Liberals are antsy. They haven’t seen Democratic voter enthusiasm like this in a long time and they’d rather not wait until the party’s August convention to harness it to the party’s presidential nominee.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are still fiercely competing just when liberal activists and labor leaders wanted to mobilize voters and gear up their message for the general election.
Activists who gathered at a Washington hotel this week said Obama and Clinton have energized the electorate with their prolonged contest, but several warned that a convention fight could be fractious and leave little time to mount a general election campaign against Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain.
“There is always that danger,” said Karen Ackerman, the political director for the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation. “The way that this plays out in terms of how the nominee is eventually chosen matters a lot.”
Lately, the way it has been playing out is with hot rhetoric — the Clinton camp points out Obama’s ties to an indicted businessman who was a political patron and the Obama camp responds by demanding that Clinton release her tax returns. Meanwhile, neither candidate can win the nomination with delegates selected in state primaries or caucuses, and so they conduct parallel campaigns wooing party leaders who will also get a say at the convention.
“It’s a bit of a high wire act,” said James H. Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, a group that recruits “fiscally responsible and socially progressive” candidates. “Is it competitive? Yes. Is there some sniping going on? Yes. But many, if not most of the voters say they would be happy with both candidates. So I’m really pretty confident that this is going to work out one way or another.”
But when asked when he would like the contest resolved, Dean said: “It would be easier if it gets settled before the convention.” The race “is not settled yet,” he said, “and psychologically that gets people nervous.” (He cautioned that he did not speak for his brother, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.)
Nowadays, liberals see 2008 as a reverse image of the 1980 election that galvanized conservatives and put Ronald Reagan in the White House. This time, the energy is on the left and the ennui is on the right, but the political conditions are similar — economic turmoil and an ordeal overseas.
And though Reagan locked up the nomination early, liberals note optimistically that the 1980 Republican convention was not without drama, as Reagan negotiated with former President Ford to be his running mate before settling on George H. W. Bush. Reagan won the general election in a landslide.
“So that kind of internal division doesn’t necessarily keep you from having a sea change election when people are ready to throw the bums out,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future which organized this week’s Take Back America conference for progressives.
The long slog to the nomination might have its benefits by forcing some political quagmires to bubble up early, some activists maintain. On Tuesday, several of the Take Back America participants crowded into a press filing center to hear Obama deliver an address on race. The speech came after Obama repudiated comments from his church’s former African American pastor and after he encountered questions over his loss of white support in some recent state contests.
“It’s good that this particular controversy is being aired right now and the public gets to hear his response before the general election,” said Roger Hickey, the other co-director at the Campaign for America’s Future.
The hundreds of activists who assembled at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington this week were many of the same ones who two years ago hissed Clinton for refusing to support a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. She got a better reception last year, though she didn’t totally silence the anti-war boos.
Neither Obama nor Clinton spoke to the group this year. Clinton was in Washington Monday, delivering a speech on Iraq at George Washington University. Both campaigns cited scheduling conflicts for bypassing the Take Back America conference.
In contrast, President Bush and McCain both spoke last month to the Conservative Political Action Conference, meeting in the same hotel. And McCain rival Mitt Romney chose the CPAC meeting to announce he was bowing out of the race.
Borosage, for one, shrugged off the Democratic no-shows.
“They are carrying the message that progressive groups have organized around and have demanded that their candidates embrace,” he said. “So we don’t feel neglected by these two contenders.”