Deep in the basement of the Washington Four Seasons hotel on Tuesday, a roadshow of the Democratic Party’s possible 2020 presidential contenders gathered to try out the big ideas they hope will propel their party forward.
But the daylong meeting — packed with some of Democrats’ leading operatives and donors — repeatedly bumped up against the party’s current predicament: most of the left’s big new ideas must contend with an environment dominated by President Donald Trump and the latest news out of a White House under siege.
Convened by the liberal Center for American Progress think tank for its Ideas Conference, the event featured an array of presidential prospects who found themselves effectively up for inspection at a full-fledged, pre-2020 showcase.
Starting with an opening address from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — who has discussed his national ambitions in conversations with California fundraisers and strategists — the speeches and panels ran for eight hours until a closing speech from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. This was no dry policy forum — it veered from tryout to pep rally and back again, with chatter ranging from concrete policy proposals and party strategy floats to enraged discussion of the president’s conduct with respect to Russia.
As the Democratic Party works to rebuild itself in the age of Trump and embarks on the early planning for 2020, here are POLITICO’s five takeaways from the event:
IT’S ALL ABOUT RUSSIA
Early on Tuesday, the Democratic Priorities USA super PAC released a new round of polling that strongly pointed to the health care debate as one of the party’s most crucial fights ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. But the proceedings demonstrated that the storyline of Trump’s ties to Russia will drown out everything else for the foreseeable future.
CAP president Neera Tanden mentioned Trump’s disclosure of classified information to the Russian foreign minister less than five minutes in, and for the rest of the day just about every address and on-stage discussion included a lengthy condemnation of the president, no matter how dissonant the detour was with the main points of speeches.
For Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, that meant sitting down for an extended discussion about foreign policy that gave him the occasion to predict a renewed push from Democrats this week to demand a special prosecutor to look into Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, fresh off a presidential speculation-stirring trip to Iowa, diverted from her talk about rural voter outreach to demand the White House’s recording of Trump’s conversation with the Russian diplomats, if such a tape exists. California Sen. Kamala Harris called on GOP senators to “put country ahead of party and hold this presidential accountable.” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for her part, said Democrats need to remind Trump “his personal desire to impress his Russian buddies does not outweigh the safety, security, and lives of Americans and our allies.”
And all that was before Booker issued the day’s final Russia barb: “Truman had a sign on his desk that said, ‘The buck stops here,’” said the first-term lawmaker. “Trump should have one that says, ‘The ruble stops here.’”
THE 2020 RACE IS ALREADY UNDERWAY
Few of the prominent lawmakers in attendance came to the windowless room — a ballroom where Wesley Clark was treated like a celebrity — specifically aiming to preview their potential campaign trail pitches. But their presentations revealed the contours of the presidential lanes that are forming.
While Booker took the stage aiming to project a message of optimism for his party — rather than zeroing in on any specific policy proposals — liberal Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley made clear in his panel discussion that his focus is on transforming the modern economy to a model that doesn’t leave everyday workers behind.
For some of the presenters, it meant a more forceful return to the rhetoric that’s made them politically famous: Warren, for example, went on an extended riff about the Trump team’s failure to “drain the swamp” as promised.
“The swamp is bigger, deeper, uglier, and filled with more corrupt creatures than ever in history,” she said. “The CEO of Exxon-Mobil is now the Secretary of State, Goldman Sachs has enough people in the White House to open a branch office. The Senate is scheduled to vote just this week on a nominee for Associate Attorney General who worked for years at the Chamber of Commerce to shield companies from any government accountability. Do you get the feeling that if Bernie Madoff weren’t in prison, he’d be in charge of the SEC right now?”
Murphy’s conversation made clear that his foreign policy focus is a distinguishing factor, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — a second-term lawmaker who has become a face of the Trump “resistance” — used her time to challenge the president to support her paid leave proposal, a longtime priority that she is looking to elevate as she amplifies her role as a defender of women.
Harris, a former prosecutor, used the opportunity to call attention to the Trump administration’s drug policies, specifically singling out Attorney General Jeff Sessions over and over and insisting, “if they care about the opioid crisis in rural America, as they say they do, they’ve also got to care about the drug-addicted young man in Chicago or East L.A.” .
And Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, painting himself as a party reformer desperately trying to save Democrats nationwide before it’s too late, turned his focus to redistricting, a cause he has started crossing the country to promote as he renews his ties to major party donors.
“Ladies and gentlemen, our future, the future of the Democratic Party for the next decade, will depend on how we handle this redistricting fight,” he said.
DEMOCRATS ARE STILL SEARCHING FOR THEIR VOICE
Even as the party’s next-big-things offered paths forward for Democrats, they continued to struggle with how to avoid getting drowned out by the daily deluge of Trump news.
A top party priority since Clinton’s loss has been to find ways to pick targets carefully rather than reacting to each of Trump’s headlines, and multiple speakers on Tuesday explicitly pointed to the difficulty of making that a reality.
“With everything going on, we must multitask,” Harris said. “We’ve got to keep our eye on Russia and North Korea, but we can’t lose sight of domestic policy, healthcare, immigration, climate change, and rolling back reform of criminal justice.”
“I was originally going to talk about how President Trump is routinely betraying the working class voters that he pledged to fight for,” said Gillibrand. “But last night’s reporting has truly taken us to a whole new level of abnormal: the president is truly creating chaos.”
With nearly every presenter mentioning reports of Trump’s Oval Office meeting, their challenge was underscored just as the day’s event — from which many hoped for good headlines about themselves — came to a close. Shortly after Booker finished speaking, Washington was rocked yet again by a New York Times report that Trump asked former FBI Director Jim Comey to end an investigation into his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.
Having left the Four Seasons earlier in the day, Murphy was by then back in the Senate. “Just leaving Senate floor,” he tweeted. “Lots of chatter from Ds and Rs about the exact definition of ‘obstruction of justice.’”
Few national figures have been as active in trying to shape the post-2016 Democratic Party as Bernie Sanders, but the Vermont senator wasn’t present on Tuesday. Not invited because he had run for president before, Sanders was set to speak on Tuesday evening in a CNN debate with Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
But at the Four Seasons, signs of his influence — and speculation about his 2020 plans — were everywhere.
Warren has long spoken of the need for more economic populism as she rails against financial conflicts of interest, but pieces of her speech were also reminiscent of the message that Sanders took national — a reminder of why many Democrats thought she might endorse him in 2016 before she ultimately decided to stay out of the primary.
And the only senator to endorse Sanders in 2016, Merkley on Tuesday formulated a pitch that at times sounded very familiar to followers of the Vermonter’s stump speech about how millionaires and billionaires have rigged the economy against working class Americans.
“Trump may have talked about workers in the campaign, but the reality on the ground is Billionaires First,” he said.
THE LESSONS OF 2016
The day’s conference was specifically designed to answer forward-looking questions, and the names “Clinton,” “Sanders,” “Obama,” and “Biden” were hardly mentioned at all. But some of the day’s most awkward moments came when lawmakers alluded to Clinton’s loss in 2016, demonstrating the party’s failure to fully address what, exactly, went wrong and led to Trump’s stunning upset win.
The day was punctuated by remarks about coal miners — shorthand for the kinds of workers that Clinton lost in droves — and reminders of how the speakers know how to relate to them. Even a big-city mayor like Garcetti insisted that his constituents in Los Angeles are “not that different from folks in coal country.”
Yet the criticisms amped up when it came time to provide suggestions about how the party can reach rural voters and those in more conservative states. Klobuchar said the need to show up and campaign in rural areas “is a bit of what we learned in the presidential race, but it’s certainly a winning strategy” — though she declined to use Clinton’s name.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who won re-election in 2016 even as Trump won his state by 21 points, was even more straightforward, getting right to the point in front of an audience that included some of Clinton’s biggest backers, including her campaign chairman John Podesta.
“As a national party, Democrats don’t seem to focus on this anymore. Think about those Rust Belt states we lost in 2016: the strategy was all about using data to find people who already agreed with us, so that we could drag them to the polls,” he said.
“And there was little attention paid to places where it might be difficult to win. There was little talk about trying to persuade people, about offering voters a reason to vote for a Democrat for president. If that was my strategy in Montana I would have been kicked out a long time ago. Democrats need to do a better job of showing up and making an argument, even in places where people are likely to disagree. It’s good for campaigning, it’s good for governing, it’s good for democracy, and it will be good for our Democratic Party.”