The Democratic Party’s most prominent voices and potential presidential candidates faced a vexing question: How to get Americans to notice their vision for the country when President Trump dominates everything.
“People at home say, ‘Why are we not offering alternatives?’” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is up for reelection this year, said Tuesday at an ideas conference. “Well, we are.”
The day-long annual event, organized by the Center for American Progress, offered an opportunity for Democrats to sketch out their policy solutions.
The 2016 elections triggered a crisis of confidence within the party. For the second time this century, the party won the popular vote, but still lost the White House. This was in large part because the Democrats, for the first time in decades, lost in Midwestern strongholds, where many white voters who lacked college degrees ditched the party to back Trump.
Tuesday’s conference reflected a more upbeat party as Democrats, through special elections, have shrunk Republican margins in the House and Senate, while flipping 41 state legislative seats since the nadir of the 2016 election.
Democratic governors took the stage to talk about how they could defy the Trump administration and try out liberal policy proposals. Senators ticked off ideas on education, health care, criminal justice and infrastructure that had no chance of passage in a Republican-run Congress.
The piecemeal approach of the party, however, left some attendees cold. “There’s a gigantic hole in American politics,” said financier Tom Steyer, the largest single funder of Democratic political efforts, during an interview in the hallway outside the event. “And as far as I can tell, we’re talking about very stale, decades-old ideas that don’t hang together, that really don’t answer people’s questions about what we’re trying to do together.”
But several leading Democrats attempted to offer that vision. Brown urged Democrats to support labor union drives and to talk to working-class voters who had lost benefits as employers “outsourced security people, outsourced custodial work, outsourced food service.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) said Democrats needed to campaign on voting rights, including automatic registration, and a Constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote.
In a lunchtime keynote, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), argued that all of these varying perspectives were part of a singular struggle. He name-checked “Hillbilly Elegy,” the best-selling memoir of Appalachian poverty, saying that its story reminded him of lives he saw in struggling, urban Newark.
“We in this country have a common pain, but we are lacking a sense of common purpose that drove this country forward generation after generation,” he said as he paced the stage. “It’s like we inherited a wonderful house from our parents, and we trashed it.”
In his speech, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) denounced the “oligarchy” that had benefited from tax cuts and congratulated the Center for American Progress for embracing universal Medicare — though not the comprehensive version that he’s introduced in the Senate and pushed for while running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Despite the particulars, there was little discord about the general direction the party needed to take — a focus on providing struggling Americans more help in their lives. At the conference, the disputes occurred on the margins, over how to fund the new infrastructure spending, how dramatically to increase the federal role in providing health care to the uninsured, or whether the government should begin directly hiring millions of unemployed people.
Billed as an ideas conference, the event often felt more like a button-down pep rally, a toned-down liberal version of the Conservative Political Action Conference, with liberal donors taking the place of college students. Instead of power chords of classic rock or country, the grand ballroom of the Renaissance Washington Hotel filled with Bob Dylan and Tracy Chapman hits during breaks.
Unlike CPAC, which lets ambitious Republicans test out applause lines, the CAP crowd sat quietly through most of Tuesday’s speeches. Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, got a quiet reception for a speech about investing in underprivileged children and communities.
“Before I even walked in today, I had the feeling that this was not a rah-rah kind of crowd,” said Castro. “But to the credit of everybody in the room, these are folks who are active; who are engaged in their communities; who take policy very seriously.”
Some Democrats also got a sense of what played well with donors, and flopped with activists. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) praised the rising involvement of women in leadership positions, from politics to the financial industry.
“If it wasn’t Lehman Brothers, but Lehman Sisters, we might not have had the financial collapse,” she said — a line on the 2008 economic meltdown that got applause in the room, but was mocked for hours on social media.
Democrats had more success when arguing that the party, after a year of Republican control in Washington, was already on track to win again. Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), who was joined onstage by student gun-control activists, told the audience that the days of Democratic quivering before the National Rifle Association were over.
“We’ve won the argument,” said Murphy. “It is a question of intensity. It is a lack of voters who put gun violence on the top of their issues.”
There was no talk at the conference about public polling, which has caused some Democratic jitters as the president’s approval rating — still low — has ticked up from the 30s to the 40s. Instead, Warren and other Democrats argued that the party needed to criticize the president in a way that tied into economic inequality and the advantages that the wealthy enjoyed in Trump’s Washington. Republicans, Warren said, should be considered enablers of policies that fleeced the middle class.
“They’re willing to aid and abet the destruction of our democratic process to get their way,” she said. “They don’t mind the daily distraction, because they know their agenda doesn’t reflect the will of the people. It’s designed to help only a handful of billionaires and big corporations. Everyone else gets left in the dirt.”