06/02/2005 01:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The GOP is Sinking... So Why Can't Dems Gain Ground?

Here I am at the 2005 Take Back America conference in Washington. I haven’t seen this many committed progressives in one place since Pete Seeger and the Weavers disbanded.

At the opening dinner last night, Richard Parker, in presenting an award to John Kenneth Galbraith, read from a letter Galbraith had written to JFK in 1961: “The right,” he wrote, “will always criticize reasonableness as softness...When they speak of total victory they invite total annihilation. They aren’t brave but suicidal. There is a curious superficial pugnacity about the American people which, I am persuaded, does not go very deep. They applaud the noisy man but they reconsider if they think him dangerous. We must make it clear that these men are dangerous.” The quote touched a raw nerve with the over 1,000 people in the Washington Hilton ballroom -- not because of what it said about the past but what it says about today.

What a difference a year makes...A year ago, in the same room, everyone was focused on one goal and one goal only: get Bush out of office. Now the fear and loathing of the Bush administration is matched by the anger and frustration at the Democratic leadership’s failure to take on today’s noisy, dangerous men. And to define what the party stands for beyond opposing privatizing Social Security and Bill Frist’s nuclear option.

Adding fuel to the frustration is a new poll done by the Campaign for America’s Future, the conference’s sponsor. According to the poll, a majority of Americans are turning against the signature policies of the GOP, with 57 percent saying that the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost in lives and dollars, and 62 percent saying that Bush’s economic policies are not good for the average American.

So why aren’t Democrats preparing their victory speeches for 2006? Here’s the rub: while voters are rejecting the rightward lurch of the GOP, they are failing to see the current Democratic Party as a desirable alternative. As Bob Borosage, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future puts it: “While Republicans are sinking, Democrats are not gaining much ground.”

Indeed, now that Deep Throat has been unmasked, the greatest unsolved mystery in Washington is: what does the Democratic Party stand for?

So here are the issues progressives at this conference have to decide: how far do they go in trying to remake the Democratic Party? Do they take off the gloves and, for instance, take on Nancy Pelosi for failing to vote for the resolution demanding the White House come up with an Iraq exit plan? Do they slam rising star Barak Obama for siding with Bush on so-called tort reform? Can they walk and chew gum at the same time -- aggressively taking on Bolton and DeLay while at the same time offering a clear alternative moral vision that will capture the hearts and minds of the American people?

So far, it doesn’t seem like it, does it? Fighting purely rearguard battles is hardly progressive. Standing their ground and resisting the GOP is definitely not enough for the progressives gathered here from around the country. Stay tuned...