I have to wince when activists start talking about ”taking back the Democratic Party.“ A couple of years ago, there was a big conference here in L.A. with that goal. And now there’s a similar one this Sunday — organized by the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action and sponsored in part by the august publication you are holding in your hands.

I wince because I can never figure out which Democratic Party they want back. The Truman Democrats, the architects of the national-security state? Or JFK, who was obsessed with the ”twilight struggle“ of the Cold War? Or LBJ, who rather systematically thinned out the population of Vietnam? Or Carter‘s ”Democrats Lite“? Certainly, they’re not talking about the Clinton Gang — are they?

In fairness, some great folks are coming to this all-day public powwow at the Wilshire Grand Hotel. I‘m a big fan of Warren Beatty. I wanted him to run for president. Congressman Dennis Kucinich is a hero, and he’ll be there. And I voted for Antonio, and he‘s also on the speaker list. The always provocative Tom Hayden is showing up. (I hope L.A. ”progressives“ give him some of the attention they forgot to invest two weeks ago, when he fell 369 votes short of a City Council seat.)

But I want to know, what’s the political strategy that‘s going to be rolled out at this conference? This time, they’ve upped the goal from take back the party to ”take back the country.“

Allow my skepticism. Over a couple of decades I‘ve been to more panels, teach-ins and seminars of this ilk than I care to remember. And I’m afraid to say that they usually consist of little more than two elements: moaning about the evil and sinister Right and ticking off the usual laundry list of wished-for social programs. Both of these are totally futile and ultimately self-indulgent exercises. The activists who go to these conferences already know they oppose the Right, and they already know what changes they want to make — that‘s why they are there!

What rarely if ever gets discussed is how to build the majorities needed for radical reform. If I hear about Florida or the Supreme Court one more time, I’ll retch. Assuming you‘d even want to elect Al Gore (count me out on that one), an untapped pool of 100 million Americans preferred to sit out last fall’s presidential race. They watched HBO instead of election returns.

And look at our recent city voting. It was an election where what calls itself the Left actually succeeded in — at least temporarily — ”taking back the party.“ Villaraigosa was endorsed by the state party, by the governor, by most local Democratic pols, and by all the party satellite groups — ranging from Big Labor to the mainstream environmental and women‘s groups. And he was generously bankrolled by the party and a couple of billionaire benefactors (making city campaign-financing ethics a mockery, by the way). And he still lost.

Sure, sobbing ”progressives“ point to Jimmy Hahn’s nasty TV ads. But no whining allowed. That‘s why it’s called politics and not . . . um . . . badminton. The real problem was an abysmal turnout of 36 percent of registered voters (41 percent of Latino voters). Start counting eligible voters and those figures get slashed almost in half. There was a whole universe of votes to be won by Antonio that never materialized — frankly because most people can‘t see how politics is relevant to their lives. And that’s our problem. The I-don‘t-give-a-flip-about-anything coalition is bigger than labor, Latinos and Westside do-gooders all put together times two.

Traditional liberalism is dead and buried, thank you very much. And nostalgic evocations of Eleanor Roosevelt aren’t going to win any elections anyhow. No more than resuscitating the ghost of Tom Bradley did the trick here in Los Angeles on June 5.

Progressive Democrats usually, and unfortunately, meet this challenge not by devising strategies to organize, register and motivate new majorities. Rather, they do so by making noise before eventually disappearing back into the core, corporate party they claim to be ”taking back.“ (Who but the ”progressive“ Democrats became more aggressive lapdogs for Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal? Just when they should have taken the lead in running him out on a rail.)

Looking at the flier for this coming Sunday conference, I notice that Dick Gephardt is the featured speaker. This is the Gephardt whose 1998 contributions were 7-to-1 business over labor. Whose biggest individual contributors were Anheuser-Busch, AOL–Time Warner, Citigroup, Boeing, MGM Mirage, Archer Daniels Midland and Occidental Petroleum? Excuse me, but just what does Dick Gephardt have to do with taking back America? Looks to me like he‘s already got a nifty little piece of it. I recall the first two years of the Clinton administration — ’93 and ‘94 — when the Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House, with Gephardt as majority leader. But I’m having great difficulty remembering any of the landmark reform legislation they passed.

But that was then and this is now. And the Demo-crats still have plenty to answer for. The Bush tax cut — a stunning victory for the Republicans that essentially eats up the budget surplus and shuts down funding for the foreseeable future for any significant social programs — was approved by 12 Democratic senators. Almost a fourth of the Democratic Senate ranks.

I‘m not arguing against this Sunday conference. But let’s hope, for once, that it focuses not on what should be done, but how it can be done. And instead of forking out $35 to have continental breakfast with Gephardt, I propose, you show up and toss him onto the grill.

For more information about the conference, see the Political Pick in Calendar or call (323) 852-9190.

LA Weekly