By the time the delegates arrived in Boston the last week in July for the Democratic National Convention there was, on the surface, very little that remained to be decided.
Sen. John Kerry had long since clinched the Democratic nomination for president, named Sen. John Edwards as his running mate and picked a platform committee to draw up an agenda he could embrace with a minimum of controversy. Many of the 15,000 journalists, who outnumbered delegates three to one, complained that there was no story and the commercial networks scaled back their coverage.
But outside the security perimeter of the Fleet Center, progressive activists as well as their rivals for control of the Democratic Party laid plans to elect Kerry and Edwards in the short term so they can pursue their long-term priorities.
This election year sees the emergence of "527" committees, named after the section of the tax code that regulates these "independent expenditure" groups. Starting July 30, for the rest of the general election campaign, the Kerry/Edwards campaign is limited to the same $74.7 million that the Bush/Cheney campaign will get in September. In the interim, liberal groups unconnected with the Kerry campaign will support the Democrats with media campaigns while the Bush campaign and its allies continue their free-spending smear of Kerry and Edwards.
The Democratic National Committee planned to spend $6 million the first week after the convention. The Media Fund, one of five principal "527" committees supporting the DNC, spent $27.2 million to counter the Bush campaign in key states this past spring. It was expected to resume airing ads in August. (The other four allied groups, according to disinfopedia.org, are the Thunder Road Group, which "will concentrate on research and rapid response;" America Coming Together, "which is responsible for get-out-the-vote efforts;" America Votes, "the umbrella organization that will stitch together the activities of various progressive organizations;" and Joint Victory Campaign 2004, "a combined fundraising committee." Another top "527" is MoveOn.org, which supports progressive Democrats and spent $17.4 million as of Aug. 2, according to opensecrets.org..
The "527" activity is legal as long as the groups don't coordinate with the Kerry campaign, but they can read the papers and figure out what Kerry and his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, are up to.
Bob Borosage of Campaign for America's Future (ourfuture.org), which sponsored a "Take Back America" series of progressive speakers at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge before the convention sessions, said progressive groups protected Kerry's back after he clinched the nomination and they will respond again. "When George Bush did 70 million dollars of negative ads before the candidate was even nominated, progressives led by MoveOn.org responded with ads that moved Bush down in the polls," Borosage noted.
"This is a referendum on failed and disastrous policies of the Bush administration," Borosage continued. "They had their way and they enacted their policies and the results are in and they failed. Record tax cuts created record deficits and they didn't even create jobs," he said, noting that the administration has seen a net loss of more than a million jobs, for the first net loss of jobs since the Great Depression.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and US Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio pledged to do all they can to elect Kerry but they also joined forces to organize Progressive Democrats of America (pdamerica.org) to move the party to the left.
Dean said the Democratic Party needs discipline, referring to the old joke about not belonging to an organized political party. "We keep laughing ourselves out of existence," he said.
He criticized the Democrats for leaving 70 House races unchallenged this year. "When Newt Gingrich won the House in 1994 nearly every seat was contested" by Republicans, Dean said. Upsets in many of those long-shot challenges contributed to the GOP victory.
Dean also blamed Democratic officials for not standing up to Bush three years ago but he said the 50% of the electorate who don't vote also share in the blame. "This is an extraordinary democracy we have and we're losing it because we think somebody else will do the work," he said.
Dean's organization, Democracy for America (democracyforamerica.com) is supporting 800 candidates for public offices, from library trustee on up. "We need to build democracy from the ground up," he said.
"If you can't run, give three hours a week to somebody else's campaign, or give $5 a week," he suggested. His presidential campaign showed that a candidate can finance a national campaign financed by small donors without selling out to corporate interests. "We can outraise the Rangers of George Bush but you've got to be part of that," he said. "We don't need big donors to tell us what to do if we can get it from small donors." He added that the small donors helped give the campaign direction.
Dean said Kerry "told me the first bill out of the White House would provide health care for all Americans. I say hallelujah." He also said Kerry would stop blaming public schools and start investing in early childhood development.
"I'm going to do everything I can to get John Kerry and John Edwards elected, but then we've got a lot of work to do to rebuild the Democratic organization," Dean said.
He added that Democrats cannot write off any part of the country, including the South. "We need to take the progressive message to Mississippi. We may not win at first but 95% of people in Mississippi want the same four things: a job that pays more than the last one, health insurance, particularly for their kids, good public schools and a national security policy that is consistent with American morality ... They care about the same things as people in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont."
Eventually, he said, voters will decide there are more important political issues than guns, God and gays "and they'll start voting on jobs, health insurance, schools and national security."
In a panel on civil liberties, civil rights and justice at St. Paul's Cathedral, Rev. John P. Streight, dean of the Episcopal cathedral, said religion has been identified with conservative programs and reactionary ideas. "Please remember that there are progressive people of faith. Don't let people rob us of that heritage."
Dennis Kucinich said "We need to continue to challenge the status quo, whether it's the Democrats or the Republicans." That includes challenging the "groupthink" that establishes a national security state. He said progressives will make the critical difference in the election. "As long as Ralph Nader is in the race it is our efforts as progressives in the Democratic Party that will make the critical difference in assuring that John Kerry becomes the next president," he said. "People have trouble wrapping their arms around this idea that you can simultaneously oppose the war and oppose the PATRIOT Act and vote for John Kerry. But you have to keep in mind -- It's George Bush's war! It's George Bush who wanted the PATRIOT Act. His presidency represents what's wrong with America and as Jesse Jackson said we're going to create the change from the bottom up and we can't do that with George Bush in the White House."
Kucinich, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, campaigned for a national single-payer health care system and fair trade laws as well as restoration of civil liberties and opposition to the war. "We know the platform is insufficient, but the platform in no way is the finished product of this party. It's a starting point," he said. "It shows that the delegates are going to unite despite the differences which exist in our party, we're going to unite to elect John Kerry president and then after John Kerry gets elected president the debate continues but it has more power and more relevancy because we have changed administrations and brought in a Democratic administration which will have grassroots support to make the kind of changes in policy that are needed."
Asked whether poor whites who had fallen in with the GOP would abandon the strange tradition of voting against their interests, he said, "Everybody's coming in," then elaborated: "There's no place for them to go but to war with this administration."
Rev. Jesse Jackson said progressives would have to build coalitions to defeat Bush on Nov. 2 and continue to build their coalitions after the election to promote progressive issues. He professed unconcern that Kerry was lacking in charisma. "Motivation comes from the bottom up, not the top down. You feel fire from the bottom up, not the top down," he said.
He also said whites, blacks and other minority communities must work together on economic issues. "It's coalition-building time," Jackson said. "Working people must be set free in places like Appalachia, where they got their gun but they lost their job."
Bob Reich, an economist and former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, discounted Republican claims that tax breaks for the wealthy have produced an economic recovery. "The reality about economic recovery is there is no economic recovery," he said at a "Take Back America" session sponsored by Campaign for America's Future. "Wages for 80% of Americans who are production workers are dropping and not only is their pay going down but the jobs are less likely to have health care, or the employees are having to pay a greater share of their health care."
The Bush administration says average wages are going up, he noted, "but that's like saying that Shaquille O'Neal and I have an average height of six feet, one inch. The tax cut might average $1,000 but Dick Cheney gets $300,000 and most Americans get under $100."
He added, "The gap between rich and poor is wider than it has been since the late 19th century. Democrats, progressives and liberals are dedicated to widening the circle of prosperity. George Bush has given $2 trillion in tax breaks mostly to people who are already very rich. Rich people already spend as much as they want. That's the definition of the word 'rich.' It doesn't stimulate the economy. It's not trickle-down economics. It's trickle-on economics."
He concluded, "In a global economy, everything moves around the world at the speed of electronic impulse. One asset that is uniquely American is our people ... We've got to invest in our people. That's the central economic reality that the Democrats understand and the Republicans don't."
As for the mechanics, Mark Mehlman, pollster for the Kerry campaign, predicted that there would be not much bounce coming out of the convention, since the number of undecided voters was the lowest since the 1952 election, but he said the campaign was "delighted with where we are coming into the convention." At a press briefing, he noted that in the past 50 years only one challenger had gone into the convention ahead of the elected incumbent, and that was Ronald Reagan, who was 3 points ahead of Jimmy Carter in 1980. Kerry went to Boston an average of 2 points ahead of Bush nationally. The average challenger comes into the convention 16 points behind the incumbent.
"We don't need to win by huge margins," Mehlman reminded the press. "John Kerry is in a stronger position today than Gore was in all states except Tennessee. We do think at the end of the day we're going to come out on the right side of 50."
Kerry's main task at the convention was to burnish his national security credentials, so he made a point of his decorated service in Vietnam and repeatedly said he intends to keep the military strong. The endorsement of 12 retired generals and admirals, including chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan and Clinton, help make that point.
Tony Podesta, Pennsylvania campaign coordinator, said 157,000 Pennsylvanians have lost jobs and others have gotten lower-paying jobs. Some 333,000 have lost health insurance. Polls show a tight race in the Keystone State as Bush made his 31st trip to Pennsylvania since he became president, second only to Texas in visits by Bush. But Podesta said independents believe the nation is on the wrong track and like Kerry more than Bush. And both Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elizabeth Edwards are from western Pennsylvania.
In Michigan, "Main Street is not feeling what Wall Street is experiencing," said Kerry's state director, Donnie Fowler. Even people with jobs are feeling anxiety. The state has lost 145,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office and a Detroit newspaper headline recently noted that the city had traded 10,000 manufacturing jobs for 10,000 service jobs. "That's the difference between a union job and a non-union job with no benefits," Fowler said.
Fowler, a Gore campaign staffer in 2000 and Wesley Clark's campaign director this past year, said the Kerry/Edwards campaign was about three months' ahead of the staffing level four years ago and, more important, "the unity is unprecedented. There is no backbiting."
Jim Ruvolo, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said enthusiasm for Kerry was "pervasive." He added, "What's going to win the election is the economy and Ohio is hurting." When people hear that the economy is recovering, he said, "They don't believe it because it's not true. The economy is not turning around and they don't see anything coming out of this administration to make it turn around. Ohioans are raging moderates," he added, "they vote their pocketbooks and they'll vote for John Kerry."
Mehlman noted that Republican Gov. Robert Taft is unpopular. "I think in Ohio there is a mood for change."
Terri Giles, state director for West Virginia, said the campaign was seeing a "total transformation of people's attitudes toward politics." The last four years have been horrible for West Virginia, she said, as the state lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs in steel, chemical and coal-mining industries. The campaign will be in all 55 counties with a special outreach to veterans. "Having a job in West Virginia is the most important thing to us. You can bring on your wedge issues but we know what's most important," she said.
In New Hampshire, where Gore lost by 7,211 votes in 2000, the state has lost 26,000 manufacturing jobs, which has squeezed many middle-class families, state director Nick Clemons said. Health costs are up and so are bankruptcies. The campaign has staffers reaching out to veterans in all 10 counties.
Jesse Connelly, director in Maine, said the state has lost 18,000 manufacturing jobs while college tuition and health costs are rising. Former Gov. John Baldacci is campaign chairman and veterans are organized and energized.
Mehlman said Bush is still spending much of his time appealing to his base. He noted that Bush was putting ads on the Golf Channel. "If there's any Republican base it's on the Golf Channel, but they feel compelled to spend money there," he said.
Mehlman said Nader polls a "relatively small" 2% to 5% and "not all comes from us. Some wouldn't vote for either.
"Obviously the Republicans feel his presence on the ballot is very useful for them. He is on the ballot in Michigan thanks almost exclusively to Republicans and of his donors a large number are Republicans," Mehlman said. "But I think at the end of the day Nader voters are going to recognize that there are significant differences between John Kerry and George Bush. I don't think they'll make the same mistake twice."
The Republican strategy is to mobilize the far right, as that is where their policies, rhetoric and speeches are geared. "I think [Bush] seriously risks alienating the moderate vote he got in the last election," Mehlman said.
At a "Take Back America" session, sponsored by Campaign for America's Future, Steve Rosenthal of America Coming Together (ACT), former political director of the AFL-CIO, said he expects to have 320 paid staffers and 220 more loaned from the Service Employees International Union to work in 15 battleground states. By election day he expects to have 2,000 in the field. "Some of us joke that the only jobs created by George Bush are with America Coming Together," he said.
In 2000, he said, unions were 26% of the electorate despite being fewer than 16% of the voting age population, and 60% of them voted for Gore. This year a smaller slice of the middle is up for grabs, but ACT will be talking to as many voters as they can. "There's way more of us if we just get out and talk to people and get 'em engaged," Rosenthal said. "We will make in this election a radical change. We'll defeat George Bush and make a progressive majority for years to come."
Cecile Richards of America Votes said her organization will coordinate resources of 33 progressive groups in 17 states. She noted that the "527" committees already were successful in countering Bush's campaign this past spring, when the Republicans, with their fundraising advantage, planned to damage Kerry so badly when he emerged from the primaries that the Democrat would be crippled going into the convention. "There was not a single market where the Bush campaign was unmatched by progressive money," she said, and the election remains in a virtual deadlock.
Arlene Holt Baker, president of Voices for Working Families, plans to focus on registering minority voters in battleground states Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Nevada as well as Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina. "You can't talk about working with communities of color if you don't work in the South and we have a potential for a powerful coalition there," she said.
Since October 2003, she said, the group's 70 canvassers have knocked on 346,000 doors, contacted 195,000 people and registered 47,000. "In communities of color we're knocking on every door. In Florida for every group of registrants we're getting receipts and we're following up to make sure they make it onto the [voter] rolls. This is no-nonsense."
They are especially going after the 18- to 34-year-olds, 43 million of whom didn't vote in 2000.
Tom McMahon, executive director of Dean's Democracy for America, said the first priority is to elect Kerry and Edwards, but his group also has a 10-year approach to develop candidates at the local and state level. "They all need media attention, manpower and money, but it takes very little manpower and money to make a difference."
Each week Dean and Democracy for America focus on a dozen candidates, helping them with organizing and fundraising. In the recent Georgia primaries four of the five candidates Dean worked for won their races. Over time these candidates will run for federal office. "We're building a farm team for tomorrow," McMahon said.
"We need to contest every election. You're not going to win if you're not challenging in races. We've got to start believing we can win races every time.
Joe Velasquez of HispanicAction.com noted that Latino voters have gone 66% Democratic since 1972 but 7.2 million eligible citizens didn't vote in 2000. "Progressive Democrats have to talk with us and give us a reason to vote," he said. Latino voters care about the same issues as other working-class groups: education, jobs and health care, he said, but Democrats haven't done a good job getting them out on election day. "They want to hear that you're going to be concerned about their families." He hopes "527s" will bring grassroots back into the political equation. His group is focusing on registering new voters in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Nevada. "If they're mobilized we can get a good turnout," he said.
He added that Democrats should not put Latino voters in the "Spanish box," telling the group, "It's OK to talk to us in English. We speak English."
Rev. Jackson, appearing again, said the progressive movement must rebuild the Rainbow Coalition that he pioneered in 1984. "You can't be a monochrome progressive movement in America," he said, reminding the audience that in 1986, at the height of Reagan's popularity, Democrats regained control of the Senate with the addition of two million black voters. But most of that class of 1986 got beat in 1992 because they failed to build the coalition with their black constituents.
He said 550,000 blacks are unregistered in North Carolina, almost all of them pro-labor Democrats. They could make the difference for Erskine Bowles' Senate bid. In South Carolina, Democrats lost the governor's race by 40,000 votes and they face a tight race for the Senate. Florida also has a Senate race with 600,000 blacks unregistered. Most observers think the Georgia Senate race is a lost cause, but 650,000 blacks who are unregistered there could make a difference for Democratic nominee Denise Majette. Alabama Democrats left 250,000 blacks unregistered and lost a governor's race by 7,000 votes.
"Clinton won not by reclaiming the white votes that left ... but by getting new votes," Jackson said, and many of those new voters were black.
Kerry's support for the invasion of Iraq doesn't disqualify him, Jackson added. "When Kerry wins, the anti-war movement just has to get bigger the next day," he said.
Brian Kettering is a Florida organizer for ACORN, which collected one million signatures to put an initiative on the Florida ballot to increase the state's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour. They have registered 609,000 new voters in 14 of the 17 swing states with the goal to get 1.9 million new voters to the polls in November. In Florida, they expect the minimum wage initiative to drive up turnout, particularly among the 300,000 who would get a raise. The initiative is polling at 81% in favor, Kettering said.
Greg Moore, executive director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, has the goal of mobilizing 350,000 new voters and re-enfranchising ex-cons. "We believe in desegregating schools and US Senate seats," he said. The NAACP also believes in protecting its friends, including the seven Texas Democratic Congress members whose districts were gerrymandered. All had A's on their NAACP report card, while the Republicans propose to replace the Democrats with candidates who flunk out on civil rights issues.
At the Progressive Democrats of America organizational meeting at a community college auditorium in working-class Roxbury, Tom Hayden said the Democratic move to the right in the 1980s opened the space for progressive populism of the Greens and Ralph Nader, but Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 also kept the party from moving further to the right.
"It's crucial if we want to build a new progressive wing of the Democratic Party not only to quote Paul Wellstone and thank Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean, but also to thank the Rainbow Coalition," said Hayden, a former California state senator.
"This election is a referendum not only on what Kerry and Bush have done but also where our tax money is going -- to Iraq or to our communities," he said, adding that progressives should not feel bad about supporting Kerry.
"If the voters throw Bush out and put Kerry in at least there will be an opening. If we lead he will follow. If we're not in a leadership position our officials will not follow."
In the early 1960s, he said, the Freedom Riders figured that if they clogged the jails of the Deep South they would reach the conscience of the US and the Democratic Party. "The Kennedys were opposed to the March on Washington and they were no more committed to civil rights in 1960 than Abraham Lincoln was committed to ending slavery in 1860. But there was something in them that made them open to the possibilities, and the possibilities are back."
He added, "When expectations rise, movements succeed."
Laura Bonham of the Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus (udpc.com) said her group managed to get planks in the state Democratic platform supporting single-payer health insurance and banning nuclear testing. "If we can do this in Utah, we can do this in every state across America," she said. "We must take hold of this Democratic Party and get progressive Democrats elected and start seeing change."
Ralph Miller, executive director of Latinos for America and California chair of Latinos for Dean, said his biggest fear is "that we win in November and then everybody goes home and thinks the job is done, when the job ... is only started."
Latinos comprise the largest minority and the party speaks to issues of brown, black and female Americans. "We want to take back the party even as we take back America," he said. His group is training 1,000 Latinos this summer and they will build web sites, communicate via newspapers, translate documents and hand out fliers. "It's got to be all of us as a party of diversity that carries this message out," he said.
Laura Blubaugh, Kucinich's deputy convention coordinator at age 22, said the campaign brought in many first-timers who learned how the party was organized and how it is disorganized. They will build upon that experience, she said. "We're here and we are stronger at the end of this election process than we were at the beginning. The real power of organizing is at the local and state level."
The Kucinich campaign resolved to have an impact on the platform and it was a hard struggle, she said, but insertion of language calling for a reduction of troops in Iraq was a "significant victory," she said.
"There's so much we've learned and so much frustration we've experienced," she said. "We have a long, long way to go. Many of our delegates will work for John Kerry so that we can put a president in office that we can work with."
At "Take Back America," Borosage said this election is being driven by progressive voices. "The pundits said you couldn't take on a popular wartime president but MoveOn.org took on George Bush. They ran an ad, 'George Bush, the Great Misleader,' and people sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the primaries all the senators were being very careful ... it took the Dean campaign ... to transform the tone of the election."
When the right started planning their takeover, he noted, liberals controlled everything. The Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and GOPAC were the institutional base that fueled the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party. "We're going to do to the Democratic Party what the right did to the Republican Party," he said.
Michael Moore, whose film Fahrenheit 9/11 continues to rack up record ticket sales for a documentary, said of the election, "It's all over but the voting." Republicans have hijacked the word "patriotism," the American flag and other things, he told an overflow crowd at a "Take Back America" panel. He noted, "A true patriot believes it's important to ask questions and dissent when necessary."
While Bush is the obvious villain in his movie, Moore said the unstated villain is the national media who acted as shills for Bush and cheerleaders for the war -- "the journalists who fell asleep on the job."
The comment he hears most often about his film is "I never saw that on the news," Moore said. Lecturing the press, he said, "I live in a free and open country with a free and open press. ... We, the people, we need you to do your job. We need you to ask questions. We need evidence. Demand evidence. Don't ever send us to war without evidence. You do us no service by hopping on bandwagons."
He added, "I know what the mood was like at the Oscars five days into the war. It was not easy to say we were led to war for fictitious reasons."
Dissent does not betray the troops, either, he said. "Of course you support the troops. The troops are those who come from the other side of the tracks. The troops are from the families who have been abused by Republican policies. You've always supported those guys.
"The way you don't support the troops is to send them into harm's way when it isn't necessary -- to send them to war to enrich corporations like Halliburton. That's anti-American. That's unpatriotic."
Moore noted that General Electric, which owns NBC, has $600 million worth of contracts in Iraq. "They are war profiteers. It doesn't surprise me that their news arm fails to tell the truth about the war."
Addressing the reporters, he said, "You have the cameras and the microphones and the ability to get into places of power. You can ask any question you want and not get arrested .... so what has prevented you from asking the questions?
"You've thrown down with the wrong people. You're not embedded, you're in bed with the wrong people."
He also disputed the idea that the right wing represents any sort of mainstream. "The right wing is not the American people. Every poll [says] Americans support progressive positions. A small minority of people hate. They're not patriots. They're hatriots and they believe in the politics of hatriotism."
He also doubts the country is evenly split. "This isn't a 50-50 country. The key words are 'likely voters.' The other 50% of the country doesn't vote and this is where they're in for a big surprise come Nov. 2.
"You can't compare this with any election before Sept. 11, 2001. It's cool now to talk about politics. It's uncool to be apathetic. Jon Stewart [of Comedy Central's Daily Show] is so popular because people want to talk about politics.
"Who are the 50% of people who don't vote? The people who are most hurt by the Bush administration -- people of color, women and the young. I think we're going to see a significant number of them leave the house on Nov. 2.
"People are angry. They want Bush out of the White House. They want to send their kids to college and they want to be able to go to the doctor. This isn't a 50-50 country."
He added, "My plea to the Democrats is that you'll not win this election by being weak-kneed and wimpy and not having the courage of your convictions. Push the progressive agenda that a majority of Americans already believe in. If you give up principles people believe in, you'll encourage millions to stay home."
Moore added that it was painful for him to watch Ralph Nader rely on Republicans to circulate petitions to put him on ballots. "The Democratic Party of 2004 is not the Democratic Party of 2000. They got the message. Even Al Gore of 2004 isn't the Al Gore of 2000." But he thinks the Democratic Party should not attack Nader. "We need to give the people who are thinking of voting for Ralph Nader a reason to vote for John Kerry."
Charles Cullen contributed to this report in Boston.