As the crowded podium at the conservative Democratic Leadership Council's summer conference in Indianapolis illustrated, plenty of Democrats are prepared to steer the party even further right than Al Gore did in 2000. Among Democrats who are thinking presidential, there are too many buyers for the DLC's line that Gore's "people-versus-the-powerful" rhetoric was too populist. But as David Corn argues on page 11, the great mass of Americans, Democrats or Disenchanteds, buy the notion that the opposition to Bush must not just talk the people-versus-the-powerful talk but also walk the progressive populist walk.
At a moment when George W. Bush is doing everything in his power to illustrate the inability of conservatives to manage the affairs of state, there is a dramatic opening for progressives. This is a rare circumstance–following a contested election, with a bizarrely divided government–and it calls for bold approaches.
The point is not to pick a particular candidate. The point is to recognize that progressives must have a candidate in 2004, if only to free us from the constraints of a choice so narrowly defined as the 2000 Democratic primary pickings of Gore and Bill Bradley. That's the point Senator Russ Feingold, whose environmental advocacy and consistent critique of corporate free-trade policies have earned him a reputation as the Senate's "greenest" member, will try to make in coming months as he explores the prospects of a progressive presidential bid. "I'm worried sick about what's going to happen with Supreme Court nominations, trade policy, the environment, if we get eight years of Bush," says the Wisconsin Democrat. "But I'm also worried about the prospect that we could have four years of Bush and then four years of a DLC Democrat." Feingold knows his maverick style–he backed Attorney General John Ashcroft's nomination, he says, to defend the principle that a President, particularly a future progressive President, has a right to his appointees–could make the selling job difficult. But he takes comfort from the fact that another maverick, his campaign-finance-reform mate John McCain, shook things up in 2000. And, he adds, "I want to live in a country with a progressive President. I may not be that President, but I want people to start thinking now–not in two years, when it's too late–about how we get a progressive President."
Feingold should explore his chances. The same goes for Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, a fierce critic of NAFTA and US military adventurism, who has been to Iowa and soon will visit New Hampshire. "I want to get people thinking about these issues in the context of presidential politics," says Kaptur. Reverend Al Sharpton says that "progressive leadership is in a deep crisis at the moment in the Democratic Party"; he has asked Harvard professor Cornel West to head a presidential exploratory committee.
Progressives need not pick a 2004 candidate yet. But progressives do need to recognize, as conservative Democrats have, that now is the time to begin giving shape and substance to the opposition to Bush. Presidential nominations are no longer decided by a few primaries every fourth year; they are decided years earlier, as candidates begin to establish themselves. Feingold, who backed Gore in 2000 but refused to join the Democratic bashing of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, makes a case for a quick start when he says, "On the merits, Nader was right in a lot of what he said. My difference with him is that I think we need to make the fight inside the Democratic Party. And we need to start doing it now, not in January 2004."