They fretted about his support for the Iraq war and his past embrace of free trade. They openly questioned his campaign strategy. But meeting this week at a conference dubbed “Take Back America,” the nation’s leading liberal activists stressed that they intend to mount a vigorous campaign to put Sen. John F. Kerry in the White House.
Their chief organizing principle: intense distaste for President Bush and other Republicans in power.
“Sure, we’d rather Kerry be a greater progressive champion, we’d rather he have a stronger position on the war,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the conference and a former aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “But the threat is posed by George Bush, not by John Kerry.”
The gathering drew about 2,000 activists from across the nation, representing labor unions, environmental groups and civil rights organizations. Strategists said Thursday the conference showed that the wing of the Democratic Party once energized by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s opposition to the war was channeling its efforts to help Kerry -- who Dean once derided as a compromised Washington insider.
Activists said the conference also marked the foundation of a reinvigorated left-wing movement, a group splintered and disorganized for decades but increasingly unified by frustration over the GOP’s dominance in Washington. Leaders said Thursday they were prepared to match wits with conservatives whose tactics they both despise and admire.
“I do know a little bit about the vast right-wing conspiracy,” quipped Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in a speech Thursday, referring to her controversial statement in 1998 defending her husband, then-President Clinton, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal surfaced. In her speech, she described what she argued was a systematic effort by conservatives to consolidate power as a reaction to “progressive” victories dating back to the New Deal.
“They created think tanks, they invested in endowed professorships,” she said. “You have to give them credit. They’ve done a good job. They’ve got themselves a president and a vice president and lots of other people who march to their drumbeat.”
Dean, still clearly a strong draw for the liberal crowd, received screams of approval and loud applause when he said: “We know what the right wing has done, and we’re going to have to do it.”
The gathering drew added energy from several recent public opinion surveys, including one newly released by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, that showed Bush’s approval ratings sliding and support for the Iraq war falling to new lows since the disclosure of abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Philanthropist George Soros, who has given more than $7 million to independent anti-Bush groups such as MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, told the conference the Abu Ghraib affair was “the moment of truth” for the nation that “hit us the same way as the  terrorist attack itself.”
He said there was “a direct connection between those two events. The way President Bush conducted the war on terror converted us from victims to perpetrators.”
Soros labeled the Bush doctrine of preemptive military action against those who may pose a threat to the U.S. an “atrocious proposition.”
Soros also charged that the war on terrorism “has claimed more innocent victims than the original attack itself.” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie quickly responded to Soros’ comments.
“Abu Ghraib was bad and the soldiers involved are rightly being punished, but for Democrats to say that the abuse of Iraqi fighters is the moral equivalent of the slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans is outrageous,” said Gillespie. “Their hatred of the president is fueling a ‘blame America first’ mentality that is troubling.”
Melvin Goodman, a former CIA and State Department official who recently co-wrote a book titled “Bush League Diplomacy: How the Neoconservatives Are Putting the World at Risk,” lamented during a panel discussion Thursday that Kerry had “abandoned” the dovish tendencies that led him to protest the Vietnam War soon after returning as a decorated veteran.
“Kerry’s got to go back to his thoughts he had as a young man,” Goodman said. “He’s gotten far too conservative, far too conventional.”
But leaders and key strategists at the conference said they were willing to give Kerry room to maneuver to the middle -- if it meant beating Bush.
And some independent analysts have said Kerry’s best approach for now is to temper his reactions to the war and the prison scandal and let undecided voters focus on the president’s job performance.
Borosage compared the attitude among liberals to the feeling among many conservatives in 2000 when Bush ran as a moderate butwon the right’s backing. Kerry has “got a lot of leeway to define his own position,” said Borosage. “Even strong opponents of the war are focused on Bush rather than their concerns or disagreements with Kerry.”