Surfing Up Democracy

Blue Dog Dems—and Their Corporate Sponsors—Hear It From the Beach

Even if they were bankrolling the party's right-wingers, the delegates I spoke with inside were actually more liberal than the Blue Dogs or Gore, at least rhetorically. Back in the day, Chip Forrester, a delegate from Tennessee, said, "I used to be a rabble rouser." Despite feeling a lot of "hometown pride" for his man Al, he'd still like to see campaign finance reform, and thinks the protesters "can influence us and raise our consciousness" about trade. He thinks working inside government is the way for him to go these days—even if participating in the system's inner workings is enough to make you think of sausage. "I like sausage," he says, "but if you see it made, you'd never eat it. It's messy but in the end it's flavorful." As for the corporate sponsors of the evening: "The fundraising is part of convention culture. Most of these contributors give more to the Republicans, they're here taking care of conservative Democrats." The party he wished he'd been invited to: Warren Beatty's.

As the evening wore on, the crowds began to move. The activists migrated to the pier, outside the gated entrance to the Blue Dogs' private amusment park. Tensions built as protesters arrived from the beach, and more and more Dems spilled onto the pier from other parties, vying for a late-night ride on the Ferris wheel, a rappel up and down a faux rock wall. The group Billionaires for Bush or Gore thrust phony dollar bills through the fence. Fifteen mounted police formed a wall between demonstrators and partygoers. As they waited on the thickening line, some Dems tapped their feet (unconsciously?) to the chant, "Al Gore, Corporate Whore." Waiting stoically was Craig Bieber, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, who recalled that 20 years ago he was an antinuclear activist, so he didn't mind the protesters. "Our political process exalts money too much," he said. "And anyway, Bush and Cheney are the real corporate whores."

The flash of wistfulness crossing the faces of those who had only positive things to say about protesters suggested a slight, if only slight, discomfort at how the passage of time changes one's values, or at least one's approach to changing a system. Some of the delegates almost appeared to have their hearts on the beach, even as they reached for the water pistol to win a blue dog prize.

The speaker who seemed to sum things up was California senator Tom Hayden, the once radical student leader who evaded police for days during the 1968 Democratic convention protests in Chicago. He walked with activists from the Gap demonstration to the beach party to the pier, and refused to go inside the Blue Dog tent. I'd spotted him earlier during the parade to the beach, wearing a pacifier for a ring, newborn son Liam in tow, posing for a photo with a highway patrol officer. After passing the baby to his wife, he spoke en route to the beach party about the activists as "the real thing." Although firmly supportive of Gore, Hayden criticized the veep for launching a "negative campaign to obliterate Ralph Nader" instead of addressing Nader's critique of trade and campaign finance reform. "I think they're held back because of some dependency on corporate money and also by their centrism."

Later, as he took the stage, Hayden spoke about fear and intimidation: "I encourage you to have heart," he said to the cheering crowd. "We have to deal with fear, not just oppression. As long as people are afraid of power, then power persists. When you laugh at power, march against power, and scorn power, then the powerful start to fear you."

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