For a conservative Republican, George W. Bush sounded a lot like a liberal (or at least a Clintonian) Democrat in his budget speech to Congress on February 27. He made promises about education, health care and Social Security. "It would have been a great speech, if he hadn't been lying," says Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.

But Bush's proposed tax cut alone was an adequate reminder that he wasn't telling the truth. Behind the liberal facade is class warfare--a scheme to redistribute more wealth to the wealthy and increase insecurity for the many, while protecting the prerogatives and power of corporations.

Bush's dissembling is further confirmation of what lay beneath the disappointing election results last fall: a progressive majority searching for a voice and a vehicle. Although they will need to stage defensive battles against the tax cut, progressives are ready to push their agenda even on the unfriendly terrain in Congress.

They may not win much immediately, but an assertive strategy will put pressure on wayward conservatives and centrists eager to cut a deal with Republicans and will help encourage the Democrats to adopt a more liberal strategy in upcoming elections. And if Democratic leaders and, more likely, progressive groups actually make the effort to educate and mobilize a real grassroots movement, the Bush years could become the launching pad for a period of real progressive reform in the near future.

The day after Bush's speech, the Campaign for America's Future pulled together in Washington roughly 500 people, mostly leaders in a wide range of progressive groups and unions, to discuss "the next agenda." The campaign, a small group founded by Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey in part to counterbalance the influence of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, had planned the gathering to prod a future President Gore to the left. Despite the slight hitch in that scenario, the speakers--including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Congressional Democrats like Paul Wellstone, Dick Durbin, Jan Schakowsky, Jesse Jackson Jr., Dennis Kucinich, George Miller and Maxine Waters--insisted that there was strong popular support for expanded health care, more spending on education, pay equity, public financing of elections, stronger protection of the right to organize, a higher minimum (or living) wage, and safeguards for workers rights and the environment in global economic agreements.

Bush, however, clearly has the upper hand, and liberals will find themselves hard pressed simply fighting against Republican outrages and Democratic defections. The "next agenda" speakers recognized that Bush could capture supposedly Democratic terrain if progressives do not effectively define compelling alternatives to Bush proposals, as well as criticize Bush's shortcomings, from school vouchers to Social Security privatization.

While the "next agenda" gathering was largely a policy-oriented call to arms, there was frequent, refreshing recognition that no progressive agenda has a prayer without grassroots organizing across the country. Think tanks and Washington offices backed by direct-mail fundraising won't be enough.

At the same time, the progressive agenda should not be limited simply to issues that register well in polls and elections. Some issues, like combating national missile defense, may be more problematic than promising to save Social Security, but they are equally important to any well-conceived progressive agenda. One of the biggest challenges for the left, however, is creating cooperation and a broader sense of ideological community among the hundreds of issue and constituency groups.

The Campaign for America's Future is not the vehicle to achieve that goal. But discussions like the one in Washington, soon to be taken around the country (and published in a book, The Next Agenda: Blueprint for a New Progressive Movement), and the network of grassroots leaders it hopes to pull together could help progressives take steps in that direction.


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