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Left Turn

Polls show a growing progressive electorate—will Kerry heed the call?

BY David Moberg

Progressives these days are remarkably unified and optimistic. Suddenly it seems not entirely crazy to anticipate defeating Bush this November, even—some optimists claim—by an electoral landslide.

Nobody thinks it will happen without incredibly hard work against an ugly and well-financed Republican campaign of fear, and victory may still depend on tight votes in swing states. But voters are expressing deepening awareness that America is on the wrong track and growing disapproval of Bush’s performance on the war and the economy. John Kerry is holding a narrow lead in most polls despite an early negative advertising fusillade, so there are grounds for hope.

Yet there also is profound anxiety among progressives about standard-bearer Kerry. The Republican right likely will still control Congress despite a Bush defeat, and progressives must still build a political infrastructure for shaping public opinion and mobilizing support after the election.

Both the giddy and sober feelings were evident as 2,000 progressives gathered this June for a conference organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, a Washington-based group that has worked for eight years to promote a progressive Democratic agenda.

“This is the most important election in my lifetime,” said Cecile Richards, president of America Votes, a new organization coordinating work of more than 30 organizations such as the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and NAACP engaged in grassroots voter education, registration and mobilization for the fall elections. “Only the Bush administration could bring us all together.”

Opposition to Bush, not enthusiasm for Kerry, was indeed responsible for this unity. Speeches and workshops were full of critiques of Bush and not a few swipes at wayward Democrats. One of the few clear endorsements of Kerry over three days came from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

A Kerry win in the fall would in large part be the result of this “ground war” waged by progressive groups on his behalf, yet Kerry chose not to speak to this crowd, laden with former Deaniacs, Kucinich sympathizers and reformed Nader supporters.

Former Dean activist David Leshtz from Iowa expressed the thoughts of many when he said, “I’m not for Nader, but I’m having trouble getting my excitement up for Kerry.” Still most progressives seem to be following advice from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Chicago Democrat: Find a “whining partner” to share private travails about Kerry, then publicly get back to work.

To win in November, some campaign professionals argued that Kerry must act cautiously to win the 5 to 10 percent undecided voters, and that he is right to let the Bush administration implode over Iraq and leave the harshest foreign policy attacks to former Republican officials.

But Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage said that progressives—and Kerry—can’t simply rely on discontent with Bush to win. They must go “from opposition to proposition … mobilizing about what we are for, not simply what we are against.” Polls show a gap between the level of discontent with Bush and the level of support for Kerry. Pollster Celinda Lake argued that Kerry, instead of leading by a couple points, would be 11 to 20 points ahead in the race if the question were just about Bush’s performance or stands on issues.

Stanley Greenberg, Bill Clinton’s pollster, told conference attendees that voters are increasingly uneasy about economic insecurity and inequality, reckless government fiscal policy, healthcare costs and availability, and a plan to exit Iraq. He said trends in polling show that “progressives are ascendant” with voters on most issues, while conservatives are declining. “People are looking for a leader that will tackle our problems in a bold way,” Greenberg said. Yet Kerry has not persuaded many voters that he is the bold, principled and progressive leader they seem ready to support.

Shoring up his left flank is imperative for Kerry to avoid losing votes to Ralph Nader, who polls at 5 to 7 percent of voters nationally. Despite Nader’s claim that he will help defeat Bush by attracting disaffected conservatives, the DontVoteRalph.com Web site found that all but one of 37 recent polls indicate Nader’s presence in the campaign helps Bush.

Nader isn’t likely to exit. But his strategy might be influenced, argued political consultant Steve Cobble, if he thought Kerry were adopting some of his positions. That could open the door to an Internet-facilitated strategy of Nader voters in swing states “pairing” votes for Kerry with Kerry supporters in Republican-dominated states who would vote for Nader, much as members of Congress pair votes when they’re absent. Cobble believes that such pairing could survive the legal threats raised four years ago, blocking efforts to “trade” or “swap” votes.

Efforts are under way to press Kerry into adopting a more progressive and populist message, including a critique of the Iraq war, which would make it easier for progressives like Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Nader backers to campaign effectively on the party’s left for Kerry. Kucinich has been gathering support for six resolutions, on issues such as Iraq, trade, the U.S.A. Patriot Act and national health insurance, that he has presented to the Democratic convention platform committee. “We’re not going to get all of those positions, but will we have a debate?” asked Kucinich convention coordinator Tim Carpenter, who hopes Kerry’s campaign will strike compromises with Kucinich to include more progressive platform language. Parts of the labor movement—especially Jobs With Justice and the Service Employees International Union—also organized rallies in June to push Democrats to make healthcare a more central issue in the campaign.

Still more organizations intend to push a left agenda among Democratic voters and politicians during the election and beyond. Kucinich has organized the new Progressive Democrats of America, and Dean has launched Democracy for America. An unprecedented range of progressive organizations—including new groups such as America Votes and America Coming Together, as well as more established citizen groups, such as U.S. Action and ACORN—are involved in one of the earliest, most massive and most sophisticated voter registration and mobilization efforts ever mounted. At least half a dozen groups, most with explicitly progressive values, are talking with and registering previously neglected young voters. The labor movement, which has dramatically boosted union member turnout and support for progressive candidates since 1996 with grassroots education and mobilization, has set its most ambitious goals ever. Besides labor’s work with its own members, the AFL-CIO is signing up non-union workers who sympathize with labor’s goals into a new organization, Working America, which already has 300,000 members and is expected to have 1 million by November. MoveOn—the 2-million-member Internet network of progressives—has branched into fundraising, making and airing innovative ads, and mobilizing support for other progressive groups.

Most of these organizations plan to continue their work after the election, supporting and pressuring Kerry should he win and battling the Republican right regardless of what happens. Kerry is the imperfect vehicle for their agenda, but the strategy goes far beyond beating Bush or electing Kerry.

“There is a [progressive] majority out there that is waiting for us to forge them,” Borosage said. “But we are going to have to do the work.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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