Some of the biggest names in Democratic politics convened yesterday to focus on what they believe is the long-term remedy to their party's woes: cultivating a new generation of activists.
Former president Bill Clinton and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) were the headliners among a host of operatives, writers and artists who gathered at the Washington Convention Center for a day-long series of speeches and panel discussions designed to energize about 600 visiting students.
"You don't have to wait until your party is in power to have an impact on life at home and around the world," Clinton told a hushed crowd, urging them to embrace grass-roots organizing. "This ain't supposed to be easy, and you have to work at it. I promise you our adversaries work at it."
The suspicion that the right is working harder at it, in fact, is what led the liberal Center for American Progress to organize the event. David Halperin, a former speechwriter in the Clinton White House and the conference's coordinator, estimated that conservative groups spend more than $35 million a year on such efforts. By contrast, he said, the left has invested comparatively little effort or money in cultivating the next generation of activists and would-be leaders.
"We've been on the defensive for 25 years," Halperin said. "There's been a lot of focus on the day-to-day -- just getting through the day -- without having a rollback on civil rights or environmental protections. The idea that you could do that and, at the same time, invest in the future seems a little daunting. . . . We've learned some things from what conservatives have done better, particularly in developing and communicating ideas, in promoting news leaders and in trying to bring people together who are interested in different issues but who have the same general political orientation."
In some cases, groups such as Young America's Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Leadership Institute have been doing for years the type of work Halperin wants to emulate -- supporting conservative student publications, sending favored speakers to college campuses, bringing students to Washington for conferences.
In general, colleges have long been liberal bastions, with Democratic presidential candidates routinely winning the student vote and with polls indicating that professors are on average further to the left in their views than most voters. Last year, exit polls showed that Democratic nominee John F. Kerry defeated President Bush among voters between ages 18 and 29 by more than 10 percentage points -- the only age group the Massachusetts senator won.
But this traditional advantage has not been supplemented by long-term efforts to promote an ideological movement. The center's effort, launched in February with a budget of $650,000, includes grants for liberal student publications, a program that sends its own speakers on the college lecture circuit and support for campus protests, such as a mock filibuster earlier this year at Princeton University.
But the convention, the center's first, is its most visible event. Much of the day was filled with panels teaching students how to articulate the party's message. Strategist Paul Begala, Thomas Frank -- author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" -- and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel hashed over the reasons Bush won a second term. MoveOn.org's Tom Matzzie and American Prospect editor Garance Franke-Ruta spoke on "advocacy writing and blogging." Indie rocker Ted Leo and cartoonist David Rees -- author of "Get Your War On" -- discussed "mobilizing the arts for change."
For Jessica Dauphin and Samantha Blanchard, two students from Middle Tennessee State University, the event was a chance to meet like-minded students that, they said, are often difficult to find in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Cathy Kunkel, a senior at Princeton, said she was looking to trade tips on how to organize disparate student issue groups around a single Democratic banner. Brandon Routman, a junior at Pomona College, said he came away inspired by Clinton's expansive defense of the Democratic Party.