Making no secret of his disdain for Tea Party ideals and ideas, ex-White House adviser Van Jones on Monday nonetheless urged liberal activists to "steal" the Tea Party's playbook.
The former "green jobs" adviser, speaking at the top of a three-day conference in the nation's capital designed to galvanize liberal activists, spoke interchangeably in harsh and glowing terms about the Tea Party movement. He described their cause as "the worst" and "silly" and other unflattering adjectives. At the same time, he said progressives can learn from what the Tea Party has accomplished, as he tried to steer the crowd toward his own umbrella group which he's been working on since the summer.
Using the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps tone President Obama has employed in recent days, Jones pointed to the Tea Party movement as an example of grassroots activism done right. He suggested liberals have relied too much on one person, Obama, to fix everything.
Only instead of taking to the streets in the name of lower taxes and less regulation, he urged the crowd to model its own Tea Party-style movement in the name of the middle class.
"If we can just be as warm and sharing and kind as the Tea Party, which one might suspect is a relatively low bar, we might be able to do something for our country," Jones said Monday.
Obama has stirred controversy in recent days by urging the base to quit complaining, take off their "bedroom slippers" and march with him. Jones used similar language, as the three-day Take Back the American Dream Conference got underway.
"We went from hopey to mopey and forgot to build a movement in the middle," Jones said.
He credited the Tea Party with building a "network" that operates without any individual leader. "There is no Tea Party. You can't land at the airport here in D.C., and get in the cab and say 'take me to Tea Party headquarters'," he said.
Jones described the movement as an "upgrade" over what progressives had done.
"They use their charismatic leaders to build something bigger than any leader," he said. "They talk rugged individualism, but they act collectively."
By contrast, he said, "we talk collectively ... but we have enacted the most individualistic strategy in the republic."
Jones, at several points in the speech, referred to the emergence of a new "movement."
He claimed the so-called American Dream Movement, which he launched over the summer, has attracted more interest from supporters than the Tea Party did in 2009. He and other progressive groups are trying to rally that sentiment into something more cohesive at the spirit-building conference in Washington.
But it also coincided with the more raucous anti-corporate protests on Wall Street and in cities across the country. The speakers with the Take Back the American Dream Conference tried to show some solidarity with those protesters -- Jones applauded them for going to the "scene of the crime."
The message of those protesters, though, is not quite as cohesive as the message in Washington. Some of the protesters in New York, while organizing under the banner of combating corporate greed, talk about demolishing the capitalist system altogether.
Tea Party Express strategist Sal Russo described the various demonstrations as unfounded.
"The direction of the county has been decidedly to the left," he said. "The policies have been so far left they don't have anything to be unhappy about."
But with unemployment topping 9 percent, Jones urged activists to focus on unemployment and standing up for those unable to find work. While protesters are calling for the abolition of capitalism on Wall Street, Jones urged activists to organize under a message that is both "positive" and "portable."
"You can't just have a principle that'll work in Berkeley," he said, adding that it has to resonate in "red states."
The conference is being co-sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future. The opening day of the conference featured several prominent speakers, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. Jones' group plans to take the event a step further Wednesday, organizing a "rally for jobs not cuts" outside the U.S. Capitol.
Jones is the former "green jobs" adviser for Obama. He resigned following controversy over some of his public comments and his signing on a years-old petition from a group that suggests the U.S. government was complicit in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Jones disavowed the so-called Sept. 11 "truth" group when the petition came out.
Jones referenced the incident on stage Monday in Washington.
"You can get knocked down, that happens in politics. Ask me how I know," Jones said, as the crowd chuckled.