It was billed as an “Ideas” conference, a chance to take stock of where Democrats stand post-Obama and four months into the Republican takeover of Washington. Speakers talked broadly and idealistically about how to take down the anti-worker economy and restore both fairness and growth in a grand bargain that unites the left and the center-left.
Former Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee pointed to the “grubby reality” of the Trump tax cut, the largest in history at twice the size of the Bush tax cut. Why are wages flat? Various experts chewed over the question, but the booklet placed on every seat by the Center for American Progress, the sponsoring think tank, offered an unwelcome metaphor for the paucity of new and compelling ideas advanced by Democrats at this critical time.
The blue book was meant for participants to take notes. The cover said, “Ideas for Action.” Inside there was nothing but blank pages.
A panel on the Resistance featured Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, the Resistance of its era. Moulitsas lamented that Democrats in 2016 argued about “whether Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton are good enough while the grassroots were burning.” He told the crowd gathered at Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel that white male Christian liberals are no longer in charge of the Resistance, noting that the post-Trump movement has been built by women and communities of color, and that might make some people uncomfortable.
“There’s a changing of the guard in progressive leadership, and they’re not just part of the movement, they’re leading it.”
Much has been made of the tension between progressives and centrists, the Sanders wing and the Clinton wing, but Moulitsas dismissed disagreement on income inequality, race, and immigration. “What it comes down to is emphasis,” he said. His name isn’t an immediate giveaway, he said, but he’s Hispanic. “Right now our families are being split apart. It’s kind of hard to focus on Florida being underwater when our families are broken up.”
Climate change for some Democrats is an existential issue. John Podesta, Clinton’s former campaign chairman and CAP’s founder, spoke onstage with environmentalist Tom Steyer, who agreed American business is “on our side,” but he cautioned, “We cannot count on American business to lead a political revolution. They’re very nervous about picking a fight with a vengeful president.” Steyer said it is “fanciful” to think business will defy the president in any significant way.
“The only thing we can do is put our heads down and win. Period,” said Steyer.
The fact that CAP held an Ideas event is recognition that it will take more than resisting Trump to take back political power. “The Democratic Party has been decimated at every level. Why is there no conversation about that?” asked one attendee, Holly Page, who worked with Al From back in the day when the Democratic Party rebuilt itself in the late 1980s after losing three straight presidential elections.
“Ideas matter” was From’s mantra. The Democratic Leadership Council that he co-founded moved the party to the center with a set of ideas on welfare and work and crime fighting that made Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 possible. “All this talk about rebuilding is outdated,” Page said. “We have to re-imagine a new vision of where we want to go.”
The jobs that people know today and grew up with will not all be there tomorrow. Voters are smart, they want their leaders to acknowledge that reality, to talk about it, and to fix it. “A quarter of workers are independent contractors like myself,” said Page, “and we’ve got Donald Trump talking like Fred Flintstone, getting in the car and going to the factory.”
It’s not easy to come up with an overarching vision that reaches voters who felt left out of the conversation in 2016. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is that rare Democrat who has won in politically alien territory. Trump won his state by 20 points; Bullock won by 4, and he’s working hard to deliver on his unlikely victory.
He said Montana is the only state since 2014 to get Medicaid expansion through a Republican state legislature. It’s been a lifeline to rural hospitals, Bullock said, and 77,000 Montanans have health insurance who didn’t have it before. “It’s profound to have people stop you on the sidewalk and say you saved their life,” he said. “You’ve got to show up in places that might be difficult to win.”
In 2016, the Democratic Party wrote off whole sections of the country. “Democrats need to do a better job of showing up even in places where people are likely to disagree,” Bullock said.
CAP’s Ideas conference showed the party has a big bench of potential candidates vying for the 2020 nomination. All the top tier female contenders made remarks: Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris. Cory Booker concluded the day with an impassioned case for building a party that is about more than just opposing Trump.
Personalities come and go. It’s the ideas and values that stand the test of time. The Women’s March on the day after the Inauguration was a moment that showed Democrats what is possible if they can tap into that emotion and energy and sustain it in a way that it pays off at the polls.
Most of the assembled crowd is focused on retaking power in 2018 and 2020, but Moulitsas, the guru of the last resistance, said he is less worried about what happens in two or four years than he is about 2022. He faulted President Obama for letting Organizing for America wither away. “This is a long tier movement. We’re not fighting Trump. He’s just a way station.”
The notion that Trump is incidental to the larger struggle was made by Booker in his closing remarks, as well. The CAP conference did not blaze a new trail of ideas, and for now that may not matter, not while there is Trump to kick around.