Politics & Policy

The Left Hates Bush, Kinda Likes Kerry

Dems just can't get excited about their man.

Joan Blades received a standing ovation, which is not at all unusual these days when she appears before “progressive” activist groups around the country. A thin, cerebral-looking woman with glasses and a 60’s-ish hairstyle, Blades is the co-founder of MoveOn.org, the Internet-based group that is raising and spending millions of dollars to defeat President George W. Bush.

This time, appearing June 3 before a gathering organized by the liberal organizing group Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, Blades wanted to say something she’d been thinking about for quite a while. She told the audience her talk had been titled, “We Can Win,” but that she had begun to think “that’s a little behind the time.”

“At a conference in March here in D.C.,” Blades said, “one of the attendees asked me, ‘Why aren’t we talking about a landslide in November?’ And I decided okay, well, maybe I should say it out loud…And now, finally, everybody’s saying, yeah, we’re going to win by a landslide.” After projecting a huge image on the wall which read, “Right Wing Extremism has reached a Dead End,” Blades concluded, “I’m voting for a landslide.”

Blades wasn’t the only person uttering the L-word at the Campaign for America’s Future event, which was titled, “Take Back America.” “This year, we need to mobilize for a landslide,” said Roger Hickey, the co-chairman of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Landslide votes are so important,” said Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP. “If we actually appeal to people’s hopes, we could get [Bush] back to Crawford, not in a squeaker but a landslide,” said anti-Bush gadfly Arianna Huffington.

Not everyone was buying into it–Robert Borosage, the Campaign’s other co-founder, looked uncomfortable when asked about all the big-win talk and said no, he does not really anticipate a landslide. But the sense of excitement was everywhere at the Campaign’s three-day conference. It was clear that the activists of the left believe they have the Bush administration on the run.

But for all the excitement about the victory they anticipate, the participants couldn’t muster very much excitement for the candidate who is supposed to make it happen. At event after event, speakers were just as likely to say something lukewarm or even critical of Sen. John Kerry as they were to praise him.

At a forum on the Iraq war, for example, there was obvious unhappiness with Kerry’s positions. In particular, the overwhelmingly anti-war participants didn’t like his plan to strengthen the U.S. presence in Iraq. “I hope he gets over this notion of sending more troops,” said peace activist David Cortright. “I think that is a disaster. We need to abandon any notion of sending any more troops.”

In fact, one of the few good things said about Kerry came from former CIA official Melvin Goodman–and he was talking about the John Kerry of 1971, not today. Back then, Goodman said, Kerry realized the real issues at stake when he opposed the war in Vietnam. “Kerry’s got to go back to his speeches, the thoughts he had as a young man,” Goodman said. “He’s gotten far too conservative, far too conventional.”

Elsewhere, throughout the conference, left-wing activists expressed their regrets that Kerry is not more “progressive.” And to make matters worse, their misgivings about Kerry stood in vivid contrast to the wildly enthusiastic reception they gave to their true love, former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

When Dean showed up at the conference to accept its “Tom Paine Common Sense Award,” the delegates reacted much as they did years ago at Bruce Springsteen concerts. People screamed. They stood up on their chairs. There was huge applause. It was sheer worship.

Dean gave them the old-time anti-Bush red meat, and then manfully tried to convince them that Kerry is the best man to be the Democratic candidate. “I understand there are some policy differences between some of you and Senator Kerry,” Dean said. But, he asked, who would you rather have in charge of the American military? The environment? Who is going to do the most for working people?

“I’m going to do everything I can to get John Kerry elected president of the United States,” Dean said. But as Dean spoke, with every face shining on him, Kerry himself could have walked into the room without attracting much notice.

Dean’s former campaign manager Joe Trippi, who was in the audience, denied that the tumultuous applause for Dean was a poor reflection on Kerry. “No, they’re just different folks,” Trippi said of the two candidates. But Trippi, a political professional, could muster the kind of realistic acceptance of Kerry’s candidacy that some in the crowd appeared to resist. “Kerry won,” Trippi said. He’s the nominee.”

The lack of enthusiasm for Kerry, as well as the talk about a landslide victory, did not receive extensive attention in the press. It might be tempting to suggest that that was because they were overshadowed by the remarks of Democratic patron George Soros, who in a speech to the group seemed to equate the abuse scandal in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison with the September 11 terrorist attacks (“I think that those pictures [of Abu Ghraib] hit us the same way as the terrorist attack itself,” Soros said, “not quite with the same force, because in the terrorist attack, we were the victims. In the pictures, we were the perpetrators and others were the victims. But there is, I’m afraid, a direct connection between those two events, because the way President Bush conducted the war on terror converted us from victims into perpetrators.”) But Soros’s remarks also received little attention in biggest media outlets–for example, they have not yet been reported in either the Washington Post or the New York Times, or the broadcast news programs. Whatever the reason, it seemed, some of the biggest stories of the conference failed to attract much notice.

By the end of the “Take Back America” conference, the people in the crowd told themselves that they must work hard for John Kerry, even though they did not seem terribly enthusiastic about the task. At times, it was hard to reconcile their lack of ardor for Kerry with their apparently unshakeable belief that he will win in a landslide. But that is what they appear to feel.

And maybe it will happen. Certainly the polls say George W. Bush is in trouble. But when the people who should be most committed to a candidacy have so many doubts about their man, it’s not the best news for John Kerry.

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