The 2018 election is still almost six months away, but high-profile Democrats with even higher ambitions made their claims to the future of the party on Tuesday at the first big cattle call of the year for the 2020 campaign.
Almost a dozen big-name Democrats with potential White House ambitions took the stage at the Center for American Progress’s 2018 Ideas Fest, with many testing out campaign themes as they look to square up for the not-too-distant presidential election.
The Democratic primary lineup in two years is expected to be crowded, and while no one mentioned the big 20-20 onstage, it was clear where many erstwhile candidates’ heads are — and what the audience was looking for.
“People are all interested to see something new, what ideas and what leaders may be coming up next,” Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications director for President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, told TPM. She called the event “a place where national leaders can come and lay down, birth ideas that people are going to be running on in ‘18, governing on in ‘19 and running on in ‘20.”
The roll call included Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — seven of the eight senators who might run for president.
The senators were joined by other potential White House hopefuls like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and billionaire green energy and impeachment advocate Tom Steyer. All subtly pitched the small crowd of Democratic activists, think-tank nerds and influence-peddlers on their visions for the future of the party while closely hewing to their own core issues.
Only Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who with a half-dozen other possible candidates spoke at last year’s conference, wasn’t onstage, while Sanders, who CAP had been criticized for excluding last year, was included.
And while there was remarkable unity on policy views among the potential candidates, the differences over tactics and emphasis will likely define the battle for the nomination and the soul of the party for years to come.
Sanders, in a speech billed to be about criminal justice reform, argued that “breaking up the oligarchy” was the only way to advance other progressive causes, before lacing into billionaire Jeff Bezos for the fact that some Amazon employees are paid little enough that they’re eligible for food stamps.
Gillibrand leaned hard into women’s rights and the power of women to change the direction of the country.
“Women are holding our democracy together in these dangerous times,” she declared in her speech.
In a following panel discussion, she borrowed a line from International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde that got some laughs from the well-heeled crowd and plenty of bipartisan derision on Twitter.
“If it wasn’t Lehman Brothers but Lehman Sisters we might not have had the financial collapse,” she said.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) zeroed in on how the rising generations have fewer economic opportunities than the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers.
“We know what a free market should really be about and how we’ve perverted it in everything we see changing from just a generation ago,” said a candidate that some on the left have accused of being too cozy with Wall Street.
And he twice managed to work in references to the Midwest — not a bad thing to polish up in a campaign speech for someone interested in Iowa — including a warning that “wild rampant corporate consolidation in the agricultural center” was hollowing out Midwestern communities.
Both Booker and Brown worked in references to Martin Luther King’s poor people’s campaign speech to express solidarity between the fight for racial equality and economic opportunity.
“If we’re going to be a progressive movement and it’s about civil rights and human rights, it’s also about worker rights and it’s also about trade unionism,” Brown said during a morning panel.
Booker, Warren and Castro all talked up their modest roots and the government programs that gave them the opportunities to rise, humanizing themselves with their back stories while arguing those opportunities are shrinking now.
Most avoided directly discussing President Trump, instead focusing more on positive ideas — raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, the fight against climate change and marijuana legalization.
The exceptions to the rule were Warren and Klobuchar, who argued both must be done.
“While we’d rather talk about great ideas we can’t climb that hill by ignoring the millions of Americans who are angry and scared about the damage this presidency and the Republican party have done to our democracy,” Warren declared in the event’s closing speech.
“Progressives can do two things at once,” said Klobuchar. “We can, one, focus on that optimistic economic agenda … and what needs to be done to protect our democracy.”
Klobuchar and Brown both warned Democrats not to forget the Midwest.
“The Midwest can’t get left behind at the gas station in 2018 or 2020,” she said, while Brown said calling his state part of the Rust Belt “diminishes who we are.”
“Talk about the dignity of work, talk about whose side are you on,” he implored his fellow Democrats.
While the candidates looked to carve out their unique brands onstage, they were careful to project unity. Gillibrand complimented Castro. Brown name-checked Klobuchar.
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer summed up the solidarity sentiment of the event: “In order for us to win on this we have to in fact win elections as a result of a coalition of people who have each other’s back on every single issue,” he said to applause.
As the 2020 campaign begins to move out of its shadowboxing phase, it will be interesting to see how long that solidarity holds.