As Molly Ivins put it in a recent column: “Across the length and breadth of this land of ours, from the mountain to the prairie, from every hill and dale comes the question, ‘Where are the Democrats?'” For weeks pundits have dismissed Democrats as having no clue about how to mount a credible challenge to the failed domestic policies of the Bush Administration. But when representatives of the party’s core progressive constituencies gathered in Washington in mid-April at the Reclaiming America conference, sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, it was possible to imagine the lineaments of such an opposition. Members of Congress like Representatives Jan Schakowsky and Sheila Jackson Lee and Senator Paul Wellstone, who have been pressing for months for a more aggressive Democratic stance on domestic issues, no longer sounded like voices in the wilderness of post-September 11 politics. These leaders of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party were joined at the podium by House minority leader Dick Gephardt, Senator John Edwards and Vermont Governor Howard Dean–all prospective presidential candidates–who seconded Schakowsky’s message that the Republican agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and service cuts for the majority is making the rich richer, the poor poorer and the middle class less secure.
A Democracy Corps survey, released by pollster Stan Greenberg at the conference, provided evidence of public support for an issues-based assault on the Bush Administration’s domestic agenda. As Joel Rogers, co-author of America’s Forgotten Majority, aptly summed up: “On a broad range of basic concerns, ranging from investing in education, securing affordable healthcare for all, protecting Social Security, lifting the minimum wage to a living wage, leveling up not down in trade, protecting workers on the job as well as the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink, large majorities of Americans stand with us and oppose Bush’s policies.” And as Senator Jon Corzine argued, the Enron scandal reminded a lot of people “that the pendulum has swung far too far to the right, now endangering our prosperity as well as our core values.”
So if progressive values are flourishing at the grassroots, how come Democrats in Congress continue to be cautious? That’s a question that speakers like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ivins, National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy and populist political agitator Jim Hightower asked in well-received speeches at the conference. We’d like to think that Gephardt and others headed back to Capitol Hill as ready to fight as their rhetoric suggested. But we know Gandy was right when she said that progressive activists must keep the pressure on by refusing to be satisfied with a little bit of Congressional opposition to the Administration’s right-wing agenda. It is time, Gandy and others said, for progressive Democrats to start demanding that our representatives give us more victories like the defeat of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering’s nomination to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. As long as there is no bold challenge to the extremism of this Administration, it will exploit the tragedy of September 11 to stifle debate and push national policy in an ever more regressive direction.