Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) meets with retired coal miners at United Steelworkers Local 1238 in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on July 5, 2o17. (Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

At the Center for American Progress’s annual Ideas Conference on Tuesday morning, one could see the Democratic Party’s idea generators trying their best to return to traditional economic themes. This was not a gathering meant to cater to individual constituent groups or to relitigate 2016. While the day-to-day headlines focus on Iran, North Korea, the Russia investigation and the assaults on democratic norms, Democratic politicians made clear they wanted to run on wages and jobs.

Although Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is on the ballot in 2018, practically pleaded with the audience. She said she is fighting to protect the rule of law every day on the Judiciary Committee, but she advised the audience that voters in rural areas of her state don’t want to talk about Russian bots but rather about soybean exports. She argued that Democrats must “resist but also insist” on a different economic agenda.

In that vein, economist Paul Krugman and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) kicked off the proceedings with diatribes against corporate greed and wage stagnation. At a time when unemployment is exceptionally low, progressives are focused on, as Brown put it, “Whose side are you on?” In their telling, the problems are primarily about President Trump’s economic agenda and corporate greed. This is both reactive and myopic. Wage stagnation pre-dates Trump; the gap between urban and rural America, for example, has been widening for decades. Those looking for an innovative agenda and message likely came away disappointed. Brown pointed to the GOP’s role in stopping minimum-wage hikes and cutting back on worker-friendly overtime rules. His formula is therefore to do the opposite: raise the minimum wage and increase unionization — far from the innovative agenda the party will need for 2020. Krugman at least pointed out that “work means any kind of work,” and attention should not be directed solely at manufacturing.

When it came to policy to boost wages, Brown touted his infrastructure bill but then devolved into the need to engage all kinds of workers. Whether you think those are good or bad ideas, what is lacking is something that sounds nearly sufficient or new. (Democrats might take a look at Third Way’s offerings, which strike a more moderate and less government-centric vision.)

CAP itself, no doubt seeing the need for some affirmative agenda, put out a white paper this week with a “Blueprint for the 21st Century” that includes all sorts of public investments, a job “guarantee” for people in distressed communities, job training, an increase in the minimum wage and increased protections for unions. Pulling back just a bit on the job guarantee for everyone advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), CAP’s rural job guarantee looks to the federal government as the backstop, rather than, for example, considering whether certain places are economically viable at all or wrestling with how we create investment hubs beyond the West and East coasts.

It is not CAP’s job to package campaign proposals. That will have to come from Democratic candidates. Ideas don’t sell themselves, and sadly, we saw how successful a presidential candidate can be with no specifics but a few powerful slogans. A candidate is not going to win with a Hillary Clinton-like approach, which entailed a very long list of government-centric programs with a very strong role for federal government spending. Democratic candidates in 2018 and 2020 will need to cut through the fog of details and offer a singular message, an overarching theme to express the party’s values and its vision for a more united country where the gaps between rich and poor, urban and rural, are not so vast as to give us the sense we really are living in a two-America universe. They’ve got their work cut out for them.