Taking Back America: Thoughts from the Progressive Front


After spending three days at this year’s annual “Take Back America Conference” I can tell you one thing: Elections have consequences.

Opinion: Taking Back America: Thoughts from the Progressive Front (Matt Martin writes a column twice monthly for the Minnesota Monitor. This article is cross-posted at MNpublius.)

Descending the escalators into the basement-bunker maze of the Washington, D.C., Hilton’s conference halls one might think he has stumbled upon a progressive speak-easy, where the word liberal isn’t dirty and “Fox News” is laughed at as an oxymoron.

Conference attendees scurry by with canvas tote-bags carrying the day’s swag on their shoulders: ACLU water bottles, free campaign materials from the Progressive Majority booth, or the newest Al Gore novel purchased from the conference’s own makeshift bookstore. SEIU T-shirts bump into “Rainbow Coalition” T-shirts while filing into break-out sessions with titles like “Making the Decision to Run: Is My Time Now?” and “The Impeachment Process.” The energy produced by the concentration of fervent party activists, who are fueled by the first encouraging election results in years, is nothing short of stunning. Indeed, the nation’s progressives have come together to declare that the progressive movement is no longer on the ropes.

While the excitement levels at the conference hit their peak during the speeches of the various presidential contenders (a topic to which I’ll return in more detail shortly), the meat and potatoes of the conference was more dutiful. Speeches centered on the idea of building a sustainable movement and planning together for a progressive America that would last long after the 2008 elections have been decided. Yet for all the shared excitement and good will, tension simmered below the surface.

The Opening Salvos

Robert Borosage, president of the Center for American Progress (the conference’s sponsor and organizer), opened the conference with a speech titled “Our Time Has Come.” Borosage stressed the idea that the conservative movement has met its end and that we, as progressives, have a historical opportunity to capitalize on the moment to create an “enduring majority.” The speech, however, came across as more of a locker-room pump-up speech rife with hyperbole and partisan language. It is the hyper-partisanship and winner-takes-all attitude that many progressives strive to excise from the nation’s capitol in the next election (an admittedly impossible goal, but we certainly can move in the right direction). But Borosage’s black-and-white analysis seemed eerily familiar. Even more troubling were the undertones of intra-party battle-the notion that some within our ranks are not progressive enough. Although Borosage never overtly stated this effort to pull some of our own further to the left, the message still came through: We should be loyal to the vision above all else.

Interestingly enough, it was Minnesota’s very own Rep. Keith Ellison who reined back the “our way or the highway” tone of the opening speech. Ellison took the stage and spoke immediately not of 2006 but of 1964. He spoke of a party that had been down and out, on the verge of quitting, and without any real control in Washington: the Republican party of 1964. They did not quit, however, but built. Ellison’s lesson was simple: the tide is turning but we cannot expect to replicate the right’s machine without the same measured patience they exhibited over the past 30 years. Moreover, this patience necessitates the construction of a mechanism to address and resolve internal party conflict to avoid cannibalism. Personally, I found this message to be a far more important one than that espoused by Borosage or any of the other opening speakers. The greatest danger facing the progressive movement right now may very well be the progressive movement. It was refreshing to hear someone address this issue in the middle of all the chest thumping, and it made me proud that it was Keith.

These two speeches provided an interesting preview of the strengths and weaknesses of the days to come: for every five tables in the convention room calling for progressive unity, there was one deriding the Democratic Congress; for every 100 cheers during Sen. Hillary Clinton’s speech, there was one loud jeer. Certainly the cannibalistic temptations that Keith warned against at the opening of the conference did not come close to derailing the overall message, but their presence was felt throughout.

The Candidates

There is little doubt that Clinton felt this presence most acutely. The presidential candidate gave the most widely reported speech of last year’s conference, but the stories in the news had little to do with the content of her speech. Instead, the “boos” of the crowd got the headlines. Clinton must have learned from that treatment because she rescheduled her appearance at the last minute to 8 a.m. on the last day of this year’s conference. This was undoubtedly a conscious move to reduce the size of the crowd for her speech. The turn-out was smaller than for either Obama or Edwards and the jeers were few and far between this year. Although rounds of applause dominated this year’s outing, Clinton received a few isolated “boos” when she spoke about the Iraq war, which were aptly drowned out by her supporters’ intentionally uproarious applause. Despite this modest setback, Clinton’s speech was overall quite impressive. Out of the three front-runners Clinton did the best job of displaying her own thorough command of the issues. And she outlined a proposal to provide nation-wide pre-k, a huge plus in my book.

Other presidential candidates stuck to their originally scheduled time-slots. This was, perhaps, unwise for former Sen. John Edwards to do as he was scheduled immediately after a very hard act to follow — Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. While Edwards definitely had more crowd support than Clinton, he failed to match the energy that Obama had left the stage with 15 minutes earlier. In what seemed like an intentional concession to Obama, Edwards delivered a plodding, content-fueled speech. Oddly enough, a significant portion of his speech framed America’s problems through the lens of international opinion. Everything from Iraq (accurately so) to health care (weirdly so) was given the “what does the rest of the world think of us” treatment. While I agree with Edwards that our falling rank in the court of international approval desperately needs to be addressed, my first thought when looking at the Katrina tragedy isn’t “what does Europe think of us now.” This teenage like insecurity is unlikely to play well with the whole of America. Maybe I just can’t get over my gut-level reaction that Edwards is a fake, but the appearance did little to win me over. And given the crowd’s reserved reaction, I’m not sure he impressed too many of the other on-the-fencers present.

Which brings me back to the first of the big three to speak: Obama. Not only was the crowd for Obama by far the largest, it was hands-down the most diverse. And if the success speeches were to be measured by the number of goosebumps in the room, there’s not doubt that Obama would win by a landslide. The combination of the large crowd, the diverse audience, Obama’s undeniable presence, and a speech that was grounded in optimism resulted in far more applause than any other candidate experienced. Yet for the quality of the speech, it did trail in substance in some areas. Health care was covered in a very superfluous fashion, and education was the usual rant against No Child Left Behind instead of a real plan. Still, Obama outlined specific details about his energy policy (cap & trade) and how our foreign policy should evolve post-Iraq (rebuilding our traditional alliances while rejecting isolationism). As usual, Obama tended to rely heavily on his own personal story but he is doing an increasingly better job of interweaving that story with a vision for where we need to go as a nation.

For the duration of the conference Politico.com had a booth set up at the entrance that allowed attendees to vote in a presidential straw poll (each attendee was assigned a poll number at registration that allowed one vote). Guess what the results were. You guessed it: Obama -29 percent, Edwards – 26 percent, Clinton – 17 percent, and Richardson – 9 percent. (I promise, my impressions of the speeches really were formed before I saw the results.)

My humble opinion: America needs Barack Obama. I’ve been a quiet Barack supporter since the outset, but I’m more convinced than ever after this conference. Edwards is (from an issue stance perspective) a true progressive, Clinton has the most thorough command of the issues, but Barack is the only one that truly has the ability to mend this nation. His unfailing optimism is backed by unassailable intellectual credentials and his background completes the narrative arc of this nation’s social follies while signaling to the rest of the world, firmly, that America is born anew. But, hey, that’s just me.

Moving Forward

There’s no doubt that this year’s Take Back America conference was a complete success. The energy of thousands of progressives coming together to plan for our future was almost cathartic after the last six years. Seeing Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota enter a room to have Bernie Sanders yell “hey, who’s that!” and run over to give her an emphatic hug, or Mike Gravel and Ralph Nader sitting down in the corner of a back room for a slice of pizza is enough to put a smile on any progressive political wonk’s face. But these are fleeting moments that bring fleeting smiles. The true hopes and aspirations of the conference are carried by the attendees who do (or do not) take the lessons of the weekend home to build a stronger political movement. Let’s just hope they remember Keith Ellison’s sage words: “Don’t be patient with bad results, don’t be satisfied that we’re not out, absolutely be dissatisfied, but do not turn your dissatisfaction into a cannibalistic enterprise.”