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Dese Dems Don't Doze

Keep an eye on the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal policy group that's funneling anger over the election into agenda-setting Democratic strategies.

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Here's the answer, which i discovered last Wednesday at a conference in Washington:

More Jan Schakowskys.

The question, which occupied me as I shuttled down to attend the meeting organized by the Campaign for America's Future, is roughly this: What does the Democratic Party -- out of the White House; a minority in the House; a functional minority in the Senate, what with Dick Cheney's ability to break tie votes; bereft, for the time being, of a focused response to Dubya's charm offensive; and, most of all, reeling over pardon madness -- need right now?

The Campaign for America's Future is the country's leading liberal policy group, started in 1996 by Washington labor-movement veterans Bob Borosage and Roger Hickey as a counterweight to the better-known, centrist Democratic Leadership Council. I remember the group when it was just getting off the ground at that year's Democratic convention in Chicago, hosting panels in hotel ballrooms during lugubrious afternoons that most people spent trying to cadge an invite to the George party, which was the hot ticket at the time. By last week, the Campaign was able to draw hundreds of people from all over the country to the top floor of the National Press Club building, which made this, literally and figuratively, the major summit of liberalism at the dawn of the new Bush era.

Something quite out of balance seems to have happened in Washington since the election. The Democratic Party picked up five seats in the Senate, handsomely exceeding anyone's expectations. It held its ground in the House. It ended up winning most of the close elections (Maria Cantwell in Washington, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, the deceased governor of Missouri) and defeating some candidates in whom the GOP and the National Rifle Association had invested heavily (John Ashcroft and impeachment manager Bill McCollum in Florida).

That's not bad at all. But then came the Supreme Court. Then came Dubya, whom the Washington media have decided to get behind. And then came Marc Rich. Suddenly, Democrats looked wiped out. They acquired a smell of defeat about them that was entirely out of proportion to what actually happened in the election. And now they're on the defensive. They have no fight in them. Or do they?

"I think there are some people who are raising heck on the floor of the Senate and in the caucuses," Paul Wellstone told me. "It's a little hard for people to break through the media right now. But, and I really do mean this, I think there's going to be a fair amount of drawing of lines, mostly on the tax cuts."

"Yes," said pollster Stan Greenberg, when I asked him if it was true that Democrats hadn't been putting up much of a fight so far. "Though I think it's changing. We won't be in the same place 30 days from now. Activists are having a big impact on party leaders."

Indeed, whether "they" have fight in them depends crucially on which "they" we're talking about. The activists, it was apparent last Wednesday, are full of energy. There are lots of people doing lots of good things that aren't making the papers. Amy Dean, the head of the South Bay Labor Council in Silicon Valley, where she organizes lower-level workers, exemplified the anger that many rank-and-file Democrats still feel about Florida -- "we remember Selma," she said in her talk, invoking a revered civil-rights slogan, "and we remember Florida, and in oh-two and oh-four, you will be overcome."

But that robust anger doesn't have much voice on Capitol Hill. "The base of the Democratic Party," Wellstone acknowledged, "is showing lots more indignation right now. The question for us is how, in the legislative process, that plays out, which remains to be seen." At least he's trying, anyway; he gave his speech and then dashed off to mount the opposition to a bankruptcy bill Trent Lott was trying to push through, at the behest of the banking and financial-services lobbies, that consumer groups are against. But that's just one below-the-radar piece of legislation. It doesn't amount to a message.

Which brings us back to where we started. Who's Jan Schakowsky?

She represents the 9th congressional district of Illinois, the north side of Chicago and Evanston. She won office only in 1998, taking a seat that had been occupied by one man for most of the previous 50 years, so it's far too early to say that she's made her mark in Washington. And her district is about as safely liberal as Jerry Nadler's or Maxine Waters's, which means that the national press can easily marginalize her.

But she's got something. First, that midwestern sturdiness, kind of like Hillary in her better moments. But unlike Hillary, she's emotive; a whippersnapper. She's funny ("I find the president's charm offensive offensive," she said, in a faint echo of fellow Illinoisan Adlai Stevenson's imperishable observation that he found Paul appealing and Peale appalling). She has moxie. She epitomizes the kind of joyful spirit Democrats need right now. She described a recent appearance she made on Politically Incorrect, in which she insisted that Al Gore won the election and received a thunderous ovation from the audience (in the interest of full disclosure, she did note that the approving audience was at Howard University). She read some of the hundreds of E-mails she'd received from people around the country thanking her, expressing admiration, which she took in stride, for her "gonads" and "balls."

Most of all, she's got the right idea -- the Washington arm of the party needs to stay in touch with the outlanders, soak up some of their energy: "My message to my colleagues is, 'Get out of town!' We have to inspire people, get in touch with the rage that's out there, and build confidence in what we're doing."

The Democratic energy isn't on Capitol Hill. To any great degree, it isn't here in New York, either -- we're jaded, and carpet-bombed with bad Clinton news every day. It's in the rest of the country, where millions of people are still quietly pissed off but have few places to turn. (One notable and indispensible exception: the Website democrats.com. Not the official party site, but the work of two men named David Lytel and Bob Fertik. Check it out.) It's nice to see a legislator who gets this.

As I said: More Jan Schakowskys.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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