Democratic Party luminaries and 2020 presidential mentionables gathered this week for an “ideas conference” organized by the Center for American Progress, the Democratic establishment’s premier think tank.
Its stated purpose was to focus not on “what could have been,” said CAP Vice President Winnie Stachelberg introducing the day, but on “new, fresh, bold, provocative ideas that can move us forward.”
Convened in a basement of Georgetown’s Four Season’s Hotel, the posh watering hole for Washington lobbyists, lawyers and visiting wealth, the conference quickly revealed how hard it is for Democrats to debate the future when Trump is taking all of the air out of the room.
Virtually every speaker dutifully invoked the theme of the day: resistance is not enough; Democrats must propose what they are for. Each then proceeded to rail at one Trump folly or another, calling on those assembled to join in defending what was achieved over the last eight years.
CAP President Neera Tanden lasted barely a minute before condemning “foreign actors” who seek to disrupt our elections and a “leader of the free world” who fires the man investigating him.
Bold, new ideas were scarce, but there was a vigorous competition on who had the best Trump putdown. Instead of the sign on Harry Truman’s desk that read “the buck stops here,” Cory Booker offered, Trump’s should read “the ruble stops here.”
“Do you get the feeling that if Bernie Madoff weren’t in prison,” Elizabeth Warren offered, “he’d be in charge of the SEC right now?" Rep. Maxine Waters topped them all by calling for Trump’s impeachment: “We don't have to think impeachment is out of our reach," she said. As for 2020, "We can't wait that long,"
The first sessions of the day on the economy revealed that Bernie Sanders’ agenda is gaining ground among mainstream Democrats. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti described his success in passing a $15.00 minimum wage, a large infrastructure program, “wrap around” – pre-school, after school, and special tutoring – education reforms, and tuition free community college.
Senator Jeff Merkley, the sole Senator to support Sanders in 2016, indicted the trade and tax policies that give companies incentives to move jobs abroad, called for major investments in infrastructure, in the transition to renewable energy, and in education, including debt free college and new apprenticeship programs. Sanders’ call for Medicare for All is still off the table, however, with most focused on defending Obamacare against the Republican assault.
Even on economic reform, Trump hijacked the discussion. CAP released a new report for the conference – “Towards a Marshall Plan for America” – calling for “large scale permanent public employment and infrastructure investment program” – that would move towards a jobs guarantee for working age Americans. For CAP to call for a jobs guarantee – even though it dilutes it in the text – is a big, bold idea worthy of real attention.
Introducing Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s former economics advisor, to discuss it, CAP President Neera Tanden invited him to talk about Trump’s policies as well. Goolsbee invited people to read the report and focused his remarks on “the grubby reality” of Trump’s obscene tax plan.
Two presentations managed to offer bold ideas. Senator Elizabeth Warren took her swipes at Trump, but used her presentation to present a bigger argument for Democrats. Arguing that concentrated money and concentrated power were “corrupting our democracy,” Warren noted that “Trump did not invent these problems,” and called for sweeping reforms.
On concentrated money, she argued not simply for overturning Citizens United and moving to publicly financed elections, but for taking on the revolving door between Wall Street and giant companies and government, the “bought and paid for policy experts,” and the armies of lobbyists that distort our politics. On concentrated power, she argued for “picking up the anti-trust stick” to break up monopolies and the big banks, and revive competitive markets.
Investor and environmentalist Tom Steyer, one of the Democrats’ billionaires, provided a clear agenda for addressing catastrophic climate change, as well as savvy advice on the coalition needed to bring reform about.
Arguing Republicans are hopeless and business won’t lead, Steyer called for building a coalition around a green jobs agenda that offers jobs that pay a decent wage, reaching out to labor, people of color, and businesses that will gain in the transition in a bold plan to rebuild the country.
The foreign policy discussion, in contrast, was virtually bereft of new ideas or serious analysis. The US is mired in wars without end and without victory. Its war on terror has succeeded spreading violence and minting terrorists. Its “humanitarian intervention” in Libya has produced a failed state.
Its globalization strategy has been devastating to America’s working class. We’re facing rising tensions with both Russia and China. Both parties are pushing for spending more on the Pentagon that already consumes 40 percent of global military spending.
The clear and present danger of climate change is slighted, while we commit $1 trillion to a new generation of nuclear weapons. Surely progressives ought to be at least considering a fundamental reassessment.
Instead, Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security advisor, offered little but platitudes, calling for the US to sustain its “mantle of global leadership.” Instead of Trump’s vow to bomb the bleep out of ISIS, we should “use our full arsenal.” She called for a “balanced” approach, including strong defense (able to respond to “any threat at a moment’s notice”), skillful diplomacy, smart development and domestic strength.
On the foreign policy panel, Senator Chris Murphy, who is seen a leader of progressive foreign policy thinking, criticized Trump’s “foreign policy by improvisation,” called for a special prosecutor, and delivered a strong defense of diplomacy and the State Department.
Bizarrely, with the U.S. headed into its 16th year of war in Afghanistan, the only mention of the debacle was Adam Schiff invoking disgraced former General David Petraeus on the importance of US aid in building a competent Afghanistan government. Apparently pouring over $100 billion in that feckless effort is not enough.
The national press treated the event as a cattle show, an early audition of potential 2020 presidential contenders. This is both way premature and unfair. Kirstin Gillibrand (S-NY), Kamala Harris (S-Cal) and Terry McAuliffe (G-Va) delivered brief addresses on specific issues rather than stump speeches.
Gillibrand laid out her national paid family leave plan; Harris took apart Attorney General Session’s revival of the failed war on drugs; McAuliffe warned about gerrymandering and the importance of winning gubernatorial races before the 2020 census and reapportionment. Sen. Merkley was buried on the economics panel. Bernie Sanders wasn’t even invited.
The most interesting contrast was between Warren and Senator Corry Booker, both given star turns. Warren was full of fire and brimstone, while using her speech to put forth a clear analysis and reform agenda that pushed the limits of the Democratic debate.
Booker closed the conference with a passionate address, invoking the progressive movements that have transformed America, concluding that Democrats can’t merely be the “party of resistance,” but must “reaffirm” America’s “impossible dream.” Fittingly, it was a speech brutal on Trump, replete with good values, sound goals and uplifting oratory, and utterly devoid of ideas.