On the eve of Ronald Reagan's death, something remarkable in the world of political progressives was taking place in Washington, D.C.: They were all talking to one another. The event was the three-day, 2,000-strong "Take Back America" conference, featuring nearly every imaginable leading light of left-leaning politics in America: Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower, David Corn, Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org.
Meanwhile, that weekend, in the other Washington, state Democrats were holding an annual convention at which the hit of the event was a giant puppet of a backbone—courtesy of "The Backbone Campaign," a grassroots effort to ensure Democrats have one in 2004.
And later this month comes the most anticipated movie opening of the summer, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary carefully calculated to have as much anti-Bush impact as its filmmaker can manage.
Polls, media coverage, anecdotes, and common sense tell us that a lot more people dislike George Bush than like John Kerry and that an enormous surge of populist energy is going into the effort to defeat Bush in November. But for Democrats, it might be a mixed blessing.
What's not getting as much attention is that the Kerry campaign and the mainstream leadership of the Democratic Party are keeping a cool distance from such fevered efforts. The puppet at the state convention, after all, was a jab at fellow Democrats, not Bush. And while speakers at the D.C. conference repeatedly vowed to topple Bush, they also said they'd try to push Kerry to run a more aggressive campaign, and to keep the heat on if a victorious Kerry didn't meet their policy expectations. One would think a meeting of so many grassroots activists in the heart of D.C. would be honey for Democratic lawmakers. But except for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California (and Rep. Jay Inslee of Bainbridge Island), Democratic officeholders, including Kerry himself, were notable for their absence.
Contrast this with the doings across the aisle, where a major grassroots effort, based largely in conservative churches, is under way to re-elect the president. In many ways, the path-breaking past efforts of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and its brethren are what progressive Democrats are now imitating. But conservatives have had two decades of practice, and Republican leaders have come to embrace their base. It's unthinkable that a similar conservative gathering would take place in Washington without a visit from Attorney General John Ashcroft, Vice President Cheney, or the president himself. Or all three.
The cautious approach of the Kerry campaign, and the schism between that approach and the fervor of the ground troops, mirrors not so much today's Republicans as those of a decade ago—when they lost the White House, twice, to Bill Clinton. In 1992, evangelical conservatives were bitter that George Bush the elder was no Reagan—not as conservative, not as publicly religious, not as focused on abortion or as aggressive in his foreign policy. In 1996, the standard-bearer against incumbent Clinton was Bob Dole, who won the nomination not so much by popular acclaim as by a sort of career-achievement prize from fellow party leaders. Dole never excited the masses, and he lost. Badly. What's striking is that he lost to Bill Clinton, a man conservative activists loathed long before his escapades with Monica became news. The right hated Bill Clinton. But that didn't affect the election's outcome.
To be sure, there are significant differences between 1996 and 2004: a long, persistent economic slowdown that might or might not be healing, a war gone bad, a succession of so-far-minor scandals. But when the grassroots are energized, and a party's leaders essentially ignore them, the track record is not good. The Kerry campaign and progressive activists would do well to kiss and make up.