- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

More than a thousand liberal activists begin a three-day conference here today in a major show of political force to push the Democratic Party further to the left and demonstrate opposition to President Bush’s tax cuts and other economic policies.

Declaring their intention to “Take Back America,” officials of Campaign for America’s Future said yesterday that a coalition of more than two dozen organizations representing labor unions, feminists, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Sierra Club, People for the American Way and other groups will focus on developing new strategies to mobilize liberals against Mr. Bush’s re-election bid next year.

“We’ll be decrying and describing the bad things that George Bush has done to the country and to the economy. Our conference is going to focus on Bush and the way to change those policies is to change the people in the White House,” said Roger Hickey, the group’s co-chairman.

The three-day lineup of speakers is a veritable Who’s Who of liberal leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause; Jesse Jackson and public television commentator Bill Moyers, who will receive a Lifetime Leadership Award.

Unions will be heavily represented at the conference, too, including the Steelworkers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. And an “Evening of Rapping About Politics” will feature Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and actor Paul Newman’s organic cookies.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates also will address the conference, including Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a party moderate who strongly backed Mr. Bush on the Iraq war, was conspicuously absent from the roster of speakers.

The conference’s sponsors were billing it yesterday as “the largest gathering of progressive advocates in at least 20 years.”

The liberal gathering comes at a time of growing divisions between liberal Democrats and more centrist-leaning New Democrats in the Democratic Leadership Council who say the party has to moderate its views on spending and other issues to appeal to a broader electorate.

In a blistering memo sent out to party leaders last month, the DLC said the party’s liberal wing was “defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home. That’s the wing that lost 49 states in two elections, and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one.”

Late last month, when the conference was being organized, some of its leaders said they would use it to rebut the DLC’s memo. But in a strategic political shift, Mr. Hickey said the conference now had no plans to respond in kind to the DLC’s attacks.

“The vast majority of progressives and Democrats want to win and we want to be united. We don’t want to spend our time debating small points with other Democrats,” he said.

To get into an ideological battle with the DLC would “be a distraction. It’s not productive to debate who’s electable and who is not. It’s important that we rally the country against the policies that are damaging the country. You’ll find that our candidates will be in a very pragmatic mood.”

Notably, the conference will largely steer clear of social issues and foreign and defense policies — perhaps reflecting strong public support for the U.S. victory in Iraq and the way that Mr. Bush has handled the war on terrorism — though at the end of the conference a panel will discuss “security in a changed word,” Mr. Hickey said.

“Most of those attending are social liberals but that’s not the central issue, as far as we’re concerned. We’re going to focus on economics and making the economy work,” he said.

Another change in strategy is to avoid the word “liberal” in describing their agenda, a term that only a relatively small minority of Americans now say describes their political leanings, according to most polls.

“Liberal is a noble word, but most of the folks at this conference probably use the word progressive,” Mr. Hickey said.

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