As far as I could tell, the only students who remained seated for the duration of Bill Clinton’s keynote address at the Campus Progress National Student Conference this week were two Nation interns and the handful of comrades at their table. Virtually everyone else in the crowd of more than 600 self-identified progressive student leaders rose to their feet in wild applause. Not once, but four times.
For the first time ever, campus progressives convened, conversed, and organized at their own national conference–something right-wing groups like Young America’s Foundation have done annually since the 1970s. “This conference is twenty-five years overdue,” David Halperin, director of Campus Progress announced to the packed audience at the Washington Convention Center. “It’s time to strengthen the progressive movement and win the battle of ideas.”
But when Clinton spoke, rather than laying out a vision for what this new progressive movement might look like, he spent much of his speech urging students not to be afraid of moving to the center. “We have to talk to so-called Red America,” he said. “We’ve got to be strong, have good ideas, and there can be no person we do not see.” During the question and answer session, students asked Clinton about Sudan, international aid, the power of the Internet, and his favorite political movies. No one asked him about his welfare policies or the war in Iraq.
In an earlier panel titled “Challenge for the Next Generation: Winning the Battle of Ideas,” students reacted most positively to Paul Begala. They cheered loudly when Begala related a story of how Robert Novak had accused him of taking political cues from Marx. “I don’t know nothing about Karl Marx,” Begala shouted proudly. “I studied Jesus Christ.” Much of the dialogue centered on “toughness” and Begala’s call to “show some cojones on national security” was met with major applause. Until The Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel (who arrived late due to travel delays) appeared, the topic of the war itself hadn’t been broached at all.
In the second half of the day, students broke off into smaller seminars. The one I attended, “Stronger and Smarter National Security” (sense a trend?), featured three panelists who, while all critical of Bush’s management of the war, also all advocated expanding the military and wouldn’t even approach the issue of withdrawal.
Other forums, such as “Rediscovering our Populist Roots” offered a more diverse spectrum of opinion. But for the most part, critical dialogue was in short supply, and the promotion of strategic tactics–rather than strong principles–seemed to rule the day. Instead of identifying the values with which to forge a movement, the speakers at the conference seemed obsessed over the forging itself.