By Abdon Pallasch
Sun-Times Political Reporter
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama may be the most liberal senator by one group’s scorecard, and the Democratic Leadership Council may be a centrist organization trying to pull the Democratic party away from the left.
But with the smell of victory in the air, no one at the DLC convention in Chicago is quibbling with the presumptive nominee’s positions.
Is there any issue on which Obama differs from the DLC agenda?
None, said Chairman Harold Ford, who narrowly lost a race for U.S. Senate in Tennessee two years ago. He said the organization’s main goal now is getting Obama elected president.
“We have one goal, and that’s to elect Barack Obama as president of the United States,” Ford said. “We believe that four more years of George Bush through John McCain would make it more difficult to balance the budget and create jobs.”
It helps that the organization —founded after the 1984 election to move the Democratic Party to the right — has no issue positions it asks members to sign on to. Leaders generally back a more pro-business, pro-trade agenda. Today is the last day of the group’s annual convention in Chicago.
As some of his potential vice presidents participated in break-out sessions here Sunday, Obama played basketball for about three hours just a few blocks away and got a haircut. But not one of the principals here begrudged him not stopping by. He’s speaking in Independence, Mo., today.
“No, he’s really very, very busy,” Mayor Daley said, making his second appearance this weekend at the convention. “He needs time for his family. It [was] an exhausting primary. We’re all representing Barack Obama. He doesn’t have to be at every meeting. He has to take time out for his family. It’s important for his well-being.”
Some McCain backers decry Obama as the most liberal senator or nominee the Democrats have put up. And the National Journal ranked him the Senate’s most liberal member. But Daley said, “I never looked at him as a liberal” when he worked with Obama on issues in the state legislature.
Bill Clinton was the face of the DLC in 1992. And Obama told supporters four years ago that his inlclusion on a DLC list of up-and-coming elected officials four years ago did not mean he was surrendering his progressive credentials on issues such as the War in Iraq.
J.B. Pritzker, a co-chair of this event, was a top advisor to Obama rival Hillary Clinton, but all speakers were preaching unity behind Obama here. Pritzker thanked the minister who opened Monday morning’s session with the quip, “I think you can understand that here in Chicago, we’re a little reluctant to hand over the microphone to any reverend in a political gathering.”
Democratic governors of Republican states such as Kansas and Tennessee talked to the gathering here about how Democrats like Obama can win Republican states.
“Democrats need to be pro-business Democrats again,” said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, touted by some as a potential vice-president for Obama. “That doesn’t mean anti-worker. It means you are pro-business and pro-worker. You lower the barriers to expanding business growth.”
Sebelius has to work with a legislature that is two-thirds Republican, which means reaching out across party lines to get anything done, she said. And, she has embraced her inner outdoorsman.
“We have a long hunting tradition in our state,” Sebelius said. “One thing I inherited is the governor’s One-Shot Turkey Shoot. I decided it was important for me as the governor of Kansas to learn how to shoot a shotgun. I now have a turkey in the Turkey Hall of Fame in South Carolina. It became a way to ... talk about handguns and conceal-and-carry and have some credibility on those issues.”
Nobody at this gathering took offense at Obama going from a pro-gun-control record as a state legislator to saying positive things about last week’s Supreme Court decision overturning the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns because Obama said the decision recognized some areas of gun ownership that local governments can regulate.
Sebelius and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said Obama would have a tough time winning either of their states, but they will try their hardest.
“To win in a state like Tennessee, I think a candidate has to ... speak to [residents about] jobs, the economy, educating their children, health care,” Bredesen said. “I’m the governor of Tennessee. I’m from New York, so I come to a state like that first of all having to convince them that even if you’re from the wrong side of the Mason Dixon line, it’s still OK. I think he could win the state.”
“The latest poll I saw in Kansas is he is 9 points down,” Sebelius said. “John Kerry lost Kansas by 25 points. Al Gore lost by 21 points. Being 9 points down in June is a pretty good place to start. Twice in our history have Kansans voted for a Democrat for president. The last time was in 1964. So I’m not betting on it, but I think we can make a full court press in Kansas.”
Evoking former Vice President John Nance Garner’s quote that the vice presidency wasn’t worth “a warm bucket of spit,” Politico Editor John Harris asked Sebelius, Bredesen and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, “Are you willing to drink from that pitcher?”
“I’m drinking from that pitcher,” Sebelius said, laughing.
“I will cross that bridge when and if it comes to me,” Bredesen said.
“I would hope he would choose from the gubernatorial ranks,” Manchin said, adding that their experience as CEOs qualifies them to be president.
Ford introduced U.S. Rep Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as “The de facto leader of our organization.”
Emanuel recruited moderate and even conservative Democrats to help take back the House of Representatives two years ago with pragmatic approach that a majority of Democratic legislators who weren’t with the party platform on 100 percent of the issues was better than a Republican majority.
DLC President Bruce Reed joked about the beat-the-Republicans-at-their-own-game methods Emanuel was willing to use to get people elected.
“As Democrats, we oppose torture, but we’re willing to look the other way when Rahm’s doing it,” Reed quipped. “All of us who don’t fear him love him a lot.”
Without referring to the unions that fight trade agreements, Emanuel said Democrats have to embrace “globalization” by passing trade bills that include guarantees that foreign companies won’t have an unfair advantage by ignoring labor standards.
“In the last 20-30 years, American businesses have gotten ready for this moment in time called globalization,” Emanuel said. “Has the public sector done its part?”
The most important thing to do was elect Obama, Emanuel said, adding, “I’ll go anywhere, do anything, to help him win.”