The Democratic Party’s brightest stars spent Tuesday at a bustling “ideas conference,” sponsored by the Center for American Progress to brainstorm an agenda for the Trump era.
Done right, it could break through what CAP President Neera Tanden called the “twenty-four-second news cycle” and remind swing voters what the party stands for.
Easier said than done. As Democrats took the stage of the Four Seasons’s basement ballroom in Washington, phones buzzed with the latest updates on the president’s having divulged classified information to the Russians and about Republicans still condemning the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director.
“I was prepared to lay out a case today for how President Trump is routinely betraying the working-class voters he pledged to fight for, from his budget to his tax plan to his health-care plan and more,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), an oft-mentioned potential presidential candidate in 2020. “But last night’s reporting has taken us to a whole new level of abnormal. This is not business as usual. This president is creating chaos that doesn’t create a single job or make us safer.”
As the White House tumbles from scandal to scandal, and as the president’s approval rating has sunk below 40 percent, Democrats have been handed a paradox. Trump’s actions halt the GOP’s political momentum and divide Republicans who are otherwise united on a conservative policy agenda. But in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats remember umpteen moments when it seemed that Trump would collapse — and they remember voters who thought Clinton focused on her opponent’s miscues at the expense of a message to nonvoters and the white working class.
“I think he knows exactly what he’s doing,” said Astrid Silva, a Las Vegas-based immigration activist who spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention and who addressed the CAP conference on the growth of the progressive ‘resistance’ to Trump. “People keep saying, ‘He’s coming unhinged,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re learning even more about who he is.’ I am concerned that people will think, ‘Somebody else has it. I’m not going to canvass.’ Which is what I think happened during the election.”
Leading up to the conference, CAP’s leaders rejected reports that the event would amount to a 2020 “cattle call,” like the Conservative Political Action Conference that introduces ambitious Republicans to the party’s base. High-profile Democrats including Gillibrand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) discussed specific policies, ones that had been workshopped in small-scale speeches, books or town hall meetings.
Their audience: resistance activists, Clinton-world veterans including John Podesta and Wesley Clark, and investors-turned-mega-donors such as Tom Steyer and Donald Sussman. More than 140 reporters were credentialed to cover them, and at any given time, dozens watched and scribbled notes from the back of the room.
Yet the breaking national security scandals stuck out like a boil. Near the bottomless coffeepots, outside the speaker green room, attendees gossiped and marveled about the latest Trump stories. Warren used much of her speech to call for a new antitrust policy but won some of her loudest applause attacking Trump over the Russia story.
“Now is the time to remind Donald Trump that our government is not a plaything to make him richer or a servant to do his bidding,” Warren said. “Now is the time to remind him, our intelligence secrets are not gossip and that his personal desire to impress his Russian buddies does not outweigh the safety, security and the lives of Americans and our allies. No one is above the law, including the president of the United States.”
A few hours later, Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.) won cheer after cheer when she said the president was creating the conditions for Congress to remove him from office. She noted that new polling showed growing support for impeachment.
“Some people say, ‘Can’t you try and work with him?’ No, we cannot,” she said. “This is taking us further to what I’ve been calling for for so long, and that is impeachment.”
The back-and-forth echoed the discussions many Democrats are having, from the Capitol to town hall meetings, about how the party can win back power. Some Democratic wins of the past had delivered more than others. In a short interview, Tanden pointed out that the 1964 landslide victory of Lyndon B. Johnson led to major policy achievements, including the Voting Rights Act and Medicare. The 1974 post-
Watergate landslide created another super-majority for Democrats, but little to show for it.
“The beauty of this guy is he’s both 1964 and 1974. He has a repulsive agenda, and he’s corrupt,” Tanden said. “We need to provide our ideas so if something were to happen, we’ll have the agenda ready.”
From speech to speech, Democrats tried to define that agenda, taking the audience into the weeds. Gillibrand talked through a paid family-leave plan — one she has sponsored for years — by dismantling the one Trump had pitched during the campaign. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) talked about how “the small tax on polluting industries” was being dropped by Republicans, to a great cost in urban New Jersey. Harris spoke mostly about criminal justice reform and ending the “war on drugs.”
But several speakers cautioned against the increasingly popular idea that Trump’s scandals would force him from office or end his ability to govern.
“He’s created this mess for himself,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in an interview before a speech that focused on the need to win gubernatorial races in 2018 to block Republicans from gerrymandering legislative district boundaries. “Is this impacting his ability to lead, and does it impact issues like infrastructure? Yes. But I’m more concerned that issues like this will affect his ability to lead when we’ve got a global crisis.”
Ellison, who spent his time on stage calling on Democrats to “discredit” the president’s voter-fraud commission, warned that the Republican agenda needed to be beaten, apart from Trump.
“I think Mike Pence was their insurance plan,” Ellison said. “I think they made a deal with themselves and said: ‘Okay, Trump? He’s our nut, until he’s not. If he nuts up too much, we’ve got a backup plan.’ ”