Will the real 'progressives' please stand up?

In a city where "stardom" comes via congressional committee assignments, there is a certain affinity for the real thing. So when Warren Beatty and Annette Bening arrived at the Madison Hotel here to trumpet a new political organization called Progressive Majority, the crowd was thick and excited.

It took the duo more than 30 minutes to move the 30 feet to the podium, as admirers and liberal political types waited to shake hands and snap pictures. Some real politicians came, too, including Sens. Paul Wellstone and John Corzine and much of the Democratic side of the California congressional delegation, who were taking the event very seriously. Senator Corzine and Mr. Beatty took time to have an extended conversation, with pensive faces and consensual nodding, in front of a line of cameras.

But beyond the star power (and a pretty nice spread of crab cakes and pasta), the purpose of the evening was to announce the creation of Progressive Majority - a little more than a political action committee, a little less than a party. Its aim is to train and elect "progressive" politicians to Congress and at the state level. A "vast majority of Americans support this agenda," US Rep. George Miller (D) of California assured the crowd.

The specifics of that agenda are a bit foggy, but Beatty, in a meandering speech that seemed to reprise his role as Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth, said part of the group's mission is to figure that out. "I have never seen the Democratic Party in a more confused state," he told the assembled. "We want to hone down what being progressive means."

That may be the most difficult task Beatty and company face. Progressivism, such as it is in Washington, is today a complicated concept, with folks from both parties claiming the mantle, depending on the issue. While polls show that voters are interested in some sort of "progressive" agenda - placing government action on education, Social Security, and prescription drugs among their top concerns - just how far they want to go is unclear.

This may be the best of times and the worst of times for progressivism. The word has gained popularity, but beyond that, things get fuzzy. If everybody's a progressive, is anyone a progressive?

The groups and people who make up the Progressive Majority show they have a definition in mind. Founders include Norman Lear, Barbra Streisand, and several labor unions, including the AFL-CIO and the United Autoworkers. Nary a Republican is among the politicians on the advisory committee.

"It's what's left of the Left," said political analyst Bill Schneider, who was at last Thursday's event to score an interview with Beatty.

But that leaves out more than a few politicians in Washington.

Progressivism, loosely described as using government to solve social problems, has supporters in both parties. And both parties can justify a claim to it and its heritage. It may be best associated with "Fighting" Bob LaFollette, the turn-of-the-century liberal senator from Wisconsin who founded The Progressive magazine, but it is also linked to GOP President Theodore Roosevelt, on whose memorial is the quote: "A great Democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a Democracy."

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is a champion of campaign-finance reform, a pillar of most progressive agendas, and he has striven to be linked to Teddy Roosevelt. Other Republicans, particularly Northeasterners, have expressed interest in some pro-environment, pro-regulation ideas often associated with progressives. (Some even describe themselves with the "p" word.) And the leading think tank for the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which Beatty criticized in his remarks, is called the Progressive Policy Institute.

"The word progressive is beginning to get a promiscuous reputation," says Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive. "I'm happy the word is in such currency again, but I want the real progressives to stand up and be counted."

Trouble is, who actually qualifies as a progressive is open to speculation. Even within the Progressive Majority, disagreement on that point may emerge. Liberals from Hollywood often have different political ideas than, say, your average Detroit auto worker. Without a compelling personality to organize them - and Beatty avers he isn't using the group to launch his own candidacy - little holds them together.

The public, meanwhile, seems to be somewhat interested in government involvement in key areas, particularly education and health. But is that really a movement toward "progressivism"?

"It depends on how you define it," says Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "The public is interested in seeing the government do things, but I'm not sure I'd buy into the idea of a broad change in public attitude."

Overall, Mr. Kohut says, people are more centrist and less angry with government than they have been, and they "have a bee in their bonnet" about seeing the government address prescription drugs and protecting Social Security. "But you also see that campaign-finance reform, which I would assume is high on [the Progressive Majority's] list, is pretty low in our latest poll."

Some other goals Beatty mentioned, such as the idea that healthcare reform should be "Medicare for everyone," may draw more-limited support.

Still, the star quality behind this particular brand of progressivism will likely lend it a megaphone. Before Beatty's speech, an organizer asked Corzine his thoughts. "As long as you keep bringing in people like Warren Beatty," said the senator from New Jersey, "you're going to get a good crowd."

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