The 1980 election that brought Ronald Reagan to power also swept out a bloc of liberal champions -- George McGovern, Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Warren Magnuson, Gaylord Nelson, Jacob Javits -- who had spent a generation or more advancing progressive causes. The washout swept the ground from under the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, planting the seed that would grow into the idea that Democrats' path to power lies through the center. A generation of New Democratic centrism would follow, personified by Birch's son, Evan, who took the lesson to heart and ran far from his father's liberal legacy when he entered politics.
In 2010, a handful of House Democrats have an opportunity to prove that maxim wrong and to demonstrate that even in a tough year, by standing up for core progressive values, a Democrat can win a tough race.
Tom Perriello in Virginia, Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire, Alan Grayson in Florida, Mary Jo Kilroy in Ohio and John Hall in New York all represent swing districts and have cast votes that Washington consultants label "tough." Those tough votes, though, are paying off in unexpected ways: By bucking the conventional wisdom, the progressive Democrats have locked down support among their base and are winning over independents, while Blue Dogs face a dispirited electorate unsure what they stand for.
Having solid progressives in Congress does far more than give the party an extra vote. The effect they have on other members is hard to quantify but can have real results. Without Grayson, for instance, it's virtually certain that Congress wouldn't have approved a broad audit of the Federal Reserve -- over the objections of the administration.
If Grayson and other progressives are defeated in November, it sends a signal that standing up for progressive values is at best politically useless and at worst costs a politician at the polls. But if progressives survive, while Blue Dogs are wiped out, the opposite message will be sent: The path to victory requires standing for something.
Progressive groups have seized on the symbolic importance of these races. "As progressives, it's our job to show political incentive and genuine support for the folks who have not just led on the issues that matter to most Americans, but who have stood up to the corporate elites and their lobbyists who all too often run the show in Washington," said Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn.org, which is raising money to support Democrats it calls "progressive heroes." "If we don't, we'll lose more than just some races; we'll lose the core principle that democracy works best when elected representatives respond to the needs of their constituents and that organizing power can actually restore some balance to our corporate-tilted government."
MoveOn's effort to raise money for its progressive heroes pulled in pledges of a million dollars and 100,000 hours of volunteer time over a single day this week. Democracy for America, a progressive group whose roots stretch back to the Dean campaign, allowed million-plus members to vote on which candidates deserve the honor of full DFA support: Grayson and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California won.
"There's no 'enthusiasm gap' for Democrats who stand up and lead," said Jim Dean, chair of DFA. "That's why Alan Grayson and Barbara Boxer earned DFA's support. These Democrats don't back down when pressured by corporate lobbyists or attacked by Tea Party Republicans."
Darcy Burner, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, said that "the backlash this year hasn't been against incumbents, and it hasn't been against Democrats: it's been against corporate sell-outs. Voters want representatives with actual values... But too many people in DC haven't gotten the message -- so we need to send it again."
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, whose acronym PCCC sets it up as a liberal version of the DCCC, is raising money and providing infrastructure for progressive candidates. The PCCC and its lobbying arm the P Street Project work closely with progressive House members, using its donor base to encourage other Democrats in Congress to move in a progressive direction.
"The pundits will try to say that Democrats lost this year because they fought too hard for progressive policies, but the truth is Democrats focused too much on bipartisanship and were willing to water down reform so much that Obama voters aren't enthused to vote. That point will be proven if corporate-backed Blue Dogs lose but progressives can keep champions from swing districts like Alan Grayson in Congress," said Adam Green, a PCCC cofounder.
The GOP sees the symbolism, too. "When someone is seen as a progressive hero, it certainly makes victory especially sweet for conservatives," said Andy Sere, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
The labor movement is sending a clear message this election cycle to the lawmakers who have fought for its priorities -- and those who have abandoned them. The AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and SEIU are all mobilizing their members on behalf of progressive candidates, through direct mail, worksite targeting, and ads. "We think it's very important to stand up for who your friends are, which is the corollary with us holding people accountable," said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. "So the same way that Blanche Lincoln sold out working families, and we would not support her. The flip side of that is that, if you're a progressive who stands up on the issues that are important to working families, we're going to go all out and make sure you're getting our support. Because you were there for us, we're going to be there for you."
The Republican approach to knocking out progressives is to make the case that they march in lockstep with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Knocking off partisans like Kilroy and Shea-Porter remains a top priority not only because they are puppets for a Democratic leadership taking our country sharply left, but also because they represent areas that strongly oppose this reckless agenda. They don't realize that they aren't representing San Francisco, even though their voting records would suggest that, and that's why they're in trouble this fall," said NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola.
But dubbing them puppets misses the fact that progressives are often a thorn in the leadership's side. They they have been far more independent than a standard Democrat, often pushing a more progressive agenda than the president. Perriello, for instance, voted against Wall Street reform, not because he's in the pockets of the bankers but because he argued it wasn't tough enough.
"To me, part of the reason not to play into the media's sense of right versus left is that it's just full of crap," said Perriello. "The real position in this country is really not even Republican versus Democratic, but corporate-backed politics versus people-backed politics. And to me, I'd much rather be trying to solve problems standing with the people than being just another person who's just playing along for the power... I think what you're seeing in the Democratic caucus is the push back against the Summers-Geithner consensus and say, 'You know what? This whole idea of everything being about Wall Street is missing significant parts of the economy."
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