STEVENS POINT - The annual Portage County Democratic Party picnic was held here the weekend before Republicans gathered in New York to swing cudgels at John Kerry.
If nothing else, the Kerry bashing should serve as a wakeup call - as if one were needed - to progressives everywhere in America. Let no one ask the question: Are you tough enough?
There are promising signs. Observers who take the time to notice nuance can see it. Things are different this year. The Democratic Party picnic here is a long-standing tradition. It is held in a beautiful park along the Wisconsin River, but in many previous years, it has often been a moribund affair, a tired anachronism in a fast-forward world.
It is time for Democrats to go back to their roots and not run away from being liberal any longer. It is time for elected Democrats to stop being 'me-too' Republicans.
This year, the historic park lodge was nearly full of people, young and old, the young most notable by their presence. In many ways, the gauntlet has been passed. Three of the four central Wisconsin legislators on hand - state Sen. Julie Lassa and Reps. Louis Molepske and Amy Sue Vruwink - are all youthful local products with energy and smarts. But it took an old war horse to ignite the crowd. It was Marlin Schneider, easily twice the age of the other Democrats, who delivered a rousing call to action and a history lesson.
One could easily imagine Schneider speaking from the back of a railroad caboose, early in the last century, when progressives were demanding change in Wisconsin and across the country. Schneider, of Wisconsin Rapids, has been in the state Assembly longer than anyone and has been followed by his share of controversy and conflict.Let it never be said that Marlin will shy away from a fight. This is the guy nicknamed "Snarlin' Marlin." He was sure in a fighting mood when he stood before the central Wisconsin crowd, his voice echoing off the walls of the lodge as he proclaimed, "How dare these arm-chair soldiers of the Bush administration attack John Kerry's heroism in Vietnam."
Recalling the pain of that era and Kerry's later opposition to the war, he added, "If John Kerry betrayed the veterans of Vietnam, then so did Gaylord Nelson, Frank Church, Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and numerous other political leaders of the day who called for an end to an unwinnable war."
Then he issued a challenge to the crowd, which at first sat in silence, later to interrupt him several times with sustained applause. "It is time for Democrats to go back to their roots and not run away from being liberal any longer. It is time for elected Democrats to stop being 'me-too' Republicans.
"I want to remind you," he said, "that it was Democrats who gave us Social Security and Medicare. It was liberals and labor unions who gave us the eight-hour day, five-day week, employer-paid health care, improvements in worker's compensation and unemployment insurance. It was liberals and Democrats who provided auto safety, drug safety, consumer protection, Earth Day and clean air and water, and it was Democrats who gave veterans the first mortgage home loan program and increases in student grants and loans in our universities."
He continued the challenge: "For heaven's sake, what are we so afraid of? Whenever one of these loud-mouthed right-wingers starts bad-mouthing these programs that they all benefit from, Democrats run for cover. Well, enough is enough. It is time to stand and fight. It is time to take back our government. ... It is time to take back America and stand up for what we believe: that government exists to help the poor, the disabled, the ill, and children. That government needs to protect the rights of women and scientific research and consumers from unscrupulous business practices. It is time to tell bankers and Wall Street brokers and energy company executives that their excesses are more than we can stand, and we won't put up with it anymore. It is time to take back the soul of America."
By the time Schneider finished, the room was crackling with energy, and the old warrior headed for the exit.
Sometimes people rise to the occasion at just the right time. Marlin Schneider has done that. If the Democrats were smart, they'd put him at events like this all over the state in the coming weeks. It may be time to take back the soul of America, but it's going to take some muscle to do it.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semi-monthly column for The Capital Times. E-mail: email@example.com.
Copyright 2004 The Capital Times