Clift: Will 2008 Be the Liberals' Year?

The left wing of the Democratic Party is back from the wilderness. They’re revved up and ready to take the best shot they’ve had in a long time at putting someone simpatico in the White House. Progressives are driving the debate in Congress and in the country, pulling the party’s presidential candidates to the left on issues like the war in Iraq, universal health care and an Apollo-like program for energy independence.

Hillary Clinton is the weather vane. She began the campaign with a hawkish record on the Iraq War, only to vote last month with Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama against the war-funding bill. A year ago, she talked about a health plan that covered children; now she’s about to join John Edwards and Obama in putting forward a more expansive proposal. Her husband championed free trade as president; she joined a growing chorus of populist Democrats this week to vote against a trade pact with South Korea.

If the left wants purity on the issues, they don’t have to settle for Kucinich. They’ve got lots of choices. Obama has street cred going back to his days as a community organizer. Edwards has walked picket lines, founded an antipoverty center, launched his campaign in New Orleans--the heart of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation—and apologized for his vote on the Iraq War. “It’s pretty hard for Dennis to find oxygen,” says Robert Borosage, codirector of the Campaign for America’s Future, which is hosting 3,000 progressive activists at next week’s “Take Back America” conference in Washington. The top presidential contenders will speak along with Kucinich, the standard bearer for the progressive movement.

Last year, Hillary got booed at this conference. Progressives never liked her position on the war. Since then, she’s done literally everything to cover her base. She’s now indistinguishable from the other candidates on the war, and while there’s still a lot of discontent, she’s at least able to give a speech without getting embarrassed.

On the right, Bush’s failures have damaged conservatism, leaving the GOP base in disarray and setting the stage for not just a change of parties in power but a real shift in direction. A Wall Street Journal poll finds 52 percent of Americans want a Democrat as president while only 31 percent want a Republican. “The world is moving in our direction,” says Roger Hickey, codirector with Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future. He cites the collapse of the conservative agenda, from pre-emptive war to Katrina to Social Security privatization, along with a shift in party identification away from the GOP to the Democrats, which hasn’t been seen since ’94, when it went the other way. The challenge for progressives is to convince the candidates that Bill Clinton-era triangulation is old politics and won’t work. “This is the time to run with the wind rather than tack,” says Borosage.

The conventional wisdom is that America is a center-right country, and that Democrats will lose in November if they are pulled too far left in the primaries. In advance of next week’s conference, the Campaign for America’s Future and Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, released a survey of various independent polls that show Americans are more progressive than one would think on the role of government, with three in five willing to have their taxes increased to pay for universal health care, and 75 percent willing to pay more for electricity if it were generated with renewable resources and helped reduce global warming. On contentious social issues like gay rights, each succeeding generation is more tolerant and broad-minded, producing an inexorable movement toward the progressive side. While liberal is still a word not too many people embrace, the survey found that self-identified moderates and even conservatives are progressive on a range of issues.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Voters sided with Democrat Walter Mondale on most issues when he challenged President Reagan in 1984, yet Reagan won 49 states. Democrats have not gotten more than 50 percent of the vote in a presidential election since 1976. Bob Shrum, a consultant in every losing Democratic presidential race from George McGovern to John Kerry, says Democrats lose the battle of ideas because they’re afraid to say what they believe. “Democrats look for evasion, the easy way out, the inoffensive way of talking about things,” he says. “I believe we should stand up and argue strongly for economic and social justice.” Shrum created Al Gore’s 2000 slogan, “The people versus the powerful,” and then was complicit in allowing it to be dialed it back, which he regrets. If Gore had stuck to his progressive message, he might have carried West Virginia and Missouri, two states he was losing because of his support for gun control. “We need to fight for ideas,” says Shrum, author of “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.” The question before the Democrats is: which ideas. This is the beginning of the battle over what comes after Bush, and it will be fought as vigorously among the Democrats as with the Republicans.