WASHINGTON – With "Reclaiming America" their rallying cry, liberals gathered in Washington Thursday to plot an election-year strategy to boost their political impact.
The House Democratic leader headed the charge, blasting President Bush and the Republican Party for treating left-wing politicians as irrelevant.
"There is no collaboration, no communication, no inclusiveness, no 'let's work together, let's solve the problems together.' It's 'we know the truth, you don't know anything, get in the back of the bus and we'll drive the bus', I guess right over the cliff," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said.
Gephardt did not mention that he had just had breakfast with the president two hours before.
He and two other Democrats eyeing a presidential bid in two years attended the event, put on by the Campaign for America's Future, a left-leaning group that says Democrats should not be intimidated by Bush's wartime popularity, hovering near 80 percent approval ratings.
They recommend bashing the GOP as the party of greedy corporate special interests, and once again tried to pin the collapse of energy giant Enron Corp. on Bush administration coddling.
"We cannot allow the conflict abroad to give Enron conservatives a free pass at home," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.
Howard Dean, a relative unknown in the Democrats' White House race, also spoke. The longest currently serving governor in the country, from the heavily Democratic state of Vermont, he also blasted various GOP policies.
But in his opening remarks, he underscored why liberals are having problems within their own party after eight years of centrism under Bill Clinton.
Stunning the room to silence for a moment, Dean evoked words that have narrowly divided the political parties over the last decade.
"I'm a fiscal conservative," he said.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel edits The Nation, a magazine of record for liberal doctrine, and said what many in the audience wanted to hear.
"The Bush-Cheney administration marks a radical overthrow of traditional American values and policies. It will shamelessly exploit the tragedy of last Sept. 11 to block debate. These people are extremists. They have no self-restraint and almost no respect for truth in public debate. They will do anything to increase their power and say anything about those who disagree with them, including branding them as traitors. They are bullies," she said.
Some moderate Democrats worry such rhetoric will backfire. But the left remains important to the party and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the third White House contender to speak, assured liberals who are worried about being muzzled that he stands with them.
"What I would say to all of your friends and neighbors who are concerned that our voice is not being heard: Our voice does need to be heard. They are right," he said.