Liberals a sideshow in Denver

Democrats will honor Kennedy tonight, but move to center is clear


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DENVER -- "Progressive Central" is only a mile from the Pepsi Center, but for some of its inhabitants -- camped out yesterday afternoon in the basement of an old brick Presbyterian church -- this temporary headquarters for liberal activism feels much, much farther away than that.

Like Siberia, maybe.

The liberal -- at least the variant most commonly found in late-20th-Century America, the one who would regulate business, support broad racial, ethnic, sexual and religious tolerance and expand government programs, and, yes, taxes, to help the poor -- seems to be something of an endangered species here at the Democratic National Convention.

To be sure, that great liberal lion of the U.S. Senate, Edward M. Kennedy, will be honored at tonight's opening session in a video tribute directed by documentarian Ken Burns. The Massachusetts senator's niece, Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's daughter, will address the delegates and talk about her uncle, who is battling brain cancer.

It's possible that Mr. Kennedy himself will attend the ceremony, his son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., told The Associated Press yesterday. "If anything, it'd be an 11th-hour call," he said.

But over the next four nights, Democratic Party centrists rather than liberals will dominate the convention's prime-time speaking spots, with speeches from governors and senators from the mountain states of Colorado, Arizona and Montana. -- whose combined electoral votes are being targeted by the Obama campaign as a key to victory in November.

The convention's keynote speaker tomorrow night is Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor and current U.S. Senate candidate, an early supporter of the Iraq war who worked well with Republicans while governor and is not considered a liberal.

Perhaps even more tellingly, another speaker that night is U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, whose father, the Gov. Bob Casey -- a staunch abortion opponent -- was not even permitted to address the convention in 1992.

Then, of course, there's candidate himself.

Ever since securing the nomination in early June, Sen. Barack Obama has been running steadily toward the political center in an effort to win over disaffected Republican moderates and independents from swing states.

Liberals were dismayed when he announced his support for a wiretap compromise bill and the Supreme Court decision striking down the Washington, D.C., handgun ban, along with his backing of faith-based initiatives.

"I don't like it," said Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way, a liberal lobbying group founded in 1981. "I think it's better that the party appeal to its base, but I don't want to criticize Mr. Obama's campaign. This is just a snapshot in time. The real test will come when we see how he formulates policies in the White House."

If that's the case, then liberals don't have anything to worry about, argues Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University.

"Barack Obama is a liberal with respect to three core concerns," said Mr. Gitlin. "He's for phasing out our involvement in Iraq and not repeating the calamitous error of preventative war. He supports moving toward universal health care. And he's committed to investments in sustainable fuel and pulling back from oil dependency.

"Although," Mr. Gitlin added, "like any person in real politics, he'll do a lot of dealing."

40-year decline

Liberalism, like any ideology, has waxed and waned as a force in American political life over the years, but its most recent decline has been more than 40 years in the making, noted Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 split apart an already fractured coalition of New Deal liberals -- black and white Americans both -- a coalition forged in working class cities like Detroit but one that had struggled with unresolved issues of racial identity and politics over the years.

Today, that split between working class whites and blacks remains -- just look at the vote in Pennsylvania and other states full of conservative white Democrats, he said.

Liberalism, however, may not even be a factor in voter distrust of Mr. Obama, who is perceived less as a libereal than as an out-of-touch elitist who can't relate to the ordinary American voter, Mr. Sugrue said.

"So far you haven't been seeing the McCain campaign claiming he's a far-out radical leftist, but there's a potency to racial politics in this country that could determine the outcome in November," he said. "Just how it's going to play out depends on whether voters who distrust Obama because of his race are concentrated in a few places like Rust Belt states or scattered around the country."

Still, there are those in the liberal wing of the Democratic party who believe the black-white divide is closing. Karen Nussbaum, a one-time clerical worker who founded "Nine To Five," an organization seeking better conditions and pay for women office workers, notes that Democrats still embrace two key components of social liberalism: protecting individual rights and economic security for working class and poor Americans.

Five years ago, Ms. Nussbaum founded the AFL-CIO's "Working America" initiative, an organization of non-union workers who lobby Congress on economic and workplace issues. "Working America" has 2.5 million members -- 400,000 in Pennsylvania -- of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

"I don't know that labels are very illuminating, but I think the future of liberalism is based on white workers coming back to the progressive coalition and I think that's happening," said Ms. Nussbaum.

Ms. Kolbert, of People for the American Way, also proudly touts her group's "Young People For..." a program that trains about 200 activists on college campuses each year to work for progressive causes.

Still, even as Democrats have captured gubernatorial and Senate offices in Virginia and in Western states like Colorado, Montana and elsewhere, "you could argue that a shift to Democrats doesn't mean a shift to liberalism," said Dan Myers, a longtime political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer who is now a host and producer at National Public Radio's Denver station, KCFR.

Although Colorado is a strong pro-women's rights state -- it was one of the first to give women the vote -- Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Sen. Ken Salazar are pro-life, he said, and the state's fast-growing Hispanic vote, while Democratic, is culturally conservative.

"Is the Democratic party shifting from being the party of Ted Kennedy to Jim Webb, from liberal lions like Sen. Carl Levin to moderates like Evan Bayh of Indiana?" asked Mr. Sugrue. "In some ways, that's the contest that's going to play out this year and in the next few years.

"The John Testers of Montana, the Mark Warners of Virginia, these are the folks we used to call 'Blue Dog Democrats,' the ones from the right wing of the Democratic party. Today, some might argue they're the future of it."

Perhaps, but as Democrats gather to nominate Mr. Obama this week, Ms. Kolbert said she nonetheless will remember one very important truth.

"I'm proud to be a liberal. I've always been very clear about that, and so have our members. But no president in a nation as divided as this one is always going to do everything we want him to do. Every president has to chart a middle course and I will give the next president, whoever he is, plenty of time to do his work. There are some very big things that need fixing, and a lot of issues that people need to pay close attention to without getting caught up in what labels mean."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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