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Democratic Candidates Court Progressives

by Jo Freeman

Six of the declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for President came courting at the annual Take Back America Conference on June 18-20 in Washington, DC.  Although half the size of the annual conservative confab, TBAC provides a forum for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  The fact that Hillary Clinton, whom many see as representing the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), returned to face her critics even though she was booed last year, is testimony to its importance to Democratic aspirants.

Speaking in pairs at morning and noon sessions, each had his or her own unique appeal. In order of appearance....

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, whom no one takes seriously outside his own staff, was the most populist.  Opening with a chant of "Power to the People" (the 1960s SDS slogan), he advocates government by initiative and referendum, not legislation.  However, his populism is more rhetoric than real.  He wants to replace a (progressive) national income tax with a (regressive) national sales tax.  And he blew it when he claimed that the presence of "protests" meant that "our democracy is not mature."  How can one be a populist without protest?

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson gave the most substantive speech.  He's an underrated candidate with a lot of well-thought out ideas.  He did not waffle on Iraq.  Leave "zero troops behind" he said. No air bases, no trainers of Iraqi troops.  Then he laid out his strategy to combat global warming. If this year was like previous presidential try-out seasons, where candidates talked one-on-one to the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, my money would be on him to get high marks from this screening committee and go into the major state primaries as a frontrunner.  But front loading by the big states has changed the rules.  Now the screening committee is composed of those who can raise the most money for their favorites the year before the primaries.  This favors style over substance.  Richardson could win in Iowa and New Hampshire and not have enough time to raise the money to buy media in the big states in time to affect that vote.

Senator Barack Obama was the most charismatic (surprise, surprise).  He's an inspirational speaker, but there wasn't much substance in his TBAC speech.  It was full of great quotes and high ideals, but programmatically skimpy. More than the others, he saw potential in the progressive crowd and made the biggest effort to turn them into activists on his behalf. Obama was the only candidate to work the ropes after he spoke, shaking hands and signing autographs.  His people passed out numerous signs and t-shirts to create good visuals for photographers and TV cameras.  And his was the only campaign to hold a workshop for potential volunteers after he spoke, which over one hundred people attended.

Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has long been a frontrunner on my list, in part because he already has a strong organization in Iowa and the support of major groups like organized labor.  Former NARAL head Kate Michelman introduced him; she's been campaigning for the feminist vote for Edwards for some time. He gets the gold star for being most photogenic, and not just because he's a pretty boy.  He uses his hands well, which makes for good action shots.  Even Obama hasn't learned how to do that yet.  A populist at heart despite being one of the wealthiest of the candidates, Edwards was clear and unambiguous about his mistakes and about his goals.  He said he had voted wrong on Iraq — something others who voted wrong aren't quite willing to do — and that  he would pay for the health care system we need by getting rid of tax cuts — a payment option which has gotten plenty of candidates into trouble.

Whatever one's feelings about Senator Hillary Clinton, she moves a crowd.  Scheduled to speak at 8:00 a.m. on the last day, people came at 7:00 a.m. to reserve front row seats.  She is a good speaker, just a little short of charismatic, and has a real talent for repartee with her audience. When CodePink, the women's anti-war group who has been hounding her for the last year over her position on Iraq, held up signs saying "lead us out of Iraq now" she responded with "that is what we are trying to do."  But they hissed when she blamed the Iraqi government for the continued violence.  It was singularly appropriate that Clinton was introduced by Emily's List founder Ellen Malcolm, who has raised more money for pro-choice female candidates than anyone else. With Clinton's campaign fund, she doesn't need to pass muster with the screening committee of Iowa and New Hampshire. She can make her big state media buys any time she likes.

Like Obama, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich has a way with words, and gave a stemwinder of a speech. But his frankness on the war and other issues hasn't pulled him beyond the bottom tier of candidates. As in 2004, progressives love him for his willingness to say what they think, but give him no chance of persuading Democrats, let alone other voters, to elect him to be President. They are still willing to overlook past transgressions, such as the fact that Kucinich once supported legal restrictions on abortion.  So did Jesse Jackson, who was pro-life before he ran for President.  Come to think of it, Kucinich is the Jesse Jackson of this decade, but without the extra-added  personal appeal.

 The attitude of progressives toward Kucinich reflects a very practical streak as they salivate at the thought of ridding Washington power centers of Republicans.  The new pundit paper, Politico.com, ran a straw poll at the Take Back America conference.  Obama and Edwards won by a landslide; they were also the second choice of each other's primary supporters.  Clinton ran a poor third followed by Richardson, Kucinich and Gravel.  Even former Vice-President Al Gore, who isn't running for President and was a write-in in the straw poll, got more votes than Kucinich. Among the women who voted, the order was the same, but almost twice as many women as men chose Clinton.

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