On the final day of a largely inspiring Take Back America progressive conference, Sen. Barack Obama offered, in a powerful, well-received speech, a searing critique of Bush administration policies, borrowing from Newt Gingrich's recommended attack phrase, "Had enough?" Yet at the same time he provided reassurance and hope for progressives. He told us that we know who we are and we stand for goals that appeal to the best in Americans: "The time for our identity crisis as progressives is over. Don't let anybody tell you that we don't know what we stand for."
He won applause, though, without providing a specific plan for withdrawal from Iraq. Divisions over Iraq among Democratic leaders became the focus of much of the mainstream coverage of the event, missing the broader "Common Good" agenda for change offered by some Democratic leaders and activists at the conference.
Obama captured that uplifting theme well and showed in a smart way how to put forward a positive program for Democrats. Here's some excerpts from a transcript, picking up after his critique of the Administration's failures on health care, Iraq and Katrina, and its underlying Social Darwinism:
Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on self-reliance and individual initiative and a belief in the free market.
But it's also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, our sense that we have a stake in each other's success.
You know, that everybody should have a shot at opportunity.
Americans understand this. They know the government can't solve all their problems, but they expect the government can help because they know it's an expression of what they're learning in Sunday school, what they learn in their church, in their synagogue, in their mosque, a basic moral precept that says that I have to look out for you and I have responsibility for you and you have responsibility for me; that I am your keeper and your are mine.
That's what America is.
And so I am eager to have this argument with the Republican Party about the core philosophy of America, about what our story is. We shouldn't shy away from that debate.
The time for our identity crisis as progressives is over. Don't let anybody tell you that we don't know what we stand for.
On the same day that Obama was giving his speech, the Democratic leadership offered a litany of ideas, billed as a "New Direction" for America, such as lowering the cost of prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage, etc.
What was missing from this Democratic list was the broader big idea , "The Common Good," best articluated by Michael Tomasky in a recent, highly influential American Prospect article about Democrats moving beyond single-issue ideas and interest groups into a broader civic republicanism. (Full disclosure: he has edited some free-lance pieces of mine.)
It was that idea that animated the Take Back America Conference, and was liberally borrowed in John Kerry's speech. In fact, an entire luncheon was devoted to Tomasky debating with Barbara Ehrenreich over this idea, with Tomasky seeking to put at ease her concerns that such a broader vision would undermine the fight against the attack on the poor and the working class. In his talk, he cited as an example LBJ promoting the Civil Rights Act for the way it would help all Americans, not just blacks, and cited polling that straight-ahead class war populist apeals are unlikely to win a majority of the public. You can read their speeches at this link (scroll down to luncheon talk on Tuesday).
At the end of the conference, Robert Borsage, the co-director of the sponsoring organization, the Campaign for America's Future, pointed out, "The right has not failed because it's corrupt or because it's
incompetent. It failed because conservatism is wrong for America. "The Common Good Agenda charts a new direction of politics guided by the sense that we're all in this together."
Obama spoke about what this could mean to America, without invoking the phrase "common good" but capturing its spirit for progressives:
Don't doubt yourselves. We know who we are.
And in the end, we know that it's not enough just to say that we've had enough. We've got a story to tell that isn't just against something but is for something.
We know that we're the party of opportunity. We know that, in a global economy that's more connected and more competitive, that we're the party that will guarantee every American an affordable, world- class, lifelong, top-notch education, from early childhood to high school, from college to on-the-job training.
We know that that's what we're about. We know we're the party -- we know that as progressives we believe in affordable health care for all Americans and that we're going to make sure that Americans don't have to choose between a health care plan that bankrupts the government and one that bankrupts families; the party that won't just throw a few tax breaks at families who can't afford their insurance but will modernize our health care system and get every family a chance to buy insurance at a price they can afford.
Progressives are the folks who believe in energy independence for America...
... that we're not bought and paid for by the oil companies in this country.
We believe that we can harness home-grown alternative fuels and spur the production of fuel-efficient hybrid cars and break our dependence on the world's most dangerous regions.
OBAMA: We understand that we get a three-for: We can save our economy, our environment and stop funding both sides of the war on terror if we actually get serious about doing something about energy. We understand that.
We understand as progressives that we need a tough foreign policy. But we know the other side has a monopoly on the tough and dumb strategy. We're looking for the tough and smart strategy...
... one that battles the forces of terrorism and fundamentalism, but understands that it's not just a matter of military might alone, but we've got to match it with the power of our diplomacy and the strength of alliances and the power of our ideals; and that when we do go to war, we should be honest with the American people about why we're there and how we expect to win.
We understand as progressives that we believe in open and honest government that doesn't peddle the agenda of which ever lobbyist or special interest can write the biggest check.
And if we believe on all these things and if we act on it, then I guarantee you America is looking for us to lead. And if we do it, it's not going to be a Democratic agenda or a liberal agenda or a progressive agenda, it's going to be an American agenda.