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Sounds simple enough. Democrats run a national campaign centered on expanding Medicare to the entire population. Roused from somnambulance, nonvoters head for the polls in droves, sweeping Democrats into Congress and the White House on a progressive platform and fundamentally altering the nation's direction. All Democratic leaders have to do is shun their myopic political consultants, follow the instincts that led them to become Democrats in the first place, and tap "a deep well spring in this country of progressivism," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich told a simpatico crowd in Los Angeles in late June.

Universal health care, universal child care, increased and equitable education spending, meaningful campaign finance reform, protection of the environment and other elements of a progressive agenda enjoy widespread support nationwide, Reich claimed, even among people who may not think of themselves as progressives. They're not really issues of the left, right or center, he contended. They're just things that people care about, people like the growing number of folks whose all-consuming efforts to stay afloat have prompted the latest pop sociology categorization, DINS or double income, no sex. Reich's audience ate it up--which is part of the problem.

Reich was speaking to a session optimistically titled "Wake Up Democrats! Take

Jessie Jackson Jr. gives Democrats a wake-up call.
CHRIS MARTINEZ/LA OPINION

Back the Country" co-sponsored by the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, the Campaign for America's Future and the Progressive Caucus. Hundreds showed up to take back the country, one presumes, and to listen to politicians, activists, authors and others who are well known within the progressive community, but almost never invited to appear with Sam and Cokie on This Week. As Reich himself complained, he was at the wrong place. Instead of speaking to people who would spend a Saturday in June listening to, well, people like him, progressives need to be speaking to those "who are doubtful about what you are saying."

That would be mainstream Democrats, as far as Jesse Jackson Jr. is concerned. In the course of suspecting a centrist Democratic Party will blow the opportunity posed by the "accidental majority" in the Senate, the Illinois congressman spoke almost enviously of right-wing fervor. Republicans organize elections around the right to own a gun, the desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, or calls to protect the flag. Republicans, Jackson said, "are fighting for rights they believe are fundamental to who they are." Democrats, by contrast, "fight for incremental legislation that even our base doesn't take seriously." Democrats, too, need to run campaigns based on rights, Jackson said. For instance, he backs a constitutional amendment establishing health care for all.

Neither Jackson's championship of principle nor Reich's conceptual unearthing of a progressive majority is likely to be embraced by current Democratic congressional leaders--a point not lost on those attending the conference. After all, the breakfast session featured a menu of muffins, fruit and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who stressed the importance of fiscal responsibility.

Hence the Achilles heel of a clear progressive agenda that will rally voters--who's actually going to tell the voters? The Campaign for America's Future, in league with the Progressive Caucus, is raising money to funnel to progressive Democratic candidates for the all-important early stages of campaigns, explained CAF co-director Robert Borosage.

Reich floated another idea, calling for a midterm National Democratic Convention in 2002 to force party leaders to address activists in the ranks. Such a convention could not only publicize a clear progressive agenda, but help persuade politicians that such an agenda would tap the latent electoral force of the group that vastly outnumbers consultant-treasured swing voters: nonvoters. Constituting more than 50 percent of eligible voters in the country, Reich noted that nonvoters tend to be low-income, urban, working-class, often single mothers--folks who stand to benefit most from the implementation of progressive policies.

But if nonvoters identify with progressives on policies, they personally identify with conservative politicians. It's one of the main reasons why they don't vote. When Republicans blast government, and by extension politics, Reich noted, it merely reinforces the skepticism and disaffection nonvoters already feel. Conservatives keep nonvoters sidelined with a message that has been pounded so vigorously for so long it has earned almost tacit acceptance. And it's quite simple: Government is bad.

Progressives may have to respond with comparable simplicity, if considerably more provocation, by saying government is good--and would be even better if it were paying for your family's health care. But saying that at a conference full of enthusiastic listeners doesn't necessarily mean that anyone else will hear it. There is no groundswell of support among Democrats for Reich's call for a midterm convention. Jackson's case for social change by constitutional amendment has generated the media and political equivalent of a vacant stare, even within his own party. And nobody in the general public has ever heard of the Progressive Caucus.

If it accomplished anything, the conference may have reinforced a growing willingness to take a break from making fun of Republicans, and to learn from the strategies that seem to have worked so well for the GOP over the past several years. Warren Beatty went so far as to suggest a "Democratic Contract With America" short and simple enough to crack "the short attention span of the channel surfer in 2001."

But it isn't that simple. Republicans didn't win control of Congress in 1994 with a message alone. Newt and his pocket-sized revolution succeeded because conservatives were building on decades of local activism. As a rule, progressive activists have yet to energetically scour their communities searching for School Board candidates.

That type of grassroots organizing and energizing is the long-haul solution. In the meantime--2002, 2004--the best progressives might hope for is summed up by arguably the least progressive person attending the conference. Gephardt contended that nonvoters will get energized about increased education spending, incremental movement toward "health care for everybody who's an American citizen" and other policies that constitute the more ambitious components of what passes for today's Democratic agenda. "We can get millions of people to vote who haven't voted," Gephardt said, "if we can get it across and they believe it's authentic."

But even if that top-down strategy will work, it comes with a catch. Nonvoters aren't likely to believe a progressive agenda is authentic, unless it is.

 

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