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Thursday, Jun 2, 2005, 6:08 am

Take Back America:  Putting the Soul Back into the Democratic Agenda

By Tracy Van Slyke
Howard Dean opened the second day of the Take Back America conference with the point that the Democratic party is shifting their agenda and organizing from short-term and national focused to long-term and grassroots. “As we raise money, we are investing in state parties. The Democratic Party will be the grassroots party… There’s nothing the matter with Kansas that we can’t fix.”

And boy do we need it. It's not just about last year's goal of getting Republicans out of office, it's now about getting Democrats off their asses.

Both DNC chair Howard Dean and Huffington were the key notes this morning. Both called for Democrats to take a stand and not just yell about what the Bush administration is doing wrong - but put out a positive and pointed agenda of its own. Agenda items mentioned: 1) Keeping our retirement safe by protecting social security and private pensions. Dean mentoned getting private pensions out of the corrupt hands of corporations and run independently 2) Getting the corruption out of office - specifically DeLay 3) Campaign Finance reform 4) Election Reform (Dean: "Never use a voting machine unless it can be counted by hand." 4) Environmental policies - this ones been mentioned a lot as a unifer across bi-partisan lines as well as pulling in many religious groups who are very interested. 5) Huffington urged Dems to “stop triangulating on gay rights and abortion and find a way to turn economic issue into moral issues – because they are.”

Huffington added, "Indeed, now that Deep Throat has been unmasked, the greatest unsolved mystery in Washington is: what does the Democratic Party stand for?"

The mushy, “squishy” (as Rep. Jan Schakowsky said) attitude and agenda that the Democrats continue to put forth has found no love at the Take Back America Conference. In fact, it has become one of the major themes that evolved from the plenaries in the last 24 hours.

Highlights include:
“If you ask me, what people like least about us is that people think we’re squishy. They think Bush is tough,” said Rep. Schakowsky. But with the current political corrupt climate created by the right, she also sees the potential for progressives to turn the tide. “It’s starting to feel like 1994, when the Republicans took over the House and Senate, and now the tables are starting to turn with a vengeance.”

Schakowsky laid out a 3 point attitude shift for both the policymakers and the progressives.
1) As your mother said – Stand up straight (Going back to getting a spine and not being bowed by the other side.)
2) Say it again… and again… and again… It’s time to repeat our message, values and the issues we find important over and over again.
3) Taking from the Nike slogan “Just Do It.”

LA mayoral elect Antonio Villaraigosa said that its time for progressives to take back our definition of patriotism. “For too long, progressives have allowed some to wrap the flag around themselves with the message ‘love it or leave.’ I say ‘America, I love you… but I want you to be all that you promised to be.”

Donna Brazille, Democratic Political Strategist cracked up the crowd with multiple quips, including: “After the 2002 elections, Katherine Harris moved down the block, and I said ‘there goes the neighborhood.” Or “People ask me what comes first: being a black or a woman, and I tell them it depends on whether my head or my tail came out first.”

On a more serious note, Brazille said, “We have a lot of work to do in making sure we can improve on all of the successes we had…I don’t want the base to be taken for granted…every voter is a swing voter, and every state is a battleground state… The days of drive-by campaigning are over…we can’t drive by the cities. We have to target our own, expand what we have, and convince those who stood in those long lines in Ohio to come out and help us.”

She added that progressives and the grassroots are done with the days being take advantage of and their principles compromised by the politicians cutting backroom deals and very public compromises (a la filibuster.) “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired—tired of settling for the lesser of two evils.” Use us or lose us, she warned. It’s time to use the expertise that the progressive and grassroots base has to offer.

“We know how to cut deals, we know how to budget…we have to live with nickels and dimes in our pockets. Bring us in the room; maybe we can tell you something.”

More to come very soon….

Tracy Van Slyke, a former publisher of In These Times, is the project director for The Media Consortium.

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