WASHINGTON -- They cheered wildly when Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich promised his first act as president would be to cancel free trade agreements. They listened intently as panelists vowed to fight to allow felons to vote. And they are still miffed that the U.S. went into Iraq.
But don't call them liberals.
They like to be known as progressives, and 1,500 of them met for three days last week in Washington to hear from 2004 presidential candidates, plot strategy and let the nation know they're as passionate as ever.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., trying to position himself as the moderate in the race, did not attend, one of two candidates who stayed away. His campaign cited scheduling conflicts; some in the crowd sensed a snub.
"It was a mistake not being here. There are activists here from all over the country and if you're running, you need to hear their voices," said Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, which organized the conference.
Veteran strategist Paul Begala, who advised Bill Clinton on his White House efforts, recalled how Clinton would routinely appear before labor groups even though he opposed them on free trade and made news when he criticized singer Sister Souljah and annoyed many black voters.
"It's always good to talk to everybody," Begala said.
Lieberman was in Detroit and Connecticut during the conference's first two days, and did not work Friday because of the Jewish holiday Shavuot. Spokesman Jano Cabrera said "nothing should be read into" the senator's absence.
The other candidates got routinely good reviews. Though getting liberals organized is like "herding cats," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the cats may be ready for mobilization this year.
"The Bush administration is really scaring us," explained Eleanor LeCain, a Washington consultant. "The president campaigned as a moderate, but he's doing the kinds of things that a right-wing ideologue would do."
He not only talked about a war with Iraq, he did it. He didn't just propose huge tax cuts, he signed them into law. He didn't just think about having his attorney general detain potential terrorists indefinitely, he did it.
That's one reason this conference, usually a blip on the Washington media and political screen, attracted three times as many participants this year as in 2002. And it's why, despite a bevy of causes ranging from voting rights to civil rights to gay rights to tax cuts and universal health care, the only venom here was directed at Republicans.
The liberals know they have a tricky problem. "The word liberal became associated with social liberalism," said Borosage, meaning permissiveness. That's hurt the left's image because, "the country has been moving toward the right," said Susan Tolchin, professor of public policy at George Mason University.
At the same time, liberals remain a significant force in the Democratic Party. "If anything, their influence has grown," said Rich Killion, director of the Fitzwater Center for Communication at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire.
As more moderates moved into the GOP, liberals have been able to boost candidates who promoted their views: Bill Bradley in 1996, Jerry Brown in 1992, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and so on. They don't win the nomination, but they often force the eventual nominee to do enough to keep the liberals in the fold.
Lieberman understands that. Before the South Carolina debate, his staff handed out a briefing paper that touted his ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action - a rating that is not only high on the liberal scale, but is comparable to that of his presidential rivals. He also plans to participate in the June 22 Chicago forum that Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition is hosting.
But Lieberman is also closely identified with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, which he led as chairman for five years, and is a group not warmly received by this crowd.
As the conference began last week, the DLC wrote an "open letter" to attendees. Among its contents: that the way to win next year was to "energize the Democratic base while expanding it to include political independents and even some moderate Republicans."
That was hardly the message this bunch wanted to hear, and sure enough, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean brought the audience to its feet by telling them, "Those folks at the DLC are wrong. The way to get elected in this country is not to be like a Republican, but to stand up against them and fight."
If there's an issue that separates liberals from moderates, it's the war with Iraq. Lieberman and some of the other Democrats voted to give Bush broad authority to conduct the war; Dean and Kucinich, the Ohio congressman, won't let them forget it.
"Mr. President," Dean asked an approving crowd, "where are the weapons you told us about?"
Kucinich went further. "This war was wrong, this war was fraudulent," he said. The Pentagon budget is much too big - "they want us to plan for World War III," he said of Bush.
On other key issues, though, the liberals don't sound much different from the moderates.
There are disagreements on how far free trade should go - many union members here were passionate about their feelings that the borders are too open - but that dispute is now more than three elections old, and Democrats have shown they can come together for the good of a candidate no matter what his views.
There is anger over the Bush tax cuts, which people see as not only tilted toward the wealthy, but crafted to starve their favorite government programs.
"There was a time not so long ago in government when if you thought of (a program) you could do it," lamented Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards put it more starkly: "They value wealth," he said of Republicans. "We value the work that creates it."
Liberals and moderates are also united on civil rights, and a fear that conservative judges will tear apart gains of the last 50 years. They shudder at the prospect of Bush Supreme Court choices.
"We've been preparing a long time for this," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, "and we are going to block any right-wing nominee."
But unless they win the White House, or control at least one House of Congress, they will be ill-prepared to do much of anything except complain.
That's why, said former Connecticut Secretary of the State Miles Rapoport, now president of Demos, a New York-based policy and advocacy firm, "progressives will go for a candidate who can project a strong attitude against conservative excesses - and can win."
Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant