bush. Kerry rarely got mentioned. He's a presumption but not an preoccupation. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped his name once, and got polite applause, but zero whoops and hollers. She got a louder response when she said electronic voting machines should include a paper trail.
Dean explicitly endorsed Kerry several times, each time to warm applause, but he incited a bigger jolt of emotion when he criticized Democrats for not standing up to the president (as did Julian Bond when he declared, "When one party is shameless, the other can't afford to be spineless").
Sen. Clinton showed up Thursday morning to talk about the 50-year project of conservatives to roll back the New Deal, all while ostensibly introducing the next speaker, billionaire George Soros. Clinton declared that "four more years of the Bush administration would leave our country unrecognizable." Soros was equally grave, if a bit more esoteric, assuring the crowd that the Bush Doctrine is a bubble about to burst.
There is an echo chamber quality to an event like this: At some point it's just a pep rally. But paralleling the speeches were training sessions on mobilizing support. The progressives don't want to make any missteps this time.
Dean reminded the crowd of the famous joke by Will Rogers: "I'm not a member of an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."
People chuckled, but Dean quickly added, "It's not funny now that we see what the consequences are."