As America’s jobless rate hit a nine-year high and after-the-fact analyses of the Republican tax plan revealed that the Bush Administration and its allies in Congress had denied child tax credits to low-income families, the conservative Democratic Leadership Council was furiously dispatching memos warning Democrats not to get too aggressive about confronting the Administration. But at the June 4-6 Campaign for America’s Future conference in Washington, where the people who form the party’s heart and soul gathered to forge a Take Back America strategy for the 2004 presidential election, the DLC’s insistence that Democrats stick to the electorally disastrous Republican-lite mode of 2002 found no takers. Instead, those assembled made it clear they prefer the tactics urged on them by journalist Bill Moyers, who called for getting over any fears of being “labeled class warriors in a war the other side started and is winning.”

“Those folks at the DLC are wrong,” declared Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean to the cheers of more than 1,000 labor, civil rights, civil liberties and peace activists from across the country. “The way to get elected…is not to be like the Republicans but to stand up and fight.” Dean got no disagreement from the other Democratic contenders who–with the exception of no-shows Joe Lieberman, a DLC acolyte, and Senator Bob Graham–stumbled over one another in a rush to take up the mantle of progressive populism.

While Senator John Edwards continued to dust off themes from Bill Clinton’s 1992 Putting People First campaign, and Senator John Kerry struggled to get the right inflection on one-liners such as how the Administration is “opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing firehouses in New York,” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich was the candidate who most successfully channeled the spirit of William Jennings Bryan. Kucinich, who drew nine standing ovations, gave a speech that promised to withdraw the United States from the economically devastating North American Free Trade Agreement. He also said he’d shift dollars from a bloated Pentagon budget to healthcare and education, and he dismissed proposals to privatize Social Security with, “That money belongs to Main Street, not Wall Street.”

As sound as the rhetoric of the presidential contenders was, however, an even more encouraging Democratic sign of life came from an unexpected corner, Capitol Hill, where the party’s Congressional leaders were dealt a winning hand and played it. Leading the successful charge to restore the tax credit for 12 million low-income children, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle declared, “Instead of leaving no child behind, the Administration’s tax plan left 12 million children behind.” The popular appeal of that message was not lost on Senate Republicans, who voted with Democrats to restore the provision. And even as House majority leader Tom DeLay rejected the Senate approach, insisting that any restoration of the tax credit would have to be part of another big tax cut bill, minority leader Nancy Pelosi promised “to make this issue too hot for the Republicans to handle.”

That’s a smart strategy for this Congress, and for the coming presidential election. But it will work only if Democrats make more issues–including privatization of Medicare, the healthcare crisis and assaults on pension guarantees–too hot to handle. Bush has made it clear where his loyalties lie in the class war the GOP started. If Democrats get into the fight, they’ll find they have not just the message but the troops–millions of newly inspired voters–they’ll need to win.