WASHINGTON, D.C.- The Washington, D.C., Hilton hotel on Connecticut Avenue has had a rollercoaster history. In 1981, John Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan just outside it. In 2004, President Bush held his inauguration ball on the concourse. And last week the Campaign for America's Future's annual Take Back America conference, now a major event on the political left, overflowed from the hotel convention facilities.
The three-day event for 2006 was enormous-and an enormous rollercoaster ride for liberals of every kind. The conference occupied the concourse and terrace levels of the ritzy hotel, filling its largest ballrooms and exhibition hall and spilling over into the outdoor gazebo. Many among the several thousand attendees seemed excited by the idea that the political defeats of past years were over: in the organizers' words, that "the conservative revolution is at a tipping point" and "losing steam."
The ride began with opening remarks on Monday, June 12, by Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, who described how "groundwork has been laid for a progressive era to rise out of the conservative rubble." Progressives, it seemed, were climbing to the top.
But the rollercoaster dipped as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, the left's weekly staple, followed Mr. Borosage by complaining that Democrats are out of ideas and out of touch, to the point of engaging in "complicit conservatism." She admonished party loyalists, "This is a time for conviction, not caution." Ms. vanden Heuvel's comments were the official admission of a widening intra-conference rift, one exacerbated by the looming arrival of leading Democratic politicians.
The tension was evident at the 12:30 luncheon when attendees gathered to eat Caesar salad and listen to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Mormon who has at times opposed abortion. The choice excited few-it was yet another wedge shoved between centrists and numerous left-leaners-and the infighting about his selection discouraged many. The clanking of polished silverware all but drowned out the senator.
After Mr. Reid came an equally unlikely mixture of suave Robert Redford, AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney, National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schweiger, and two-time presidential candidate Gary Hart. This was but a sampling of the Who's Who on the Left at the conference: Blogger-journalist Arianna Huffington emceed the gala dinner, Sen. Tom Harkin presented an award to Texas philanthropist Bernard Rapoport, author Barbara Ehrenreich debated co-director Borosage, and even Sen. Edward Kennedy appeared, bigger than life, via the projection monitors.
Also in bigger-than-life projection was an extended trailer for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which played to a nearly instantaneous standing ovation. In addition, the conference screened other documentaries, some innocuous (The Motherhood Manifesto, featuring Rosie the Riveter balancing a baby on her bicep) and others not (Iraq for Sale, whose name is self-explanatory).
Down below, on the concourse level, signs flanking entrances into the Hilton's 45,000-square-foot exhibition hall and its vendor booths read, "We know what to do: Impeach him." On top of NOW, NARAL, ACORN, and the ACLU (which still contends it is nonpartisan), there was the Backbone Campaign, which sold miniature spines to discourage purchasers from engaging in yes-man, convictionless support of their politicians.
Attendees cautious of "establishment politicians" also seemed to be looking for signs of spinelessness at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday in the Hilton's International Ballroom, a classy combination of contemporary architecture bathed in florid adornments. That's when Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. John Kerry, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi were to begin their back-to-back-to-back speechmaking.
Before the main event, two graying, hippie-looking men in the third row hoisted a handmade banner that read, in all caps, "IMPEACH BUSH." (This was becoming the unofficial theme of the week.) Wild applause erupted, and several people nearby, energized by their proximity to this agitation, felt compelled to stand in solidarity and raise peace signs. This horrified the conference leaders, who discouraged such displays and constantly reminded attendees, whom they treated like mischievous children, to "be respectful."
The three speakers were supposed to split 90 minutes-a virtual impossibility for accommodating the grandstanding of a presidential hopeful, a has-been, and a wannabe. All three approached the podium to applause, but the same unspoken division that underlay the rest of the conference-the disconnect between self-labeled "progressives" and the Democratic establishment-was apparent during the speeches.
When Sen. Clinton addressed the Iraq war, she lambasted the president but waffled in her own resolve. "It is not in our best interest to set a certain date [for withdrawal]," she said, her voice trailing at the end as it succumbed to the roar of boos. Sensing her nose-diving popularity, the senator added noncommittally, "A plan should be developed to bring our troops home."
As Sen. Clinton, who spoke first, exited the stage, one bold soul belted, "Bring 'em home, Hillary!" This novelty quickly caught on; soon, many of the 2,000 in attendance were chanting either "Bring troops home!" or "Now!"
Rep. Pelosi pleased the crowd more, especially when she noted that she had called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld: This received roughly 30 seconds of sustained applause, indicating that the easiest way to unite progressives at this conference was to attack their enemies.
Many conference attendees even wondered why organizers had invited Sen. Clinton and Sen. Kerry: To hardcore progressives, these two represented the Democratic establishment par excellence. Their argument against Sen. Clinton was particularly strong, since Jonathan Tasini, who is running against her in November on a solidly leftist ticket, was not even invited to attend the conference.
Later that afternoon came more panel discussions and more anti--Bush administration vitriol. For "Eruption: Challenging a Lawless President," House Minority Whip John Conyers, who has sponsored a bill to look into impeachment, joined Steve Cobble, who runs a website advocating impeachment. Mr. Cobble began with a survey: "Raise your hand if you think that President Bush has committed impeachable offenses." Of the nearly 150 gathered in the room, including Rep. Conyers, the other panelists, and media, this reporter was the only person without a hand raised.
Arms were still up when the rear doors suddenly flew open and the "Chain Gang" entered. The "Chain Gang" was an elaborate contrivance: four people dressed in caricatured Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld costumes with enormous heads, all shackled together in prison uniforms and paraded around like bobble-head dolls by a phony prison guard. The surprise appearance sent attendees into a frenzy.
On Wednesday, the final day of the conference, the rollercoaster car was slower. Much of Monday's buoyancy-with John Sweeney roaring, "Now is when we take back the country"-seemed lost in weariness. Even the music turned, with Frank Sinatra's "I've Got the World on a String" on Monday wilting into mellow Kenny G tunes.
A veteran attendee named Pamela Schwartz, outreach director for a group called National Priorities Project that monitors government spending, says this happened after the 2004 conference as well-and will there be staying power for a campaign when negativism emerges on day three?
But Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, billed as a progressive lawmaker and strategically placed during the luncheon as the final speaker of the conference, brought the conference back to life. The only speaker introduced as "a rock star" and "one of us," he had only to say eight words-"The time is now; let's take back America"-for the progressives to leap up in riotous applause, forgetting their tired feet.
For the moment, conference attendees were back on top again. They ate their mixed-berry shortcake desserts excitedly: After all, it was their time.