It is, instead, a phrase that signifies the importance of Democratic values to the Democratic grassroots. It was never about not accepting progress because one thought it wasn't enough progress. It is, rather, about making progress - even if we don't reach the promise land immediately. People from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party do not cower in fear of the Republican reactionaries. We push through incredible odds and we get something done. We believe in our ideas deeply enough to make a case for them even to conservatives. We believe in justice, fairness, fighting for our cause and yes, we believe in pragmatism to get things done. It is not about adhering to ideological rigidity. On the contrary it is about having the courage to stand up and get things done.
Let's look at the two figures of the Democratic party that immortalized the phrase. While both dedicated to making progress, neither was ideologically rigid. Paul Wellstone was against both Gulf Wars, but he supported Bill Clinton's military actions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq, as well as the war in Afghanistan. Wellstone voted for McCain-Feingold, a campaign finance law gutted in this year's Citizens United decision but back then had plenty of criticism for not being strong enough. The ACLU opposed campaign finance legislation on free speech grounds, labor unions feared the loss of influence, and so on. The Green Party complained how woefully inadequate the reform was. It wasn't public financing of elections - something liberals have always wanted, and Paul Wellstone specifically advocated for. But his advocacy for and belief in public financing of campaigns did not lead him to whine about the lack thereof in McCain-Feingold. Instead, he recognized it as a step in the right direction and voted in favor of it.
Howard Dean supported the first Gulf war and was known for his pragmatism and fiscal hawkishness as governor. Dean balanced 11 budgets, a fact he was proud of, even though the Vermont Constitution does not require a balanced budget. Lest we forget, this was a governor with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, who opposed all additional federal regulation of firearms (with the exception of a renewal of the assault weapons ban) and thought it best to leave it up to the states. Dean signed the nation's first civil unions legislation, even over the objection of many liberal activists on the grounds that it wasn't full marriage. Howard Dean advocated for a repeal of all of George Bush's tax cuts, including the middle class ones, and opposed No Child Left Behind, a law championed by another liberal icon: Ted Kennedy. Howard Dean has a message for progressives this year: Get mad on November 5.
Howard Dean supported Al Gore in 2000. Paul Wellstone supported Bill Bradley.
I don't say these things to undermine the progressive credentials of either man. I say it to make the case that the Democratic wing of the Democratic party is a big tent, and it is not one built around the grounding of ideological rigidity. And it is not one built around the idea of punishing the Democrats regardless of the consequences. It isn't there to give a mantle to those who hold certain positions on certain legislation but to those who hold certain values and are willing to work towards making progress. The brand of Democratic wing of the Democratic party is especially not designed to fit those who would stand in the way of progress. Quite the contrary. It is for those who would make progress, and when, as is often the case, it is not enough, will not lose heart but keep fighting.
That's what we did with health reform. It wasn't perfect, but every last Democrat in the Senate held together and passed it, and it make a huge amount of progress. That was a victory for the Democratic wing of the Democratic party. That's what we did with financial reform. As the Republicans tried to oppose it openly, we made it stronger until they stopped obstructing. Yes it too was imperfect, but it was a victory for progressives and those in the Democratic wing of the Democratic party. As was credit card reform, student loan reform, hate crimes legislation, and a myriad of other things. If you truly consider yourself a Democrat from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, then be proud of what we have accomplished. Not satisfied, but proud. And make sure we can make even more progress. That's our job. Our fight for a better Democratic party should not prevent us from recognizing Democratic accomplishments (this is why we are activists in the first place), and it certainly should not keep us from defeating Tea Party Republicans.