LAST SUNDAY, June 24, I went behind enemy lines and sat through ten hours of speeches at the "Wake Up Democrats! Take Back the Country" conference in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Southern California chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action. As one Democratic Party luminary after another preached to an audience of several hundred left-wing activists, I learned a great deal about the Left's frightening "progressive agenda." Make no mistake about it. If the big government "liberals" succeed in implementing their ideas, they will radically transform this country and profoundly change all our lives.
Keynoter House Minority leader Dick Gephardt expounded on Democratic Party and conference themes. He attacked the Bush tax cut as “a horrible mistake for the future of this country,” and accused Republicans of “blowing the fiscal responsibility which [the Democrats and President Clinton] stood for.” Gephardt advocated “health care for everybody” and campaign finance reform to end the influence of soft money. He thanked his parents as “the most important force in my life” and then pushed for a greater involvement for government in the raising of children by endorsing universal preschool. He said that the federal role in education must grow “dramatically.” And he excoriated President Bush’s national missile defense proposal as “an idea that’s only favored by those who will build it and make money off of it.”
The crowd cheered Gephardt enthusiastically, except when he did not respond directly to a questioner who supported ending the embargo on trade with Cuba. The veteran legislator explained his vote against allowing China into the WTO and expressed concern for “the thousands of recent Chinese executions and mistreatment of people.” “It may not be quite as bad in Cuba,” he continued, “but we must take a strong moral stand against this kind of thing.” The room erupted in hisses and boos.
A mix of Washington and Hollywood took over for the rest of the day. Film maker Rob Reiner, who led the successful California ballot fight in 1998 for a hike in tobacco taxes in order to fund government programs for children, also denounced the Bush tax cut. He complained, “The money has been taken off the table” and is therefore unavailable for funding new social programs. He lamented that last November “almost half [of Americans] voted against their own best interests.” He spoke up passionately for government “serving people and making sure people get what they need.”
Rep. Henry Waxman of West Los Angeles declared, “We must guarantee everyone access to health care, universal coverage.” “Let’s expand MediCal, let’s expand Healthy Families [health insurance for low-income earners],” said Waxman. “The biggest thing we have to reject from the right wing is that, ‘You are on your own.’” He continued, “We belong to a community where we want to take care of everyone.” Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich advised the Democrats that they could regain power by promising health care, child care, education, and “no more tax cuts” to the half of the adult population who regularly fail to vote.
Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois, brought down the house with a vociferous condemnation of federalism. He said that the nation’s greatest problem is “a separate and unequal system” of “50 separate and unequal states and 3,067 separate and unequal counties [that] must be rooted out root and branch.” “The enemy here is the Tenth Amendment, the unenumerated rights” which permits inequalities to exist. Jackson said the only solution is a much stronger central government for “one America,” and he proposed a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American “a right to health care of equal high quality [and] a public education of equal high quality.” Such an amendment would allow each person to sue in Federal court in order to secure that health care and education. He shouted, “We ought to have a Constitutional right to fairness!” so that no one will have an advantage in life by virtue of the circumstances of his birth.
Robert Borosage, Co-Director of the Campaign for America’s Future, accused President Bush of being a latter-day William McKinley and attempting to create an alliance of the robber barons against the people with his policy of “tax cuts for the wealthy,” “arsenic in the water,” and “salmonella in the food.” He suggested that liberal Democrats should take a page from the Gingrich effort in the early ‘90s. “They went on the attack against Clinton with everything they had.”
Ex-prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi served more red meat when he bashed the U.S. Supreme Court conservative majority’s legal reasoning in Bush v. Gore, and charged that they “belong behind bars” for having committed “one of the biggest and most serious crimes in American history when they stopped the recount in Florida.” Bugliosi began to raise the possibility of impeachment proceedings against what he called “the felonious five” but could not finish his sentence before the room descended into pandemonium.
Southern California ADA President Lila Garrett concluded the morning session by introducing Warren Beatty as producer of “the greatest political film ever made, Reds.” Beatty touted his support for campaign finance reform, calling it “the transcendent issue of American democracy in our time.” He also urged those on the left to put aside factionalism in order to write a simple “one-page Democratic Contract with America” that would be “short enough to accommodate the attention span of the channel surfer.”
While the attendees were digesting their boxed gourmet lunches, Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles stepped forth with a predictably impassioned address. She ran through the standard litany of Republican sins as she challenged the crowd, “If George W. Bush does not wake us up, we are literally dead!” Waters enumerated alleged voting irregularities throughout the country, particularly citing Philadelphia, Chicago, and Palm Beach, all of which, as she assuredly did not mention, are controlled by the Democratic Party, and she spoke with indignation over the laws in some states that bar ex-felons from voting. Lastly, she lashed out at the influence of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
A panel on the power crisis generated lots of heat with speakers who detailed supposed gouging and unfair business practices by the energy companies and private utilities. Former Green Party Senate candidate Medea Benjamin said that George W. Bush is “marinated in oil.” “We want public power in the State of California,” she insisted. S. David Freeman, adviser to Governor Gray Davis, said, “Deregulation is a bad idea [and] the common good requires governmental action.” In a separate speech, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio advanced the idea of a Constitutional amendment barring anyone from operating an electric power system for profit.
A warmly received former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa celebrated his near victory in the recent LA mayoral race in which his labor-Latino alliance came within a few points of achieving a majority. Villaraigosa reminded his listeners that he won 57 percent of the under-45 voters -- so that it is only a matter of time before that coalition takes control of the city. He expressed pride that he fared as well as he did despite pounding criticism of his liberal record. Only later in the program was a complaint heard from an audience member that Villaraigosa’s defense of the LA Unified School District and his opposition to vouchers were undercut by an inadequately explained choice to send his own children to Catholic schools.
During this ten-hour marathon of political discourse many legitimate national issues were raised, and in the late afternoon review of neighborhood questions there was some creative talk of citizen action and local empowerment. The rub came with the nature of the solutions that the so-called progressives typically had to offer. Their cures for the country’s ills almost invariably translated into a massive and unrelenting increase in governmental, particularly federal, power, control, and expenditure. And their rhetoric was routinely laced with an angry and fierce demonizing of business.
Incredibly, there was absolutely nothing said throughout the very long day about encouraging private enterprise, nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit, or respecting the dwindling portion of the population that actually pays any significant amount of taxes and supplies the government’s revenue. Indeed, the word “taxpayer” was not uttered even once (as far as this reporter noticed) amidst interminable speechifying about how taxpayers’ money should be spent.
There was also no acknowledgement of the value of personal responsibility or individual self-reliance while, to the contrary, citizens were caricatured as mere victims to be rescued by the state from the dreaded forces of the free market. National security needs and military threats from overseas were ignored or ridiculed. Finally, there was no mention of the breakdown of the family and the increase in single parenthood as representing any kind of problem.
Conservatives and libertarians who object to the policies offered by the self-styled progressives are confronted with a serious challenge. That challenge is to set forth an appealing alternative philosophy and accompanying agenda that can win and sustain the allegiance of a majority of the American electorate. If that is not done, then a growing left-wing political movement that promises “free” everything to the voters may well come to power.