WASHINGTON — The chief message from this week's Take Back America conference here: These are good times to be a lefty.
Lefties are energized because Democrats won the 2006 elections. Optimistic about 2008. Feeling public opinion swing their way on Iraq and global climate change.
And nearly rapturous about their leading Democratic presidential candidates, who are trooping to this meeting of 3,000 liberal activists to pledge, unashamedly, their fealty to the fondest dreams of the American left.
"They both give me hope; they both inspire me," Barbara Slinker of Alexandria, Va., said Tuesday after listening to back-to-back speeches from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"They're all saying the right things," agreed Tom Humensky, a retired teacher from Bensalem, Pa. "They all have good-sounding plans."
To a large degree, the Democratic presidential candidates all say the same things. Obama, Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pledged Tuesday to end the war in Iraq and dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Obama and Edwards pledged universal health care for all Americans. And both said they'd close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which liberals see as a symbol of excess in the war on terrorism.
"I could vote for either one," said Richard Miller, an educator from Washington.
Still to come: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks Wednesday. Among her strongest campaign themes are ending the war in Iraq and addressing global climate change. She promises that a major health-care plan is coming soon.
Booed at the conference last year when she said she didn't support a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq, Clinton has since moved — you guessed it — left. She was one of just 14 senators to vote last month against a bill to fund the war. And she supported a bill calling for a withdrawal timeline that President Bush vetoed.
"I probably agree with many of her positions, too," Miller said.
It all adds up to precious little difference in the rhetoric between the top contenders and fringe candidate Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, circa 1969-81. The focus of Gravel's speech Tuesday morning to a half-empty ballroom: ending the war.
"People are dying, and we do nothing about it!" Gravel shouted.
Gravel and Obama even shared a subtheme of attacking deep-pocketed special interests.
Highlighting the power of the liberal party base, Richardson sought to gain traction by criticizing his major opponents from the left, saying he'd have all troops out of Iraq within six months of taking office, except for a contingent of Marines to guard the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The other candidates, Richardson said, might allow American troops to remain for years to train Iraqi forces or protect other U.S. troops.
"I have great respect for my fellow Democratic candidates," Richardson said. "But for those who think we should leave a residual force, how long does that force need to be in place before we can leave? . . . How many more Americans must die before we leave an Iraq that will be no better off than it is today?"
Richardson's presidential bearing was undermined by an unfortunately skewed tie and the fact that minutes before he was scheduled to speak, conference organizers couldn't find him, issuing an all-points-bulletin from the stage.
Obama and Edwards, their ties straight and speeches polished to a high gloss, weren't to be outdone on ending the war.
"It's time to start bringing our troops home," Obama said. "Not a year from now, not a month from now, but now."
Edwards struck a sharper tone, lambasting Congress for lacking the will to "stand strong, be firm, have courage" in ending the war.
"We need to be bold," Edwards said. "We need to have backbone. It is time for us to lead again."
In a further nod to the liberal agenda, Edwards even promised — to cheers from the crowd — to raise taxes to pay for his health-care plan, which he said would cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year.
It's a long way from 1992 and 1996, the Democrats' most recent successful presidential campaigns, when — shell-shocked from losses in 1980, 1984 and 1988 — they sought to recover by backing Bill Clinton, who ran as a moderate "New Democrat," distancing himself from liberal interest groups and tax increases, wooing moderate and conservative voters.
Now true-blue liberalism is celebrated again, and the party's base must choose its candidates from what it sees as an embarrassment of riches.
"We just have to pick the two that everyone will vote for," Humensky said.