WASHINGTON — When is a liberal conference not a liberal conference? When it's a progressive one.
Therein lies no small bit of controversy among the ever-churning American left.
You could be forgiven, if upon wandering into the Campaign for America's Future "Take Back America" conference here this week, you thought you were among liberals. Consider:
_ A session on impeaching President Bush, with lots of "Impeach Him" buttons floating around.
_ Books for sale such as "American Assassination: The Strange Death of Paul Wellstone," positing that the liberal Minnesota senator's death in a 2002 plane crash was no accident.
_ Exhibition booths for such established groups as People for the American Way and more obscure outfits such as the Secular Coalition of America.
_ The opening news conference, where one speaker said he wanted to "force Republicans onto their knees and beg for forgiveness," and another decried "the utter bankruptcy of our corporate-driven economy."
But at that hour-long news conference, the word "liberal" wasn't uttered once by any of the six speakers. They used the word "progressive" at least 32 times.
"Progressives are now driving the debate," declared conference organizer Robert Borosage, who set the standard with 11 references to "progressive" in 12 minutes. "American opinions on issue after issue, whether it's on the economy or on Iraq or on social issues, they are moving toward progressives in large numbers."
Democrats won the 2006 elections and may be optimistic about 2008. "Public opinion is going liberalism's way on everything from gay marriage to taxes to health care to poverty to global warming," Ross Douthat argues on The Atlantic's Web site.
Despite that, it's clear that in the wars over political rhetoric, many lefties think that one casualty will never recover: the word "liberal."
Time was when liberals stood proudly behind Franklin Roosevelt's social-welfare liberalism, John F. Kennedy's muscular Cold War foreign-policy liberalism and Lyndon B. Johnson's civil-rights liberalism.
"Conservatives waged a huge assault to discredit the word liberal and liberalism," Borosage explained.
He and others say there really is a difference between a liberal and a progressive and that they haven't just sacrificed a once-proud word to the conservative onslaught.
"The agenda has changed," Borosage said. He contends that the left's current focus is "a striking parallel" to the early 20th-century Progressive movement's effort to ensure fairness under the industrialized economy. The left wants to do the same for the emerging globalized economy, Borosage said.
Jim Dean, the chairman of the grass-roots-organizing group Democracy for America, offered an alternative theory, saying liberalism was about ideology while progressivism is about "getting things done."
To all of which liberal — and proud of it — thinker Douglas Massey responds with a derisive snort.
"I don't think (progressive) gets you anywhere that liberal doesn't," said Massey, a Princeton University professor who wrote "Return of the 'L' Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century," available at the conference. "I don't think you're fooling anybody. The only way to deal with it is to come up with a strong counter-narrative and say, `Damn right, I'm a liberal, and here's why and here's why you should be, too.' Dodging it just makes you look guilty. Like you've got something to hide."
There seems to be a schism between the Beltway-oriented political class, which mouths the word "progressive" like a talisman, and some members of the grass-roots left, who still embrace the word "liberal."
Take Steve Robinson, a burly lawyer from Lawrence, Kan., who took a break from the exhibit table for AlGore.org — a movement to draft Gore for president — to smoke a few Marlboros, and who looked fully capable of giving a serious whupping to anyone who'd dare mock the word "liberal" to his face.
"I consciously use the word 'liberal' because I'm so offended by the demonization of the word," Robinson said. "What we need is a liberal show on CNN or MSNBC where someone uses the word liberal every day in a good way."
Carolyn Castore, an attendee from Milwaukee, said she knew many people who preferred "liberal" over "progressive."
"In the end, a label is less important," Castore said. "What matters is we're all at the table meeting and developing a path to action."
Besides, Castore added slyly, "I call (conservatives) a lot of things they don't call themselves."
Here are some links to stories on the state of the American left: