BENJAMIN CLARY--pale, spindly, and 18 years old--is on message. It's late in the afternoon on Thursday, June 3, in a dim corner of the Wardman Park Marriott hotel, a few miles from downtown Washington, D.C., and Ben is working the Wellstone Action booth at the Take Back America conference, an annual gathering of progressive activists. But you know, Ben says, he should be back home.
Back home is Minnesota's Twin Cities, where Ben will graduate from his high school, St. Paul's Academy, in a few days, and really, he says, he ought to be worried about prom, diplomas, senior night, and then college. But more important is an educational experience he had awhile back. More important is the time he spent at Camp Wellstone.
There are many Camp Wellstones. The one Ben went to was in Minnesota, home of the camp's namesake, the late liberal Democratic senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in October 2002. Shortly afterwards, his two sons founded Wellstone Action, a political advocacy group that runs training camps for candidates, campaign staff, and activists. "We just did one in West Virginia," Ben says, eyes beaming. "We have another in D.C. next week, then California, then Massachusetts." Ben did the campaign staff track. I ask him if he had fun at camp. "It was great," he says, without hesitation. "We need to continue the senator's work."
Ben is busy. This is the largest Camp Wellstone of them all. There are over 2,000 Democrats, Greens, activists, progressives, liberals, moderates, peaceniks, politicians, centrists, senators, and journalists swarming the Marriott, which sits like a fortress atop a hill overlooking the capital's Rock Creek Park. They came here to discuss how to defeat George Bush in particular and the right wing in general. They came to form a progressive movement that will shape American politics for years to come. And they came to rub shoulders. Ben rubs shoulders with Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who rubs shoulders with Howard Dean, who rubs shoulders with billionaire financier George Soros, who rubs shoulders with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Hillary Clinton is here, as is Arianna Huffington. Amazingly, Al Franken is not.
It's dizzying. Standing at Ben's Wellstone Action booth, you can see booths for Common Cause, Progressive Majority, United Steelworkers of America, Public Campaign, and so on. There's the conference book shop where one can purchase the collected Chomsky, along with Jim Hightower and Paul Krugman and Howard Zinn, or maybe The New Pearl Harbor (as in the one FDR let happen), which argues that President Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (The New Pearl Harbor, incidentally, is outselling the works of Hightower, Krugman, and Zinn at Amazon.com.) Over there is the booth for Fenton Communications, the lefty public relations firm that flacks for MoveOn.org and sundry others, including the antiwar September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
But if the celebrities are a draw, what the organizers really hope the Bens of America will take home are the techniques and expertise they pick up in smaller break-out sessions. Like the one in the Roosevelt Room, where a small crowd assembles for a panel discussion on "Guns, God, and Gays: The Role of Social Issues in the 2004 Election." A pixieish woman from Progressive Majority walks to the front of the room and leans against the wall, her frizzled hair splaying out in several directions. It's packed and muggy here. She looks exhausted. "Anyone not heard my spiel yet?" she asks. A few people raise their hands. She sighs. "Only one? Two? Okay then." Pause. "We are a nonpartisan organization. I must say that." Another pause. She looks around the room. "Having said that, let me introduce our panel." There's Joe Sudbay, formerly of Handgun Control; Barb Menard of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group; Beth Shipp of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, and Tanya Clay of Ralph Neas's People for the American Way.
Sudbay goes first. He's an optimist. "The guns issue works in swing districts," he says, meaning that swing voters and moderates are supportive of restrictions on gun ownership. There are murmurs of disbelief. "Yes," Sudbay continues, "that's inconsistent with the spin here in Washington." The spin here in Washington is that the guns issue works against liberals. But that's only because "liberals are easy scapegoats when things don't go right."
Sudbay is a compact man, with close-cropped hair, and he speaks quickly, punctuating each adjective and verb with a gesture of the arm. Gun control is popular! he says. It is popular in Missouri, it is popular in Virginia, it is popular in Pennsylvania, it is popular in Florida. Liberals need to be more forceful in combating the right wing's rhetoric on the issue. The truth is John Kerry knows a lot about guns and assault weapons. "John Kerry's been shot at by AK-47s."
People nod their heads.
Sudbay stops talking. He inhales sharply. Then he lowers his voice. "It's important for you as progressives to understand this," he says. He is whispering. "The NRA is very much a foundation of the right wing. It's not a hunting and fishing club."
Someone in the crowd says, "Uh-huh."
"On their board is Grover Norquist." Sudbay pauses for dramatic effect. "Everyone knows Grover." He sits down. The crowd applauds.
Next up is Barb Menard, the deputy political director of Human Rights Campaign. "I guess I'm the gay part of the panel," she says. The audience laughs. Like Joe, Barb is an optimist. Human Rights Campaign is growing. Its membership is some 500,000 strong. They have a staff of over 100 at their downtown Washington headquarters.
But these are tough times: "We're getting hit at from all sides." Here's what gets Menard excited, however: A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage isn't polling well. Even though a constitutional amendment is "an issue that the right wing has seized on" because "they think it's a way to get out their base."
In fact, says Menard, Americans don't want to talk about gay marriage. They'd rather talk about the economy and health care and national security. She knows this because Human Rights Campaign commissioned Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart to conduct focus groups on the topic. Menard hands out a packet that shows the focus groups' results. Go back to your communities and talk about the issue in the way the focus groups suggest, she says.
And what do the focus groups suggest? Well, "Voters are largely ignorant of the constitutional amendment process." And "Voters are unaware of the Defense of Marriage Act." What's more, "Voters believe that the Constitution is amended frequently." Thus one must call opponents of gay marriage bigots: "Support for the FMA should be tied to mean-spirited ideological extremists who also oppose the most basic protections for gays and lesbians."
Interestingly, "blaming Bush doesn't work" on this issue, because "most moderate voters believe that Bush is following his conscience . . . and they respect him for it." Instead an activist should say that the FMA is "discriminatory," that it "undermines the Constitution," and that it's "unnecessary." Menard sits down.
Beth Shipp, NARAL Pro-Choice America's political director, stands up. "Social issues are what's going to make the difference in this election," she says. Abortion rights are as popular as gun control and gay marriage. "People firmly believe in their fundamental rights to privacy." Polling and focus groups show this to be so. She sizes up the audience: "Can anyone tell me five anti-choice things Bush has done?"
Shouts from the crowd: "Gag rules!" "Restrictions on women soldiers' rights to abortion!" "Judges!"
The audience quiets. That's only three.
A woman in the front row says, "Um, taking away funding for overseas abort--"
But Shipp cuts her off. "You're talking about the gag rule," she says. Unlike Bush, she continues, "the one thing which John Kerry has been absolutely consistent on is his record on choice." And polling is helping NARAL target 18- to 39-year-old women in key swing states. Also, polling is alarming NARAL. "The scary part for me," Shipp says, "is that people believe Bush hasn't acted on his personal beliefs. But that's what they want you to believe. They want you to be uneducated. They want you not to know what they are doing." She takes a sip of water. "The truth is we're one broken hip away from losing Roe v. Wade."
A woman in pearls scribbles something in a thick black notebook.
Last to speak is Tanya Clay, the deputy director of public policy for People for the American Way. But Clay has a problem. The overhead projector is broken. So she can't show her PowerPoint presentation. "Does anyone know how to use this thing?" she asks.
"Did you reboot?" one man suggests.
People start to mill about the room.
Someone asks Beth Shipp a question about partial-birth abortion. "Ugh," she says. "What a disaster! Partial-birth was messaged wrong from the beginning." The audience nods its approval.
The projector is fixed. Clay talks about People for the American Way. "We monitor all right-wing activities," she says. "We're trying to figure out a way to take back the debate." Because "the right wing is taking advantage of issues by infusing religion and politics."
Clay has a slide that shows how the right wing does this. It shows how the right wing says progressives are anti-Christian. And since good Christians are good Americans, progressives are thus anti-American. Q.E.D. Plus the right wing says progressives are antireligious zealots, because progressives seek the separation of church and state. And antireligious zealots are anti-American. "That's how they get you," Tanya says. She fumbles with the slide projector. "That's it," she mumbles to herself. "That's the next one. I don't want that one."
Menard squints and looks off into the distance. Shipp yawns. Joe Sudbay sits still, his arms folded across his chest. The audience is distracted.
"If we continue this erosion of church and state, we'll end up under a tyranny of one church," Tanya says. To prevent this, activists need to "Wedge the Right." This means you need to identify the right wing's rhetoric and attack it. "That's how you do it," Tanya says. "Throw that back at them. Tell them, 'You're the one trying to pit religions against one another.' That's religious bigotry. That's how you get back at them.
"You've got to wedge back the right. I got some more slides."
Time is up, however. Another panel is about to start. But there's still a moment for questions. The audience is silent. Thoughtful. Then a man standing in the back of the room raises his hand. Menard calls on him.
"I'm a Baptist pastor," he says. A few people gasp. Menard raises an eyebrow. "And it seems to me we need to develop some religious language that taps into the values of religious people." The pastor has gray hair and a Texas accent. Later he tells me he's from Virginia Beach. A backpack is slung low over his shoulder.
"I keep looking for some way I can address my congregation," he continues. They won't listen when it comes to economic equality issues, he says, because they're scared away by social liberalism. He wants answers.
Beth Shipp shakes her head. "It's no use" sometimes, she says. "We've done virtual target modeling. It breaks a community down house by house. So we know who we shouldn't even bother talking to."
The pastor isn't satisfied. "I need to say something," he says.
A woman sitting in the back row chimes in. "I have a follow up on that," she says. "I'm from Loudoun County, Virginia."
More gasps. Loudoun County is a right-wing haven, the woman explains. A Phyllis Schlafly acolyte sits on the county board.
"Yikes," the young man sitting next to me mutters.
"Here's my question," the woman from Loudoun County says. "These people are trying to forward their agendas. And we're helpless." She gestures to the crowd. "You can't talk to them. How can we talk to them?"
All eyes turn toward the panel. People lean forward in their chairs.
"We need some type of language," the pastor says again, softly.
Joe purses his lips. Barb is silent. Tanya looks at the slide projector. Moments pass.
Finally Beth Shipp offers her answer:
"Why the hell would you live in Loudoun County?"
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.