Politics & Policy

Among The Counter-Inaugurators

An evening with Americans for Democratic Action.

On a night when most conservatives in Washington found themselves dining on the red meat offered at various inaugural events, I spent my evening in a sea of blue cheese.

The Americans for Democratic Action counter-inaugural gala was held Thursday night in the Washington Court Hotel’s grand ballroom. It was the eighth in a series of such parties thrown by the organization that describes itself as “America’s oldest independent liberal political organization” since Jimmy Carter’s swearing in back in January 1977.

Tickets to the event began at $50, but with greater donations came greater recognition. In ascending order, donors could be recognized as “bushwhacked,” “proud liberal,” and “flaming liberal.”

The ADA claims 65,000 members and was founded in 1947 by Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, John Kenneth Galbraith, and other “liberal luminaries.” But the organization’s pamphlet first cites California Senator Barbara Boxer, who notes, “I believe the ADA understands what the people’s business is.”

The ADA’s current president is Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. As he took the stage to a round of applause from the 300 people in attendance, McDermott told the audience, “Political depression is not a message we have any time for. This is the beginning of the last term of Bush.” Halfway into a ten-minute lashing of the president’s inaugural address, McDermott sighed, “This is a little hard to understand for a moderate like me.” Then, in a moment of apparently unintended irony, McDermott jumbled a metaphor on Bush’s remaining time in office with a tally of core Democratic issues, declaring, “It’s all downhill from here.”

McDermott’s prescription for his party’s woes ended with what was for all intents and purposes an endorsement of Howard Dean for chairman of the Democratic party. Referring to Dean’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, McDermott observed, “We can do that. We can get control.”

Beyond McDermott’s logic, things did seem slightly off in the night’s festivities. Only hours earlier, the ballroom itself had been occupied by the Ohio Republican party.

The ADA crowd was an eclectic mix of individuals who, if not holding true to the tenets of multiculturalism, at least formed an odd bunch. There was the obligatory man slightly past middle age sporting a ponytail. There was a woman who came of age in the 1960s, with long hair braided in the style of Willie Nelson, wearing a t-shirt reading, “Hail to the Thief” and calling on Democrats to take back the Congress … in 2002. But in fairness, the majority in attendance appeared decidedly normal.

A row of tables outside the ballroom showcased an assortment of buttons, stickers, and literature highlighting previous Democratic electoral successes. As one reporter for a major national newspaper said to me, “There seem to be more buttons for sale celebrating old issues than there are people inside.” In fact, after surveying the crowd in its entirety, I could find only a single individual wearing a button that identified him as a supporter of John Kerry. Chris Masicchotte, who described his occupation simply as a Democrat, said of Kerry’s campaign, “Could have been worse.” When asked whether he wants Kerry to run again in 2008, he sighed and answered, “I just want the best Democrat to run next time.”

Amidst the tables an empty booth offered blue bracelets engraved with the web address www.bluestate2008.com. A sign on the table advertised that $1 from each sale goes to the ADA. When I asked business proprietor Derrick Ollinger whether the bracelets sell for $1, like the popular Lance Armstrong “Live Strong” rubber bands, he replied, “No. They are $4.” Much like the heart of Communist China, capitalism has found its way even into liberal Democratic galas. Ollinger offered me a free bracelet to share with my press colleagues as I returned to the action inside the ballroom.

Most partygoers with whom I spoke struck a tone of decided optimism about the next four years, and not just because they hoped their electoral prospects would improve in the coming cycle. When I asked Seth Schulman-Marcus, a 20-year-old student at the American University, to describe his mood, he said, “It’s not absolutely terrible. I’m sure certain issues can be ironed out with the Republicans.” A half dozen other students I surveyed shared two things in common with Schulman-Marcus: A surprising level of optimism for the next four years, and the fact that their attendance at the ADA fundraiser came after email urgings from professors.

To my delight, it didn’t take long to track down a French citizen. Nicolas Blun, who is on an extended visit to America, described the reaction of his countrymen to November’s election: “Certainly less close than four years ago. No one in France doubts the results this time. Of course, if the election were held in France, the results would have been 80 percent to 20 percent, Kerry over Bush.”

Immediately following McDermott’s speech there was one notable moment of excitement. Outside the hotel, the vice president’s motorcade was making its way down 1st and E Streets. Three young men dressed in urban-style clothing pumped their fists and cheered as Cheney’s limousine passed by. In a moment that caught us all by surprise, the vice president pressed his face close to the window and returned the friendly gesture.

Eric Pfeiffer is senior writer for the National Journal’s “Hotline.”

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