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Progressives: No Longer Playing Defense

One of the intriguing things about this year’s Democratic convention is that it seems Democrats in general, and progressives and liberals in particular, are far less defensive than they were in the past. From 1988-2004, and particularly during the 1990s, Democrats were wary of anything that might conjure up the dreaded L-word. It’s not that lots of people are now running around proclaiming themselves “liberals” – “progressive” remains the descriptor of choice. But there is less concern with ideology altogether, and a sense among liberals that their time has come, with the end of a conservative era.

On Monday, I dropped by an event organized by one of the country’s most venerable liberal organizations: Americans for Democratic Action. I walked in during a rousing speech by Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, in which he argued that the current economic and financial mess discredited conservative doctrines. With the failure of deregulation and the rise of inequality, Frank said, “We can say, ‘We told them so!’”

“I hate metaphors,” said Frank, who now chairs the House Financial Services Committee. But he deconstructed the old assertion that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

“If you can’t afford a boat, and are standing tiptoe in the water, the rising tide goes up your nose,” he said.

Americans for Democratic Action was founded in the Truman era to battle communists on the left and what seemed then like a rising tide on the right. It’s hung around, but its new president, Richard Parker, told me that the current moment is a good time for renovating an organization that seems a bit grey-haired both metaphorically and in terms of its membership. When ADA was started, he said, “we were about protecting and creating a Democratic mainstream.” But the Vietnam War, he said, divided liberals. “The dislocation that took place in the Democratic Party after 1972 was profound,” he added.

No kidding. But I think Parker is on to something when he argues that progressives have finally begun to put those splits behind them. It’s one of the things Barack Obama was talking about when he kept promising to “turn the page of history.”

This morning, at an event co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO and the liberal magazine the American Prospect, Bob Kuttner was plugging his interesting and well-timed new book, “Obama’s Challenge.” “He’s got to make the sale to all the core groups that his really would be 'a transformative presidency,'” Kuttner said, adding: “Hopefully he’s capable of doing it. He just needs to do it more consistently.”

Very few people I’ve run into here are under any illusions that the election is already in the bag for Obama. This whole convention is designed to ease unsolved problems and make sales to voters who are still uncertain. And my friend and colleague Gene Robinson was right in his column today in perceiving a certain excessive electoral jitteriness around here.

The paradox is that there is far less jitteriness about progressive and liberal ideas. There are many more voters than even four years ago who are open to what the center left traditionally has stood for. Even more: They are increasingly resistant to what conservatives have been selling. Republicans used to be the party with philosophical self-confidence. The events around this convention suggest that liberals may no longer need assertiveness training.

By E.J. Dionne  | August 26, 2008; 7:38 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Sorry Mr. Dionne, logic doesn't work on right(wrong)-wingers. How some can vote for the very people who have been instrumental in torpedoing their livelihoods is incredible and sad.

Posted by: James King | August 26, 2008 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Mr. Dionne, logic doesn't work on right(wrong)-wingers. How some can vote for the very people who have been instrumental in torpedoing their livelihoods is incredible and sad.

Posted by: James King | August 26, 2008 8:21 PM | Report abuse

Returning once again to the most important issue in the coming election, the price of fuel, what are the Democratic Progressives going to do about it other than tell the people that it is good for them.

Posted by: Ed | August 26, 2008 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Returning once again to the most important issue in the coming election, the price of fuel, what are the Democratic Progressives going to do about it other than tell the people that it is good for them.

Posted by: Ed | August 26, 2008 8:33 PM | Report abuse

August - What are the Repubs going to do? More drilling won't make a dent in gas prices, another myth that the wrong-wing is pushing.

Posted by: James King | August 26, 2008 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Obama needs to go to the offensive about Al Gore's Ten-Year-Challenge.

Madness in the Middle East? Or Georgia madness. . . . Independence from foreign oil would dampen down a lot of this problem, including Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. . . . . . It would also help NATO in places like Georgia.

Support Al Gore's Ten-Year-Challenge . . . . . 100% all electricity produced by renewables in ten-years. -- the only way to go.

Posted by: Coldcomfort | August 26, 2008 8:41 PM | Report abuse

King George and Prince John have plotted the course for the past eight years that has brought this nation to its economic's impossible to talk about their failures without seeming to go on the offensive.......

Posted by: sjosephs | August 26, 2008 8:45 PM | Report abuse

Maybe more drilling won't solve the fuel crunch but Joe Sixpack knows that drilling has a better chance than not drilling.

Posted by: Ed | August 26, 2008 8:46 PM | Report abuse

King George and Prince John have plotted the course for the past eight years that has brought this nation to its economic's impossible to talk about their failures without seeming to go on the offensive.......

Posted by: sjosephs | August 26, 2008 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Ed - That's the problem with Joe Sixpack, he doesn't know the realities of oil economics. The problem is there is NO AMOUNT of drilling that will reduce gas prices, PERIOD.

Want the sad reality? The U.S. consumes far more oil than can be corrected with new drilling. Add in the vigorous oil demands of emerging markets like China and India, and the price of oil will continue to rise. That's a fact.

An even sadder fact is that China and India may achieve oil independence BEFORE the U.S. China and India can implement energy independent infrastructures much more cheaply than the U.S. Want to know what happens when that happens? Then the U.S. will be held hostage by its own oil demands while the world move on into the future.

The drilling thing is a red herring used by wrong-wingers to suckers Americans who don't know enough about the oil economy. Or that our rivals in China and India are already exploring technologies that will lessen their oil dependence.

Posted by: James King | August 26, 2008 8:58 PM | Report abuse

My comment was not aimed at the reality of the oil market, at which I am not really a expert. It is more an political sales opinion. Pelosi blew it big time when she did not let the lifting of the offshore drilling ban happen before the convention. It gives free rein to the Republicans during the convention times because the logic of Joe Sixpack, a voter nonetheless, that drilling has a better chance than not drilling.

Keeping supplies of petroleum up to the world market is critical in the intermediate term and that includes maintaining stability in Iraq and reviving the economy.

It is a trifecta for the Republicans at this critical juncture.

Posted by: Ed | August 26, 2008 9:07 PM | Report abuse

Ed - That's the problem, it's just a sales job. The Republicans are selling snake oil with the drilling thing. I'd rather the public be educated about the realities of drilling rather than be sold a bill of goods.

Drilling won't decrease the price of gasoline. Period. That isn't even debatable. The public needs to understand this.

Posted by: James King | August 26, 2008 9:47 PM | Report abuse

All political campaigns are sales jobs. Get over it.

Posted by: Ed | August 26, 2008 9:57 PM | Report abuse

The democrats should win. They are much more intelligent than the greedy neo-cons. They just have to get smarter. No matter, the cost win. You can't do anything for this country if you don't win. Win at all costs. A no holds barred tell it like it is, demolish and demonize the Bush administration, along with the greedy John McCain. Success will follow. whiteagle38

Posted by: R Juneau | August 26, 2008 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Ed - Yes, the conservative argument. Let's "get over" truth, facts, figures... you know, all of that crazy dumb stuff that INTELLIGENT people like.

Why let truth get in the way. It's a shame you can't "get over" your ignorance.

Posted by: James King | August 26, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

The argument of "Ed" seems to be "the American people are dumb enough to give the Republicans another shot."

I surely hope not. The policies demonstrably have failed. The American public absolutely know this. I refuse to believe they would tragically accept the lies and personal attacks the McCain campaign is peddling.

Posted by: Dave | August 27, 2008 5:09 AM | Report abuse

James King and Ed, although you do not agree, you make your points reasonably civilly. (THANK YOU BOTH FOR THAT!!) In a bizarre way, you both are right--pointing to the special challenge that Obama has engaged: To try governing with a sales-pitch that actually appeals both to people who 'know what they think' without knowing the facts AND to people who see, hear, and believe there is a chance the plan could work.

Mr. Dionne, I ALWAYS enjoy your prescience. You are right that the ideas that should favor the Dems are clearly in ascendence.

We are jittery for the following reasons:

We have an untested and (largely) unknown candidate.

He is running against a Republican who would not hesitate to invoke the spirit of Atwater and Rove to win, even at the expense of personal integrity.

We are DEMOCRATS for crying out loud! We are ALWAYS jittery.

Let's try to remember what Alan Greenspan said about Republicans and Democrats-- Democrats actually care MORE about what happens to the average person. We can NEVER forget it and we can NEVER allow Republicans to bury that simple message!

BTW--The man who would make even more waves than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is Barney Frank. Imagine the conversation we'd be having if HE were running! Perhaps he can be the first openly gay cabinet member!

Posted by: dch | August 27, 2008 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Why would the evangelicals vote for magoo who was for abortion before he was against it?

Magoo spent a lot of time with Gary Hart, even had him as a groomsman at his wedding.

Magoo and Gary used to chase young women together.

No evangelicals will vote for magoo because he is an Adulteror!

Posted by: Vote Magoo he's an adulteror too! | August 27, 2008 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The point of drilling here, now wouldn't even be a point if those who want to drill had their way 30 years ago and sucked it all up at $8.00 a barrel.

Posted by: argo | August 27, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

The Democrats will never change. That's why their mascot is the jackass.

Obama won the primaries by promising change, but as soon as he had enough delegates, he flipped off the left and became same old politics as usual.

He won't be getting this liberal's vote.

Posted by: Thomas Mc | August 27, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I can tell you what the theme for the Republican convention will be. Win the war. Drill for oil. Revive the economy. Neatly packaged simple declarative statements that anyone can understand.

Carville has a point when he says the Democratic convention is a game of "hide the message". The Democrats have a bevy of high priced consultants working. How could they let this happen?

People can quibble with the Republican message but those quibbles quickly get lost in a miasma of claims and counterclaims. It isn't any way to win an election.

Posted by: Ed | August 27, 2008 11:45 AM | Report abuse

So we are supposed to believe the ramblings of a jaded Washington Post columnist when he tells us that the Obama campaign is gaining momentum? The writers at the Post lost touch with reality and became cheerleaders for the left a long long time ago.

A bounce less than 10 points coming out of the convention next will start the death spiral for Obama.

Posted by: Crazy Monkey | August 27, 2008 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Because the Republican 'emperor' has no clothes. It was a fantasy that people wanted to believe, a fairy tale. It works for a while but once everyone is pointing and laughing it gets harder and harder to believe that the fat, naked hairy guy parading down the street is actually bedecked in finery, silk, fur and jewels.

Republicans are fiscally responsible? Are good with foreign policy? Are compassionate? Care about the environment? Care about education? Health care? Nope! just naked greed, hate and fear. That's all they've got.

Watch them try to sell it again this year. They'll parade it down the center of the street, the commentators will ooh and ahh and read from the script describing the fine weave and flowing robes. And everyone will laugh at the big, fat, naked guy walking bare-asp down the street.

Bush/Cheney/McCain. No More Years!

Posted by: thebob.bob | August 27, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Remember, this is a right-wing establishment that pillories Michelle Obama, the epitome of the American Dream, while embracing the beer heiress who stole drugs from her charity, stole her husband from his first, disfigured wife and stole her $100 Million inheritance from 2 half-siblings and cut off their credit cards to boot. Rationality is not a welcome guest among these wingnuts. If you want a laugh, check out this cindy mccain parody... hilarious!

Posted by: straight talk my a** | August 27, 2008 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Dionne, you are dreaming. And all of you liberal commenters are grasping at straws, too.

Posted by: Chas | August 27, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse

All the talk about Joe Sixpack just feeds the Right Wing. To "dis" the NASCAR dads is to drive the Right more to the right and deepen the divide.

Posted by: CharlieAndy | August 27, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

"the end of a conservative era" is a strange choice of words. If that were a true statement, Barack H. Obama would be 15-20 points ahead in the tracking polls.

Even the liberal, polling organizations are calling the 2008 presidential race a virtual, dead heat. That tells me that America is a very conservative since John McCain does not seem to be trying all that hard.

Add to that the big media, love affair with Obama, his unlimited supply of money, and his rock star image and you get nothing. Michael Dukakis did better than this and he had a fraction of the advantages Obama enjoys.

Most Americans recognize Obama for what he really is. A dyed-in-the-wool LIBERAL from the same mold that produced Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and John Kerry.

Their kind has always been rejected by America because they are socialists at heart. They cannot give straight answers to simple questions. They are embarrassed with American patriotism. They have an elitist, attitude problem. In short, they are over-educated, bureaucratic nerds.

When the Democrats nominate real people or someone who can fool the public into thinking they are real, they get elected.

2008 seems to be NOT one of those times.

Posted by: BattleGround | August 27, 2008 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Well BattleGround your boy couldn't answer the simplest of questions. How many houses do you have? How much were those shoes? $500.00? Also,I'm sorry that being well educated is a bad thing in your neck of the woods. To paraphrase the Frankenstein monster...Fear Goooood! Education Baaaaaad! And the reason Obama is not 15-20 points ahead is because he's black.

Posted by: Foye Lady | August 27, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

All this talk on drilling versus non-drilling....I can't help think both Repubs and Dems want the same thing - it's how we get there is how we differ. While claiming drilling won't reduce the price of fuel as dems may state..(maybe)....but not doing anything to increase domestic supply is not the answer - as demand goes up and it will without additional drilling - with less supply - price will certainly be higher...pure economics. Additional drilling will keep the price not necessarily from going up - but not as much.
My thoughts - it's a must America develop alternative fuels....if not only for the economic-enviornment benefit...but also most importantly security. Sending billions of our dollars over seas is not the answer....being beholded to the mid-east as well is not our goal.....but at the same time - between now and when America can develop that alternative fuel...all cards need to be on the table.

An alternative energy source can be 10-20-30 years out. It requires that we view all sources of energy during the transition period for the very reasons I stated . Drilling - nuclear - clean coal - solar - wind, etc, etc.
It also requires that our government - either repub or dem if both ...develop a energy policy that makes a commitment of dollars - time etc to that goal.....a cheap - alternative energy source - where america is once again independent.
JFK did similar in regards to the moon - why can't either Obama-McCain do the same. In some respects - they are - as Obama offers up government investment - where McCain looks to entrepreneurship...but it's going to take well as both parties being committed to that policy.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 27, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

You use the term center left. That's intellectually dishonest and from you, kind of silly. What on earth does it mean? Abandoning public financing? Hedging on ending the war? Caving to a little discreet oil exploration? Fact is the Democratic Party is not uniting around a philosophy, left or center left, rare or medium rare +. It is uniting around a person and a persona. there was nothing center left about Obama or the ADA before the realities of election politics set in.

Posted by: Mike | August 27, 2008 4:12 PM | Report abuse

A lot of this is about where our national attention is focused. Tom Friedman writes today about the 220 mile per hour train that runs on electro-magnetic propulsion from the airport to Shanghai, in China. Our trains are so antiquated as to be laughable. We have bridges falling down and levees and dams breaking. The answer is that we have to do nation building here. But everything has a price. We've poured untold billions into Iraq. Are we willing to pay the price to fix our own country? How ever much it takes?

Posted by: Foye lady | August 27, 2008 4:26 PM | Report abuse

A lot of this is about where our national attention is focused. Tom Friedman writes today about the 220 mile per hour train that runs on electro-magnetic propulsion from the airport to Shanghai, in China. Our trains are so antiquated as to be laughable. We have bridges falling down and levees and dams breaking. The answer is that we have to do nation building here. But everything has a price. We've poured untold billions into Iraq. Are we willing to pay the price to fix our own country? How ever much it takes?

Posted by: Foye lady | August 27, 2008 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Since when did going green to solve our energy independance become so liberal. I would think God leaned green. What part of 3% of the oil resource and 25% of consumption don't you understand. Then the drill drill drill. Where was the drilling the last 25 years while our dependance on foriegn oil went from 25% to 70%? Go to the Baker Hughes web site.

In 1982 oil prices spiked to around $32 because of the Oil embargo. At the same time the drilling rig count peaked at 4,500 rigs. By 1986 the oil prices had dropped to around $32. The rig count had dropped to 1,900 rigs. From 1987 to 2004 oil bounced from $10 to $35 a barrel. On 4-23-1999 the drilling rig count hit a low of 448. In 2005 oil started going up as did the amount of drilling rigs. Oil passed $40 and the rig count went to around 1,500. As of July 11th 2008 more rigs have been brought online. Up to around 1,900 (equal to the 1986 levels). The price for a barrel is now around $135 per barrel.
It seems obvious to me that the oil companies deploy drilling rigs when it is in their own interests. It has nothing to do with national security or helping consumers. When the first oil crisis hit in the 70's the oil industry ramped up to 4,000 rigs. With our dependence on foreign oil growing from 25% back then to 60+% now, how can anyone explain the rig deployment dropping to 448 in 1999. It seems oil producers are only interested in profits. How can any one guarantee the oil producers will keep producing when prices drop? The history says no.

Posted by: KevinA | August 27, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

An interesting article; and it's good to see that you, "--encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles". It will be even better (should it one day happen?) to find posters taking up your hope that they analyse, rather than simply proclaim their various (non-theistic) blind faiths.

Cognitive dissonance is clearly alive and well.

Posted by: Norman | August 27, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Liberal, Progressive, Conservative . . . mean nothing since the messages are hidden in catch phrases designed to buy a place at the table. The so called surveys that the major parties send out do not tell us how the goals at to be met, they only ask if we agree with a goal as they word it. The whole idea of what the policy really is is gone from the discussion. No one has the lead in plain talk.

Posted by: Mark John Hunter | August 27, 2008 5:48 PM | Report abuse

With all the noise and confusion here, can anyone tell me what exactly IS the message of the Democratic Party?

The Republican message is rather pathetic, and the Republican Party have become hypocrites to their own supposed core principles, in any event... But there is still SOMETHING of a message - limited government, low taxation, freedom of enterprise, law and order, God and guns, etc...

The fact is that the average American is NOT fooled - there is NO Democratic message, no plan other than creeping socialism. The party, which once upon a time truly DID represent the honorably 'progressive' element of American society (and called the public to sacrifice, and to national service - try to imagine that now...) has few ideals, and few ideas, other than continuing to dole out entitlements in exchange for liberty.

So - I hope there IS change in the winds, and that the Democratic Party is in fact re-discovering its lost ideals. I've managed to remain a 'closet' Democrat for years - decades now, in fact... and would like to become PROUD of the 'progressive' party once again. Though he may lack any real 'experience', who's to say that Barack Obama is NOT the man to lead such a change...?

Posted by: Jon | August 27, 2008 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Albert Einstein said that "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Making something simpler than is possible has another name: it is callled a falsehood. It is a lie. Soundbites, catch phrases and other political tools have taken the complex issues facing this country and made them simpler than is possible. Remember that when you watch the next 30 second "political" commercial. Remember that when a politician spouts a one-liner in response to a difficult question. John Kennedy was right to call for sacrifice rather than circuses, but we have reached a point where the patient prefers comforting words to harsh medicine. I understand that politicians will do whatever they need to do to be elected. They are, after all, polticians. If we, as citizens, buy their simplistic answers and negative fear-based campaigns, then we have become to stupid to govern ourselves.

Here is my windmill:

I propose that ALL political ads be banned from the public airways. Other than politicians and broadcast companies who likes them? They are not informative. They serve to mislead. And they are so expensive that they have driven the cost of running for office into the hundreds of millions and led to public subsidy for campaigns. Who would miss the fall barrage of cynicism? No one I know.

Without broadcast ads perhaps we would get politicians on tv answering difficult questions from good journalists. Perhaps we would get indepth newspaper interviews. Perhaps the politicians would not control the media if they did not pay the bill.

Perhaps not.

But at least the paid-for soundbite would be dead.

Posted by: RDF | August 27, 2008 8:14 PM | Report abuse

This article is a little silly because it does not mention any specific issues where progressives are on the offensive. In reality on a host of issues progressives are more on the defensive then they have ever been. The one difference of course has been the unpopularity of the Bush administration and its efforts to galvanize the left to support far left candidates. Unfortunatley most of those candidates still obscure their views to get elected.

If progressives were on the offensive Obama would never have to hide his left views on abortion behind right to life bull which he did on a number of occasions including Saddleback.

If progressives were on the offensive FISA would have gone down in flames by a democrat majority congress.

If progressives were on the offensive oil drilling would be a slam dunk issues for them instead of a noose around their necks.

If progressives were on the offensive they would have more strongly defended tax hikes on the rich instead of clouding them with commensurate givebacks to most Americans.

Until progressives can go out and proclaim their views without hiding behind pseudo intellectul mumbo jumbo they will always be on the defensive.

Posted by: Craig5 | August 27, 2008 8:52 PM | Report abuse

WHAT I'D LIKE TO HEAR in Barrack Obama's speech: . .

100% of all our electricity produced by renewables in 10 years. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

1) It will boost our economy,
2) help decrease global-warming,
3) help decrease our involvement in the madness of the Middle East,
4) help decrease the strong arming Russia,
5) help decrease financial support to terrorist,
6) and it will leave some resources for our grandchildren.

Posted by: Coldcomfort | August 27, 2008 9:47 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate Mr. Dionne's lucid comments on all subjects. He provides reasoned insights to anything he analyzes. I'm grateful.

Posted by: Brenda Anderson | August 28, 2008 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Can't wait 'til uncle Mitt(ie) becomes V.P., and with him, brings all of us the right to store and transport our dog on the roof-rack of our car. And with that, frees up the space for the second wife.

Posted by: iididsi | August 28, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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